Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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Many apologies for the long silence . . . in addition to Extreme Fatigue, I've been experiencing internet problems; at the times I've been able to reach the internet, I've generally been busy (as in, on a break from class) or exhausted. Tonight seems to be a rare exception. Even so, there will be no pictures: I'm consistently getting an error message when I try to upload them.

Ah, well. My class is over this Friday; tomorrow night I'll have my last teaching session. I'm going to be kinda sad to say goodbye to those four- to six-year-olds; they've been a heckuva lot of fun, and a challenge, too. It's not so easy to keep them in hand and engaged when we share so little common language; and it's a fascinating problem, trying to figure out how genuinely to teach them instead of just getting them to parrot back. (I have a lot more to say on that subject - and on the English teaching industry here in general - but I'll save it for another day.)

Anyhow, I've been in my usual Sunday Stupor today. Got up, went to get my hair colored (I swore I'd never do that but the Chinese never got the memo saying that 60 is the new 40 . . . more on that, later, too), went off to have lunch with Lara and a Chinese friend, and came home for my 2-hour nap. Since then I've been reading a bit, and I just went out rollerblading around the campus for a while.

Rollerblading here is a total hoot. As usual, and as is the case with every sport, it's the province of boys, men, and prepubescent girls. If I were younger, this would drive me totally bat-sh*t crazy. (Even now, I wish I could bring my dazzlingly beautiful nieces, with their Rhinemaiden smiles, over here so they could kick some major butt on the b-ball courts.) I often say that China reminds me of the US in the fifties and early sixties, and this attitude towards sports is one major reason. Luckily, I grew up with an expat mother who simply could not understand why boys didn't like girls who could play a sport better than they could. When I'd tell her that it wasn't cool to be athletic she'd stare at me blankly.

Anyhow, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks here, because I can play the Foreigner Card on this point. I've been thinking a lot about my expat status, and also thinking about the other expats I know here - the folks who aren't on vacation, who've made a life here, and who intend to stay for a while. There's a lot to say about all of that, too - too much for a single journal entry - but let me just mention that being here feels like being out of time, in a way. I'm not trammeled by any of the attitudes and circumstances that chafe me at home. There are very few cultural expectations for me, and there are very few irritants. I know, for instance, that back home in my Real Job there are upheavals and angst at the moment, but I am far, far away from them. If I were there in the thick of it, I'd be jangled, but for now I can adopt Scarlett O'Hara's stance: I'll think about it tomorrow.

Plus, it's easy to make friends here, at least among the foreign teachers. We're all far away from home and we're living in a dorm; we run into each other constantly and we all need friends. I always have someone to hang out with, someone to call on.

And although I have responsibilities here, I don't carry baggage. The prevailing attitudes and ideas here simply don't touch me; I can't understand the language, for one thing, so I'm impervious to the zeitgesit. And even the points of etiquette that I do know and understand carry no sting. So what if women are supposed to act and dress a certain way? I'm a foreigner; I get a free pass. Added to the fact that I'm middle-aged and I've answered most of the vexing questions of life - who will I marry? Will I have kids? What will I do with my life? - my time here makes me ridiculously content.

But it's not real life. It's not exactly living in China; it's a kind of pseudo-China. I might stay here until the end of my days, but I would never really fit into Chinese culture. No matter how good the illusion is, I know it's not real. Which makes me wonder about those others who have come here. What drives someone to foresake their homeland and travel somewhere else to live? I've met the whole gamut of types here - from people who, it seems, have fetched up on this shore because they couldn't make a success of it on their own, to people who came for a lark and found opportunities that kept them, to people who came because they were running away from something, to people who came and fell in love and have become transplanted and rooted in a new culture, much as my Austrian mother was transplanted in America.

Anyway, it's interesting to contemplate. I think, given that I was born talking to a foreigner and because my mother was an expat, I lived at least partially outside my own culture for my entire childhood, I'm ideally suited to this sort of in-between life. But I don't know if I'd want to do it permanently . . .

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