Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

It's China.
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Well, the summer program is off and running. The undergrads are functioning on auto-pilot, by which I mean there are no significant issues such as schedule glitches or miscommunications or or culture shock. This is a good thing, because the teachers are all living in a different building from me, and if there were any significant issues, I'd have a hard time dealing with them because I don't see the undergrad teachers on a day-to-day basis.

The faculty group has had a slightly rockier start. Everyone but me is new in this group, so there's been some culture shock (it's ongoing). And we've had a few minor schedule changes that have thrown people off balance a little. (Oh, yeah, and then there was that little fire on Sunday morning, but it was nothing, really.) Happily, all these teachers are very experienced and they can roll with the punches, and besides, teaching the faculty here isn't like teaching at all; it's more like an extended, three-week conversation. I knew that once the American teachers had had a few days' experience, the bumps would even out. Things are getting easier with each passing day.

But my role in the whole process has changed over the years. We just had a meeting with the whole group. When we all get together, I find myself in a very interesting position; I have to try to explain China and its limitations and differences. In the past when I've been in that situation, sometimes language just fails me. Example: The water was turned off last night, and turned on again this morning. Why did this happen? Because that's how they do things here. Two people arrived late and were not able to get their swim passes. Why can't they get them now? Because they have to get a "physical," and we teach all day, so there's no time. Someone suggested that they try to get their physical tomorrow at 4:30, so that's what they're going to do . . . but I'm dubious. By then the doctors will be going home, or the lines will be too long. Someone suggested lunch time. That won't work, because the doctors will be at lunch. Why? Because it's China.

But now, it's gotten even more interesting, because sometimes I can't even perceive what the issues are. For instance, tonight we were trying to think of songs to teach the classes tomorrow afternoon. Someone jokingly suggested Edelweiss. Without thinking, I said, "They already know it." Blank stares. Nobody believed me. "Why would they know that one?" (Everyone was too lost in their incredulity to listen to my explanation, which is that "The Sound of Music" was a prominent feature in the Harbin Music Festival in 2008 . . . )

Someone wants to send a postcard. I suggested, "Get a Chinese person to help you with that." "Why do I need someone to help me send a postcard?" Trust me, you do. For the same reason I get someone to help me send my boxes - because the process is arcane, unfamiliar, and conducted by people who don't speak your language, and you don't read theirs.

It's an odd feeling. In 2008, I was just as baffled. I don't really have the sense that I've gotten any better at navigating the various mazes, but I do know they're there. And every now and then I do have moments where I realize that I've learned a few things. For example, yesterday I sent an email message to a student assistant, asking him to make copies of an attached file for me. He sent me a text message today while I was in class, explaining that he couldn't do it because the program director told him that it was someone else's job, and I should ask that person. I was in class. I had no access to my email. So, I sent a text message to the program director, apologized profusely for asking the wrong person, said that in the future I would ask the correct person, but because I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to get the files copied in time for class, could the person I initially asked please do the copying just this once?

She said yes.

You know what's the odd thing? Writing that message didn't even feel odd to me. That's just what you DO here. What's even odder is that I don't know how I learned to do it.

I told my classes today that when you're having fun, you learn even when you don't realize it . . . and by gum, I think that's what's happened to me . . .

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