Outside vs. Inside

This is not the post I thought I was going to write—that will come later, although the two are somewhat related.

In China, parents and grandparents sit outside on sunny days. Children run around, playing on the wide sidewalks, their hands grubby and sometimes, with a stray noodle on their heads. I see more babies than I see in America. During the middle of the afternoon, people play cards or chinese chess on short tables or a ledge and a crowd of strangers—men, women, construction workers, elderly folks—will stop to watch. People sleep outside on the benches, not because they are homeless but because it’s time for their afternoon nap. They sing by the canal and by West Lake, I can occasionally hear the sound of the flute from across the water. People look at me and although I wonder why [is there something that tips them off to my foreigner status?], I look back. I chat with my fruit seller about the weather, about where her fruit comes from [always within the country or Taiwan.] I don’t mind talking with strangers on the train; I probably ask too many questions of them and understand too little but it doesn’t hold me back.

But here in New York, I find my behavior changing, back to how I’d been before. Lives are not lived outdoors in the same way; there is more privacy and with it, a possessiveness of privacy. While taking a walk in a suburban neighborhood near my parents’, a man asks if I’d like a bicycle and I immediately say, No, thank you. I turn my eyes away from other people on the sidewalk, only occasionally voicing a soft hello. There are fewer people here and yet, it is as if everyone is trying to preserve their personal bubble of noncommunication. In the city, a man talks to me and it is never to engage in a conversation; there is always an ulterior motive and I think, no wonder we are so suspicious here. When I speak to other people, other women, there’s a hesitation on their part as though they are wondering what I’m after but I think there’s also a desire for conversation that is just tamped down by those suspicions, those pressures they feel put on them when a conversation is not just a conversation. I am going to try harder, I think, because I do want those little conversations that allow a glimpse into someone else’s life. I am going to be more proactive. Compliment me and I will ask you about your life. Mention the weather and I will tell you about the time the government made grape-sized hail fall from the sky. 

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