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My First Post: Predeparture

To all who are reading: thanks for stopping by! This is where I’ll be writing about what I’m doing this semester while abroad in Harbin, China! I’m aiming to write about once a week or a bit more.

I’m super excited (and a little nervous); I’ll be taking part in a pretty intensive language program through CET Harbin. I’ll have 4 classes related to language learning and even take a pledge not to speak English while at the program unless I’m alone and calling home!

To all of my friends who fly to their colleges – after packing for this semester away, I have even more respect for you and what you do to get to and from college. To everyone else, I’ll write again soon!

On Money Matters

One of the things I had heard before coming to China but had trouble truly imagining was the monetary system. No, I’m not talking about which bills they use, but instead I want to describe the possibility of a cash free, wallet free, life in the cities. Though I had heard before that China had essentially skipped credit cards and gone straight to mobile payments, I never understood just how widespread it is.

China (I’m going to say China but I really can only speak to the city experience and not other areas of the country) never really got onto the credit and debit card band wagon. Yes they have them (though most are debit cards, credit cards are pretty rare as far as I can tell), but I have yet to see someone use one anywhere but in TV shows. Perhaps when making big purchases like a house or car down payment etc, but most things are paid for in cash or through mobile payment.

QR code’s for WeChat and Alipay at the local fruit stand.

WeChat is a messaging system kind of like if Facebook Messenger, Venmo (or PayPal), Instagram, and Apple Pay were all rolled into one (including some extra games), it’s one of the main mobile payment systems in China, with the other main competitor being Alipay, which is a platform essentially just for mobile payments. I personally use WeChat and so will be writing mostly about that. (Also, I’m planning a blog just on WeChat and all of its functions to come in the future.)

The white box next to the register is a scanner for WeChat and Alipay. Pull up your personal WeChat Money code and place it over the box to pay.

Pretty much every place you go and every person you meet will have WeChat. Each person or business has a unique QR code which can be used to make them a “friend” if they’re a person, or just to pay money if it’s a business. But I truly mean every place has it. From large businesses inside malls to the street food stalls outside of the school gate. I could leave to shop for the day and bring nothing but my phone. And if my WeChat were to run low on funds (as it is linked to a bank account but holds the money separately) I can top up my WeChat balance on my phone. I can also use WeChat to pay for my monthly phone service (text, calls and data) in app. Also, if my phone were to have no data, I can pull up my WeChat Money code and they can scan me to pull money from my WeChat balance.

The checkout at the school supermarket. You can use your cafeteria card or one of the payment systems signified by the icons at the top of the QR code.
The place to pay for school WiFi in dorm (far right), my dorms printer (middle) and the QR only bending machine (far left) on the first floor by the main entrance.

The abundance of QR codes doesn’t stop there, there also on things for other purposes, even on goods for more information about companies or a specific product you’ve bought. WeChat can scan them all. But they also are for other services, such as the washer in my dorm. I have the app U净 on my phone. I use it to scan a QR code on the washer I want to use. Each washers code tells the app which washer it is and where it is. In app I select the cycle I want and then use WeChat to pay (it leaves the app to go to WeChat to complete the transaction and then returns to U 净). Besides the washer, the schools printers have a similar system with the app 以为 and there’s even a vending machine in my dorm that only can be used my scanning a QR and selecting and paying for the item in WeChat. I have an app to view my phone plan usage and how much data I have left for the month (I have yet to use it up, though you can relatively cheaply buy more). There’s takeout, ticket and ride service apps similar to various American services, particularly Uber, though WeChat also has some selections in app as well. Then there’s TaoBao, the app/website that is essentially China’s response to Amazon.

These apps are all helpful in China, with upper right being for the washer, middle left for printing, middle right for shopping, far right for ride hailing, tickets, and takeout, and bottom left for checking my data usage. (Far left is a music app much like Spotify, I use the free version only, but you can also pay and it’s pretty good with a lot of american and other foreign artists available, as well as Chinese artists of course.)
QR code’s found around my dorm
A QR code inside a book I bought, with a link to the authors website.

