Written by Taylor Ginter (Rice University) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Fall 2017
Halloween is the start of the holiday season, right? I’ve never been much into costumes, but trick-or-treating and the candy trading war aftermath is worth pulling a costume together for. But here in China there isn’t such a thing as going to strangers’ houses and using the threat of a prank to receive some sugary goodness. So despite autumn revealing her beauty through the leaves starting to change and the nip in the air, towards the end of October I was still feeling disappointed that I would be missing out on the activities that signal the beginning of my favorite time of the year.
One of the drawbacks of studying abroad is an underlying feeling of FOMO, or, the “fear of missing out.” While living in another country for a chunk of time, everyone else you know is at home continuing their lives as normal. You know what you and your friends would typically be doing if you were with them this very instance: participating in your university’s Wednesday night trivia or maybe going out to eat on a Saturday night at your favorite neighborhood Thai restaurant; or if you were with your family celebrating the holidays you would be pulling the decorations out from the garage or helping smash the bread for the holiday stuffing. But you specifically chose to leave everything comfortable behind and are constantly reminded of it through social media or motherly “I miss you” texts.
But fear not! It’s still possible to continue your homeland traditions while studying abroad.
This year, actual Halloween fell the Tuesday after CET’s fall break, so since most people were gone traveling the weekend before Halloween, we celebrated the weekend afterwards. We bought baby pumpkins at the nearby Carrefour (an international chain of giant Target-like stores that sell lots of imported goods) and carved them in our dorm’s common room while listening to spooky music (“Thriller” included, obviously). I even collected everyone’s pumpkin’s innards to keep up my home tradition of making salted roasted pumpkin seeds, the only difference being that here I had to use a tiny toaster oven to make them in batches. Later that night five other friends and I donned the costumes we had been piecing together throughout the week — the Scooby-Doo gang — and went over to a friend’s apartment for a small get together.
Although it might take a little going out of the way to make American holidays happen while studying abroad, it’s definitely possible, and you also have the chance to share the holidays with Chinese friends. Likewise, Chinese friends can introduce you to their traditions! From what I’ve gathered, the most simple way to celebrate a holiday in China is to eat dumplings, pretty much regardless of which holiday it is.
The other biggest reason this holiday season feels different is because of the weather. This week in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona the weather is lows in the 50’s and highs in the 80’s. But here in Harbin? A low of 5º and a high of 20º seems to be the norm for this first part of November. This is my first time experiencing this extremely cold weather (and it’ll just keep going down from here) but it is honestly not as bad as I expected because I came prepared. While getting ready to come to China I spent a lot of time asking my friends from America’s Northeast how to handle the cold, so I want to share their best tips and what I’ve learned along the way for anyone else who might be apprehensive about studying abroad in an unfamiliarly cold place.
- Stores: While packing, I was buying winter clothes in Tucson in the summer where a typical high is well above 100º. Y’all, it’s possible. Outdoor goods shops seem to carry winter gear year round, but call ahead to make sure they have what you’re looking for. Online shopping also has a decent selection. I liked using North Face’s website because they have a handy size calculator for anyone who hasn’t bought their products before. Another obstacle for me was avoiding buying clothing with animal products (leather, fur, down, wool) but North Face states very explicitly what materials they use in every product, so I was able to find a synthetic “down” coat that has been keeping me very warm!
- Layers: Okay this one is obvious and I got pretty sick of hearing it, but it really is the key. From inwards out — long sleeve tee, sweatshirt or sweater, zip up jacket, large oter coat (best if waterproof — it helps guard against snow!). Extra points for clothing that goes past your butt and anything that has a hood. Under Armour and cardigans can be added as you like.
- Footwear: Don’t overlook it. One day I went to a night market in Vans and ordinary socks and started to seriously fear frostbite. What I wasn’t wearing that night were any of the three pairs of thick socks I brought with me (the no-wool pairs I found at the store were Wigwam brand) and my pair of heavy duty snow boots (probably the hardest winter outfit component to find that didn’t contain any animal products, but Vegetarian Shoes has a great selection. They are a European company though, so give yourself some extra time for delivery and make sure you have your size correct).
- Accessories: A scarf is a must! Most fashionably warn on the outside of the clothes, or so I’ve heard, but the best at protecting warmth when tucked inside your outermost layer. You would be surprised by how quickly ears become chilly, so earmuffs or a headband are also necessary, especially if your hair is short. And even if your jacket has a hood, an extra beanie atop your head can only help.
If you’re still cold after your playing-outside-in-the-snow study break, drink some hot water or tea by the radiator, or take a long hot shower. But just make sure your hair is completely dry before going outside again…I’m pretty sure mine actually turned to ice the other day!