Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Comin' around again . . .
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I've decided that in the winter, China goes dormant in me. Every year I come back determined to study Chinese all year so I will return with a vastly improved vocabulary; I have yet to manage that kind of study. Every year I am determined to cook and eat Chinese food when I come home (because I truly do think it's healthier for me), but then along about the dark days of November, I lapse into a junk food coma. I come home intending fully to leave one foot in China, but I can never quite pull that off.

But come spring, the China in me wakes up. I'm starting to think strategically about the time I'm going to have there. One big arena for this is what I term "sourcing": In which country do I buy which stuff? I've decided to get my ballpoint pens exclusively from China (because even the cheapest dime-store versions allow you to replace the ink). I'm going to buy yarn in China - it's half the cost of yarn in the U.S., and the variegated colors are better - duller on the skein but prettier on the garment. I know I can't get cheap computers, but I can get very, very cheap accessories, like skins and screen protectors and speakers . . .

And a greater part of me is thinking about rearranging my psyche to fit in there. What do I say in common social interactions? How can I ask for things politely? How can I praise, inquire, get stuff done? I have to remember how to cross the street, what to eat, where to shop, how to bargain and where to find the taxis and the buses.

The best part is that I can feel my language brain coming out of hibernation. I'm finding myself trying to remember the characters on the bus stop signs at the places I want to go. I haven't been studying Chinese at all, but now I feel like I'm exercising my language facility the way I'm exercising my legs for longer bike rides - I'm seeking out characters everywhere, running little dialogues in my head, trying to remember specific vocabulary, and re-reading the (often chaotic, and always evocative) notes I've taken about the language over the past 5 years in conversation with various friends. This is what I love most about Chinese: Because the meaning is layered so intricately between sound (nearly all syllables in Chinese are meaningful taken by themselves), sight(characters are more like intricate pictures than pronunciation guides, as letters are) and meaning (derived from context as much as anything else) you can't exactly learn it. You kind of have to let it blossom inside you.

Daffodils and, soon, peonies outside my window, and language inside my heart and head. It's a good spring, so far!

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