Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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It's full-on summer here in Harbin now. The switch flipped in the first week or so of June, when all of a sudden it became shorts weather, and I packed away all my long pants to send home.

Now this place really reminds me of what it's been like the past three years when we've all come over. The sights are the same, the smells are the same - the dorms have a characteristic smell, not unpleasant, just distinctive - and it feels like the Harbin I know. Except now I know it a lot better than I used to.

Last Sunday Lara and I went to Sun Island and wandered around for much of the day. I've been there before with groups of people from the summer program, but during this stretch of time I've been able to go just with one other person, and wander at will.


Looks pretty, doesn't it? It's about as pretty as it gets around here. Feels almost like you're out of the city.


When I look at those pictures I can almost imagine we're in the first world, but we're not, trust me . . . interspersed with the pleasant views and the meticulously-groomed bushes are scenes of what can only be termed squalor. I haven't posted any of those pictures because I feel pretty weird even taking them - one of my friends accuses me of always looking for the worst in China, and while she's wrong about that, I still worry that people will think so. I might gather up my courage to notice and document more of that, but in the meantime, I've begun to act as the locals act, just turning my head when I see something unpleasant, stepping over piles of garbage, ignoring vile smells. It's almost a metaphor for life, actually: Nothing is perfectly wonderful or perfectly awful; you take the bad with the good, and where you focus your attention determines what you take from the experience.

Anyway, here's another scenic spot.


When we got to this one, we were mobbed by an amateur photography club, all of whom wanted to take Lara's picture . . . it was quite a hoot.



Seriously, this went on for, like, 20 minutes. (They sent her the pictures later, and many of them are quite nice.) She seemed simultaneously shaken and flattered by the event. On the one hand, it's nice to be made a fuss over (and although she's a very attractive young woman, she isn't exactly girly, so it doesn't happen often at home), but on the other hand, it does highlight one's "otherness."

Ideas about physical beauty here are interesting, too. Everyone here appreciates and notices a good-looking person of either sex, but beauty is considered an attribute that you're lucky to have if you've got, but not a marker of superiority in the same way it is in the U.S. It's just one of a number of positive attributes you might get, and getting those is all pretty random . . . hard to explain, exactly, and I have to think more about it.

Anyway, the month has been taken up with eating lots of street food (yum! Yum!! I have to remember that the soon-arriving teachers are not going to want it, most of them) and visits to odd restaurants. A friend took me to this hot pot place, where the food comes around a little channel on boats:



It's a great way to learn the names of food items, I tell you. Also made me want to grab an 8-year-old and go back. Kids must love it there.

Then there was a night when several of us went to karaoke:


. . . and came home and flopped in the grass on campus, something NOBODY does in the light of day:


Aaaah, cool grass between the toes. One of life's little pleasures . . .

Then last night Lara and I tried to go to this restaurant, but it was closing as we arrived. I took this picture so you could check out the "stairs" . . .


Yuo, you've gotta step on the cement blocks and then on the chair to get in. This is no country for the halt and lame, I tell you . . .

And finally, here's my most important discovery of the month:


I found the LL Bean in town. (Or, more accurately, I found one of the THREE LL Beans in town.) I was highly excited about this, and hurried to send the picture to my friend Rob, who'll be teaching here this summer and is arriving in a few weeks. Alas, he was less than thrilled. Living, as he does, about an hour and a half from the LL Bean Mother Ship, he was not impressed, not even by the incongruity. But I am, anyway. (Although I have to admit I'd be more impressed if they would exchange my traveling bag at this store; I tried, but they can't do it because they don't share the North American computer system.)

Okay, back to studying Chinese. July will have more blog entries, I promise.

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