Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Five surprises
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Well, I've been here a month, now, and although pretty much everything is proceeding as I anticipated, I've encountered a few things that have taken me aback.

1. I don't like to live alone. I never knew this about myself, actually, because I've never done it. I met my husband when I was 21; we moved in together in a shockingly short time after we met. Before that, I had roommates or was living in a dorm, which hardly counts as living alone (even though I did have a single room for part of that time). One of the big appeals to me about coming here was the chance to live alone. I really wanted to see what it's like in a non-threatening way, to learn something about myself and how I'd handle the situation. There's no nefarious purpose here - I don't intend to go back and live alone, or anything - just a desire to experience a situation I haven't experienced before. And I miss having someone - my husband - to talk to. We skype every day, but it's not the same as being able to say, "Hey, look at this!" or "What do you think about X?" when the thought first occurs to me.

2. Snow is wasted on this country. In this part, anyway, there just isn't that much; there really isn't enough even for building a smallish snow-person. We had a snowfall yesterday (as I mentioned) and some friends and I were walking to dinner as it was coming down and blowing in our faces. I wanted to be cross-country skiing in the worst way. But I don't think they do that here, and even if they wanted to, I don't know where they would go; it's flat as a pancake as far as the eye can see. And even if there is a place to go, I'm sure it's a zillion bus rides (or train rides) away. It would definitely be an occasional activity, not a daily zip around the park for exercise. (My Harbin map alludes to a place that they make sound quite near, but after three summers of trying to get there, I've learned that it's farther than I imagined.)

Just in general, people here don't seem to play outside very much, in any season. I predict that by the time I go home, this will have driven me so crazy that I will spend the subsequent six months camping out in the back yard.

3. I miss television. This feels a bit to me like coming face to face with my baser nature, and reminds me of the year we lived in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a town with about 4,000 permanent residents (at least back then). We went to Portland to the Maine Mall at Christmastime, and when we walked in the door I burst into tears; I never thought I would miss having a shopping mall nearby, but there you go.

Anyway, television (video in general) is the one nut I haven't yet managed to crack. Not that English-language television is unavailable for download; au contraire! But now that the students have returned (and bogged down the network), download speeds are quite slow. Before they arrived I did manage to get a few episodes of House. The first one took about two hours to download, and it was very artifact-y when I watched it; more like a radio drama playing in that Windows window that features shimmering lights and lines going berserk and stuff. The second episode was captured in HD, so it took even longer to get. I then used a video converter to change it into Windows Media format. It played very well, but all in all, it took about six hours to get a 40-minute show. (What, did you think House was an hour-long show?)

I really want The Big Bang Theory. I saw that it's available on Amazon, and so I downloaded the Amazon player (since streaming at an average speed of, oh 20-30 kps isn't exactly feasible). Again, it took maybe an hour to download. I got it all set up, and when I tried to buy an episode, I got a message saying, "We're sorry. Current licensing laws prohibit delivery outside North America" or some such nonsense. Well, hell with them. I tried to be legal, I really did.

My next move will be to visit my next-door neighbors, who download stuff all the time (North American stuff, and let's just say they don't get it from North America). At this point I'm not sure if my slow video is caused by not having the right player, or by the fact that my little netbook works so hard, you can practically see steam coming out its USB ports. (My husband actually fried a computer once - smoke and the whole nine yards - by trying to push its video chip beyond capacity.)

If I really can't play video on this machine, I'm thinking of getting a standalone DVD player that accepts USB input as well. (I saw a really nice red one at Carrefour that says CCTV on it. How cool would that be?) My guess would be that they're um, probably a little wobbly about country codes here . . . and even if it wouldn't play North American disks right out of the box, I could undoubtedly find a workaround. This is an institute of technology, after all. I'm surrounded by geeks.

4. It all adds up to . . . you've come to this conclusion already, I know - I'm a little homesick. I don't know whether to classify this as a surprise or not; I anticipated that at about this time I would be. But it's sort of like anticipating that you'll go to the dentist and your tooth will hurt afterward; you know it's coming, but the knowledge doesn't prevent the actuality. I really did think that because I knew I was likely to feel this way, I could stave off the feeling. And the fact that I haven't been able to does surprise me, I guess. I have a very comfortable, familiar life here, but it's not my real life.

But this, too, is what I signed on for, and I don't regret it. At the same time that I miss home, I'm learning new things each day. I'm especially pleased at my progress in Chinese now that I've found textbooks and some partners to help me practice. I spent a few hours with them yesterday poring over a restaurant menu, and today when I went to the cafeteria, lo and behold! I could understand most of the signage in the place.

And I have plenty on my plate. Today I'm going to do statistics, then tonight I'm off to my standing Sunday night badminton gig (something I'm going to miss desperately when I get back home). My days are filling up with reunions with former students and duties yet to be assumed on campus. The time is going to fly; I know that in another month I'll be feeling completely settled into by-then familiar routines, and another month after that I'm going to start wishing I could stay longer.

Ah, well. I better get to work, or I won't have time for badminton. More soon.

(Yes, I know that's only four things. I'm using "five" in that Chinese way - to mean "several." Next time, I'll tell you "100" and give you seven. You North Americans are so precise about numbers!)

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