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There’s NO Escape From Bird Island

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Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

And Other Musings From My First Year in Heilongjiang

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In college I used to wander around with my friends in our Spokane neighborhood. “GOD,” we’d say, “There’s nothing to do.”

I’m positive a higher power heard me complaining and decided to teach me a lesson. This is how I ended up on Qiqihar. Oh, never heard of it? Well neither had I. Through some misadventures and the quick thinking of the agency that helped me find a job in China, I found myself a skip and a hop away from Russia. The winter was cold. Staying inside I learned how to play card games and drink. I survived the winter, even if my liver did not.

Spring crept in and, despite the chill, I was able to explore AND feel my nose. Busses could take you anywhere in the city for pennies. If you could catch them, that is. The transportation system in Qiqihar seemed as if someone had just thrown it together.. Sort of like a school play where the spirit of the thing was there but none of the professionalism or polish that I’d come to expect. Schedules were not posted and if they had been no one would bother to read them. The bus would arrive when it arrived. Yet, as slow as it was on arriving, you could bet it would leave your stop the moment the last foot passed the door’s threshold.

Summer finally arrived and with it came colors, warmth, and freedom from my small apartment. I frequented weekly night markets, eating street food until my sides ached. Since I knew nothing of the gutter oil scandals or the widespread use of alternative meat I chalked that feeling down to fullness. The majority of the time this was true. The times it wasn’t, while I was doubled over in the bathroom the next day, I’d still think, worth it.

My favorite activity was taking a stroll through the park, which would always end in a trip to Bird Island. It sounds romantic but it was more like Alcatraz for birds. Located in the center of the lake, which was in the center of the park, was a small bit of land where several feathered prisoners lived. They caged the ones that could fly. The others were free to go where they wanted, as long as it was on the island. Peacocks wandered aimlessly, looking beautiful, but bored. Once in a while I would see a brave turkey make a break for it. He’d make his way to the only bridge that connected the island to the main park and try strutting his way to freedom. Before he made it half way across, a man would come out of a booth to stare him down. Guns are illegal in China. The only time I saw them in Heilongjiang was when guards took the money from banks, and in the hands of the security guy on Bird Island. The turkey turned and waddled back to his prison.

At night Bird Island was closed, but when I walked around the park I could hear them. A peacock’s cry sounds like a screaming woman. It’s really unsettling. But I would rather listen to that cry than be alone in my apartment, thinking about what I’m going to do with my life or feeling homesick. The trees and nature were reminiscent of my Portland, Oregon, and I absorbed it hungrily. While I meandered, the park lights would come on. Around midnight there would be a message that repeated over and over on an intercom. Headphones got rid of the worst of the invasive noise. One day though, curiosity getting the better of me, I decided I wanted to know what the voice was going on about. Using an old Nokia I recorded the message and played it for my coworker who, with a worried look, told me what it’s meaning.

“It is saying, ‘Please vacate the park, it can be dangerous at night’.”

Worried I took my phone back, thinking of those screams I’d heard at night I thought, I really hope it was a peacock I heard.

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