Written by Margaret Jackson (Georgetown University) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Summer 2018
I was the only foreigner on my flight from Japan to Harbin. While I waited for my connecting flight in the crowded airport, a young Chinese boy ran up to me at full speed, grabbed my hand, and introduced himself. “HELLO! It’s nice to meet you!” he exclaimed as he showed me off to his friends. This short encounter helped assuage any anxiety I had about the journey ahead and provided a warm welcome to northern China.
I came into the country without a cell phone, intending to buy an unlocked Chinese phone. Not used to a complete lack of connectivity, I furiously wrote down every detail and direction about how to take the correct taxi and how to pronounce Harbin Institute of Technology (abbreviated as Hā Gōng Dà). I walked out of the arrivals terminal ready to find the first ATM, locate the taxi line, and hope that I could make it to my dormitory while fumbling with three large suitcases.
After clearing customs, I looked up and saw a prominent sign with “CET Academic Programs” splashed in large font. A wave of relief came over me and I happily walked up to meet my first (adult) friend in China. Chen is a floor mate and he helped me change money (there was no ATM in sight) and carry my bags to the taxi line. Once in the taxi, he immediately started negotiating a price with the driver. Note–negotiation is an integral part of Chinese society and a skill you must master while you’re here. I felt like I was already passing important cultural tests!
After settling in the international student dormitory, Chen walked with me around campus, showing me everything from the classroom building to the swimming pool. As we walked, he explained the history of Harbin, a technical university founded in the early 20th century. He showed me one of the original buildings, which appeared to have significant Russian architectural influence. Apparently the only two majors at the university at that time were railway construction and electrical engineering. Since their humble beginnings, Harbin has developed into one of the top institutions in China. Our tour of campus ended with dinner and, as Chen pointed out, the school has three large cafeterias and a few smaller, more intimate dining options. Eating is a very important part of the students’ day, and, of the many options, the most popular choice is to eat in a small building with multiple food stalls. Students cram under umbrellas and along tables lining the doorways, slurping noodles, drinking bubble tea, and enjoying a break from their rigorous study. As I settled into a rhythm of class and homework, this quickly became the place I chose to dine during my precious breaks.
Thinking back to my time in the Osaka airport, anxiously awaiting my flight, I am surprised that I was so nervous about coming to study in Harbin. After all, I am a veteran CET student and studied in Beijing in 2008! Ten years later, I am leaving behind a life with a family, two cats, and a comfortable home in a city I love, to live in a completely different world. I live in a small room with a Chinese roommate, my shower doesn’t have a curtain, I can’t drink the water, and doing daily tasks, such as checking out at the grocery store seem, like major challenges.
(Sidebar– checking out at the grocery store is challenging when you don’t have WeChat pay on your phone. Everyone uses it and it makes the exchange of goods and money extremely fast and convenient. I recommend not being the one trying to count change while the cashier continues to ring up others in line as she waits for you.)
However, my purpose here is clear. We have few opportunities in life to shed other distractions and truly focus on a goal. In this case, the goal is to learn Chinese. I am in a place in life where I am not doing this for a grade; rather, I am doing it because it is a way I want to live, where I can learn communicate and understand a culture very different from my own.
Being a foreigner abroad comes with its awkward moments. Trying to speak a new language leads to many misunderstandings, and I’ve learned to have a sense of humor, to let the frustrations go, and to give myself the time I need to complete tasks and thoroughly adjust. It doesn’t happen right away. What helps me adjust from day to day are the small wins and the small acts of kindness from strangers. New friends and my roommate constantly go out of their way to make me feel at home, welcome, and comfortable in my new living situation.
My expectations for this experience were not that this program would be easy, but that I would be pushed to live outside of my comfort zone in order to better understand another country–its language, its culture, and its people. In my first week in Harbin, I am already progressing along this path and finding fulfillment both in classes and in my student life. Stay tuned as I continue to share my experience over the next few months!