Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Who are these people? What is this place?
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Ok, it's late, and I'm tired, and I don't have the patience at the moment to go back and find the relevant blog entry . . . and really, maybe I never said this, only thought it. But I remember that when I was in Australia, for the first three months I would write letters home saying, "Australians are like THIS." And then, from three months out to about six months out, I would write letters home saying, "Australians are like THAT." And after about six months, I stopped trying to tell anyone what Australians were like because I didn't know any more; they were just people. I could no longer see anything distinctive about them, and I could think of two or three or fifty exceptions to every generalization I might make.

That's how I feel about China now. This was brought home to me in my class today, when a student said that she planned to make her end-of-class speech about the differences in the way Chinese and American children are raised. (My first problem was that she's never been to America, so I don't know where she's planning to get her information for that piece of it.) Now, I know there are differences and I can paint them with a pretty broad brush, but I also know that the situation here is changing rapidly and I'm not convinced that the old saws (one that she mentioned was that Chinese parents don't like their children to travel alone before they reach the age of twenty) are really all that true. (When my student said that, two exceptions sprang immediately to mind.)

I almost think that this inability to generalize is impairing my effectiveness as a teacher in this program (although it's enhancing my ability to be an administrator of it), because I'm not surprised by things the way I used to be. Yesterday I listened to the new teachers trying to wrap their heads around some of China's blatant contradictions (eg, the coexistence of extremely high-end retail and ridiculous bargain basement shopping in the same part of town - you can find socks that cost 50 cents a pair and then go about fifty feet and five stories and find socks that cost $25 a pair. Or dresses that go from $3 to $300 in the same space.) There's just simply no logic, no rationality, to a lot of what we see around us. I was trying to explain the concept of guanxi - how it can be that maybe everyone who has a second child pays a fine and risks losing their job, but for one person the fine might be 2,000 yuan, whereas for the next person it could be 200,000. The response? "How is that even legal?" My answer: "I don't know." I don't know, but I know that's how it is, and I can see some of how the society functions, more or less, and I'm getting a grasp on what you can change and what you can't around here. So there's less for our students to tell me about, but more that I can accomplish.

This level of awareness has really sneaked up on me. I'm not intending to use this entry (or others) to talk about what I now know that other people don't - but the presence of people who haven't been here before has made me very conscious of what I've learned that I had no idea I was learning. And, you know, since that was part of the point of coming for such a long time, I feel comforted by it. I may not be fluent in Chinese and I may not be a master Chinese chef, but I wasn't entirely wasting my time here . . . Even though I can't generalize any longer, I've gotten something, even if I can't quite say what it is.

I really hope my adventures in this country are just beginning. It is a totally fascinating place to me, still. I'm getting pretty ready to go home, but I am also already looking forward to coming back . . .

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