It's been three weeks since I arrived in China, and our rusty van continues to carry our group down winding country roads, but now I don't look out the window so much anymore. I've found myself stabilizing, getting comfortable in the most foreign circumstances. Nevertheless, the differences here are continually overwhelming, and I am constantly faced with the cultural discrepancies between China and United States. The bed I sleep in feels too hard; I look different than the people I pass as I walk to class, and their curious stares say as much; I eat unusual food using new utensils; the stores sell sometimes outlandish merchandise and the signs advertising these items use a foreign writing system whose depths I am just beginning to plumb. But I've found that, after a while, some things have become more comfortable. Somehow, I think it has to be that way. As humans we seek out oases of comfort in this unfamiliar desert.
My classmates and I discovered a street lined with coffee shops serving Western Food (or, to be more accurate, the Chinese version of Western food-- quesadillas, cheeseburgers, and a healthy helping of grease.) There's a little baozi (dumpling) restaurant I've found, really just a few mismatched benches and rickety tables piled high with dumpling-filled woven bamboo steamers, where you can get enough lunch for two people for Y6 (about US$0.75). I go there before I check my e-mail next door at a perpetually smoky internet cafe. I'm used to strangers calling out a cheerful, heavily accented "Hello!" to me when they pass me on the street; I know the protocol for bargaining to buy meat kebabs, jewelry, or tiny cacti from the vendors that line the streets.
Lead a life so sodden with strangeness and eventually you start to adjust to people looking at you curiously, staring, and pointing. You get used to the feeling that everything is profoundly different: even that sensation of the alien begins to seem the same. And so it is that on recent bus rides to different parts of the city I've found that I don't feel quite so obligated to look out the window. But at the same time, I wonder if this slow numbing (they call it "acclimation") is altogether good. I came all the way here to this place on the other side of the world-- shouldn't I always be seeking to absorb more?
But then just when I'm convinced that my New York Times crossword book now holds sway over any horse carts or Buddhist temples the streets might offer up, there is a change in the scenery, or something more imperceptible than that, and everything is washed again in a sheen of newness. This past weekend I went on an adventure with some friends. We took an early-morning trip to a market two hours south of the city, motoring through the foggy post-dawn toward the Chinese dustbowl, tractors and endless rolling fields keeping pace with our bus. At one point, as we crawled hesitantly up a mountain slope, I could see across a wide valley to a lake that was slowly materializing out of the morning mist. A village fringed with rice paddies perched on an overlook by the lake. As I watched, minute people moved around the paddies, completing their everyday chores.
I was distracted from this tranquil scene by a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye-- two tiny horses were galloping up and down a path on the border of the paddies, running and playing. The view caught my breath, although I didn't know why, and I gasped. There was something incredibly powerful about seeing the horses, so small, so far below me, playing on a dust path in a village in rural China. It felt that I was looking at something real, truly different, something I could never see up close-- something forbidden.
This feeling leads me to two conclusions about the nature of difference and that of living abroad. One of these is related to the topic I discussed in my last column-- that of the experience of foreign culture. Perhaps the sight of those horses, that village, thrilled me with a sense of the forbidden because of the perpetual tourist experience that is international travel. For foreigners the seed of doubt is always present, even in the routines that grow up like vines around our days. We must constantly deconstruct our time here, wondering if this is the "true" experience, what roles our pre-established biases and other people's judgments of us play in this new world we perceive.
For me, then, the running horses were special because they were too far away to be touched by the taint of my own foreignness. In this way they were the embodiment of the China I can never experience-- forbidden and alien in a way I will never truly understand. And yet they can help me to comprehend and to banish the encroaching numbness of my acclimation to this country. After clambering off the bus and enduring a further ten-kilometer ride in a small van whose manufacturer had apparently neglected to equip it with shock absorbers, we arrived at a market bustling with Sani minority people who, clad in indigo, black, and magenta dress, were buying their groceries for the week. I walked through the market with freshly-minted eyes, overcome with awe at the sheer newness inundating my senses. Whether the required separation lies in the view across a valley or in a 150 kilometer bus trip, perhaps one only needs distance to be reawakened to the beauty of difference.