It all began with jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), a sidewalk table, and an unusually beautiful November day …

For the first time in what feels like months, I went for a proper stroll. It’s one of those activities, like writing this blog, that I neglect to my own detriment. They remind me where I am. I didn’t used to need reminders. I simply was where I was, and it was good. But these days I guess there are too many “promises to keep,” too many miles to walk, and too few hours of sleep.

Regardless, I finally got around to it again today. I didn’t go anywhere special. Didn’t see anything noteworthy, but it felt great. It always does. I tell myself I’m just letting my feet go where they want to go, but I really know that I’m letting my heart go wherever it wants, unsupervised by other demands.

One of the things I love about life in China is that it overflows all around you. It’s like the middle-aged men in Beijing who go out in the evenings in their undershirts, then lift up the shirt so it just covers their chest, and let their bellies hang out in the evening air. In China the belly of life is always spilling over the edges of shops and restaurants and apartments. The restaurant owners’ toddler wobbles around among the tables and over the sidewalk, playing while you eat. Families that own shops set up tables on the sidewalk to eat their meals together. Dogs–owned by who only they and their owners are sure–run about engaging in the social errands all their own. Tea “houses” sprout up anywhere there’s a quiet enough patch of sidewalk with room for a bamboo table and chairs. You eat at tables on the sidewalk because the restaurants are neither heated nor cooled, so there’s no point in being indoors if it’s not raining. Life bulges out of buildings in part because the stores are too small to hold everything they sell, the restaurants too small to hold all the customers they can attract, and the apartments too small to hold a (possibly extended) family’s entire life. But it’s also in part because most people here have never thought about the possibility of trying to contain life within walls, of trying to live entirely within home, office, store, restaurant–just as few people in the U.S. have ever thought of not trying to do so. Life is on display here because being a part of a community is part of what it means to be alive here. And, personally, I have to love them for that.

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