3rd Place Alumni Blog/Video Contest Winner: The Road Less Traveled
I am always proud to tell people I studied abroad in Harbin, because I know how unique my experience there was. Some people may know Harbin for its famous ice-sculpture festival, or its Siberian tiger park, but I was far more than just a tourist there.
Dongbei, China’s northeast where Harbin is situated, evokes images of Siberia, an old industrial heartland, and factories belching out smoke on the vast northern Chinese plain. The wild, horse-mounted Manchus conquered China from here, and did not allow Han Chinese to migrate to the region until the turn of the 20th century. It is a wild place unknown to most Western observers, a city clinging to the Songhua River in the middle of the steppe, the last frontier town between China and the Arctic tundra. How many college students can say they have lived here, and taken a program trip to climb the last steps of the Great Wall as it ends against the North Korean border? How many could travel with Chinese roommates to the Five Great Lakes, staying in a People’s Liberation Army barracks on a volcanic plain, amidst brilliant autumn colors set against the black of the molten rock?
Before I had learned how unique the setting was, I had decided to come to Harbin to make my Chinese the best it could be. In this, CET was also an incredible success. The classes were challenging and specially tailored to our interests and abilities, but the Chinese roommates we lived with for four months were by far and away CET’s greatest gift to us. We woke up speaking Chinese, learned all the colloquialisms of Chinese college social life, and experimented with the local dongbei dialect, laden with warmth, charm and an irrepressible humor. Through connecting with our Chinese roommates we were ushered, if we were lucky, into the sheltered confidence of the Chinese group almost always forbidden to foreigners. I have been back to China multiple times since study abroad, but I have rarely felt as connected to the true pulse of a people as I did in Harbin.
I will also never forget the connection I developed with the city and the adventures that I had there. In Harbin, to keep warm during the Siberian winter we often clung to roasted sweet potatoes as we strolled on the outskirts of campus. Spending an autumn evening kicked back outside eating Xinjiang roasted meats was our favorite way to unwind after a long day of classes; we ate dog hot pot, because you can do these things in Harbin; we sampled the warming borscht at each of the Russian restaurants lining the cobblestoned promenade of the old Russian-built Harbin city center. After classes, we ran laps and did high kicks in the basement of a Soviet-era gym as our Shaolin Long Fist teacher sat back and laughed at us, crooning to his little white dog. We went out to the night clubs and bars peculiar only to a city like Harbin, where in scenes reminiscent of the Cantina band in Star Wars we mingled with what seemed like an intergalactic assembly of people – electronica-loving Russians, cognac-sipping Frenchmen, as well as Koreans, Kenyans and Poles – all brought together in the warm interior of a frozen Siberian town. Yet we were the only Americans in Harbin. That was another of CET’s greatest accomplishments: creating a special bond between a disparate group of American students that became the sole representatives of their country in a city of 10 million people.
The people, the city of Harbin, and the program that wove those into an amazing study abroad experience – in my time in China, those have made all the difference.