Hardest thing about studying abroad? By far, fitting into the country you’re studying in. No matter where you go you are going to face cultural differences; but, in some countries the cultural differences are very noticeable. Studying abroad in Harbin has been a great time, but certainly not an easy one. The biggest challenge isn’t upholding a language pledge, taking challenging classes, adjusting to the food, it’s simply the fact that I’m a foreigner.
Harbin, China is a very interesting and bustling city. A lot of students come to study abroad here from a variety of countries such as Russia and South Korea. But beyond those school gates the environment drastically changes. Walking the regular city streets you don’t see a lot of foreigners. Often, I can feel stares from strangers. As I’m walking down the street I often hear “外国人“ which means foreigner. Numerous times people have come up to my friends and I and asked to take pictures of us or at other times people try to shove a camera in our faces. It’s anything but a comfortable experience. Now it’s very apparent, no matter how good my mandarin is, in China I will simply not be able to fit in.
Now, you have two ways to view this. You can hate it, but this feeling will ruin your whole experience in a different country. But, you can try your best to embrace it. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to let strangers take pictures of you, I turn people down for that all the time. However, embrace the fact that you’re different and get to learn the culture of the country you’re studying in. For example, take time to engage in conversations relating to cultural differences, it will help you adapt to them. Also, try new things! One small example is that in China many people drink hot water. Now as an American, that sounds weird. But, it truly is not that bad.
Harbin has a lot of Russian influence, and on 中央大街 (Zhong Yang Da Jie), a bustling street lined with shops I went into a Russian themed store. They had a lot of cool things from Chinese style bracelets to 套娃 （Tao Wa）, Russian dolls. I went up to pay for the items I wanted to buy and I knew from the start the cashier didn’t think I could speak Chinese. She pulled out a calculator and pointed at it to tell me the price. In return I said: 我可以会说中文！(I can speak Chinese!) and she was instantly taken back. I didn’t get offended that she thought I couldn’t speak Chinese, I embraced it. After that we carried out a whole conversation in Chinese.
Another piece of advice is when you go abroad don’t be afraid to look like a “tourist.” No matter what you do, you’ll look like one. Don’t be afraid to take part in “tourist activities.” Try that famous dish, go to the museum you want, go to a souvenir store. Chances are wherever you travel, natives know you’re a foreigner. But who ever said that had to be a bad thing?