Written by Miranda Hermes (University of Georgia) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Summer 2017
In my Chinese classroom before and in the hallways at school, we would have a plethora of students all using “Ai-ya” as a go-to in every situation. I have yet to hear that phrase used here. Perhaps it is a commonly used expression, but not to the extent that I hear it used in America.
I once thought Chinese people were reserved. Then I came to Harbin. The air of affection in this city is abounding. Beside hand holding everywhere, the typical scene is a couple standing to the side of a populous sidewalk or subway station and drawing in for a kiss. Other times, I will be studying in a coffee shop when the young pair beside me begins slanting and lands in a sweet and public cuddle. The scene at Dormitory 4 is especially reminiscent of high school hallways. On most nights, one can see four or even five couples embracing, kissing, or simply holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes atop the two, opposite wings of its front steps.
Everyone knows Chinese students are studious, but perhaps one might not know in just what way Chinese students love to learn and be taught. China has a saying: “Huodaolao，xuedaolao”that is “Live to old age, study to old age.” I have yet to see it shown wrong. I often go swimming at the pool here on campus. It’s just two blocks away from my dorm; a turn to the left, and then a turn to the right. But the people here in China only know a single stoke: breaststroke. In China, they call it the frog. :,) Anyway, I’m not a pro at swimming, but I do know a bit more than just that. I love to swim freestyle, as most Americans do. On this specific occasion, I was doing my laps, when a lady at the pool tugged on my arm to stop me. She wanted to know if I had time to teach her how to freestyle. This might have been feasible, except my Chinese vocabulary doesn’t extend to teaching others how to swim, so I declined the opportunity.
This is a stranger example. An hour into the start of the language pledge, I was sitting on the front steps of the Dorm 6, where the international students live. All of a sudden, a student from the Harbin Engineering University came up to me and asked me where I was from. He said he wanted to practice his English with me, but, when I said I couldn’t due to my language pledge, he wouldn’t let up. Instead, he persisted in trying to sway me for close to an hour after. In the end, he settled with accepting my WeChat to contact me after the program ends. While this example is odder than the last, having Chinese students asking foreigners to help them practice English is common here in China.
I learned this a while ago, but it’s still a misconception I tend to forget. On the whole, China does not have great bubble tea. Go to Taiwan, or come to my (densely Asian) hometown in America for a memorable bubble tea experience. Lots of people here feel that tapioca is unhealthy and are afraid of becoming fat, so fruit juice is the popular drink. Watermelon juice, mango juice or freshly made apple juice are all the best here in Harbin.
Many Chinese people are lactose intolerant. Hence Chinese people must not like or often drink milk. On the contrary, however, here in Harbin, drinking milk or yogurt is commonplace. After dinner last night, my Chinese friends took us to a shop just to buy and exchange a few glass bottles of milk. They really enjoy it. Hence, the large milk section in grocery stores, and the selection including black sesame milk, red bean milk, green bean milk, banana milk, chocolate milk, papaya milk, strawberry milk, original milk, and more. As a milk lover myself, this realization has made my time in Harbin especially great. Beside the ultra-fresh milk we had after dinner last night, my new favorite milk here is black sesame. If only the supply didn’t get depleted as quickly as it comes in.
China has a one-to-two child policy, and an aging population. Moreover, many young people like my roommate and my current teacher don’t ever want to have children. They prefer a life of independence. Hence, I expected Harbin to have a dearth of children and babies. On the contrary, I’ve seen more babies on a daily basis here than I ever see in America. Maybe, China’s children go out more. I have yet to figure that out.
Another mystery to me that I recently solved is the apparent lack of car-wrecks here in China. In America, I see them all the time, but in China, I have yet to see one. The vast majority of American drivers follow the traffic laws, while, in China, the laws are mostly for show (at least, they seem that way). I see cars driving up onto the sidewalk, going the opposite direction of traffic, speeding and halting erratically, and veering in odd directions with motorcyclists and bikers in the tangle. However, I have yet to see a car wreck. Here’s the solution I came up with after consulting my Chinese teacher about the matter. In China, when a car-wreck occurs, the drivers take photos, exchange numbers, and clear out almost immediately. In America, however, we spend hours waiting for the police to come, filling out paper work, and calling up friends or towing agencies to pick us up. Hence, car wrecks in America tend to be more visible and can seem more common than they actually are.
China is definitely a lot different from the place I expected it to be. Every unfamiliar place changes like that when we come to know it. Hence, traveling and personally experiencing different lifestyles and places is essential for understanding them. I’m so glad I have this opportunity to better understand the life and culture in Harbin. Not only is my proficiency in Chinese now light years ahead of what it used to be, but my understanding of Chinese culture is also much deeper.