The other money topic that must also be addressed is how to get WeChat funds. Unfortunately, WeChat will not work with foreign bank accounts. This means you need a chinese Bank account. However, to open a Chinese bank account you must have a Chinese phone number. So, if you want to come to China and use this magical system, you need to first find a phone service provider, get a SIM card for your phone (or a phone to use in China if you’d like to still have constant access to your american number), then open a bank account. For both of these things you’ll need at least a passport and possibly other documents. After that you can attach your debit card to your WeChat account (which you can download and use, just without the monetary aspect). You’ll also need a chinese Bank account if you’d like to change your App Store (I’m an apple person, I don’t know if android is different) geographic location to China to find apps we can’t get in America (like the laundry and printer apps). I personally think this is worth doing for students here for a semester or longer, but perhaps not so if you are only here for short term travel.

Mid-Semester Check-In

Hi all! I figured a mid-semester (mostly academic) check in was in order. I’ve had my midterms and gotten into the second half of the semester, and have some thoughts on my classes, my progress and my program.

A picture sent to me by a friend in the program that I think illustrates some of the difficulties with learning chinese with English (a non-tonal language) as a first language.

I am enjoying all of my classes, though the pace ever so slowly is steadily increasing so we don’t become too complacent with the workload. Particularly after the midterms I have realized just how much I’ve been learning. Though in the average semester I learn a lot, because my classes are in different departments, they all feel like they are building different knowledge bases, but since all of my classes here are firstly about improving our chinese, I find my self bringing vocabulary or grammar from one class to another. The program is of course designed to promote this in some ways. The vocabulary that are starred or bolder in our books for each lesson are often those which can be used more broadly across topics other than the specifics of the text. Particularly my literature and speaking class often will have words with similar meanings or grammar that is helpful in many situations. The teachers also support this, often commenting positively if a student uses a word that is (or likely is) a vocabulary word from another class.

My literature teacher has high standards and expectations for what we do for our homework examples of grammar and how much reading we prepare for class (we are up to almost three pages per class now, currently in a story written using slightly older and more formal language than is used now). Though the pace is fairly quick in some ways, the professor also takes time to work through any questions we may have and is extremely patient. I must say of the two students in the class my chinese is the worse, but that has also allowed me to grow a lot. I’ve gotten noticeably faster at working though our passages, and I’ve gotten better at recognizing vocabulary after only one or two uses in the text rather than having to look them up again each time they appear. My major critique of my literature class is the same as that of my high school English classes, which is that pretty much every story is quite depressing. When I mentioned this, my professor laughed and said other students had also made that observation in the past. Though not on purpose, it happened that way in the stories chosen for us to read. I personally think that this is a global phenomenon, much of literature happens to be tragic in nature. Though I may not always like it when reading about people getting broken ankles or passing away from hunger or being martyred (all things that have happened in the stories we’ve read), I respect the works and appreciate them for their educational value. I even plan to reread them when I get back (though more for my chinese than a want to relive them).

My one on one class has moved from the effect of the tech advancement on transportation to energy, focusing on new sources of energy including solar, hydro, biomass, etc. This class has also picked up with longer texts on the material and higher expectations for my weekly papers summarizing and responding to our readings, but my interest has also increased. I knew essentially nothing about the state of energy production in China before starting though I’m greatly interested in ways we can use these forms of energy, so each class I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I’ll plan to translate my midterm and final essays into English after the semester is over for for a post for those who are interested.

One on two drill is still just as helpful as before. My pronunciation and fluency when speaking are steadily increasing (or so I like to think). I’ve had my roommate and several other of the chinese roommates comment that I’ve gotten faster when chatting and I’ve gotten a bit more natural sounding with my phrasing. I still do not sound like a native speaker, I have several specific vowels which I say in the same way I would say an similar American vowel, but which isn’t particularly correct in chinese. But in addition to what we were doing before, we increasingly discuss the text or text topic, not just read the text prepared. However, the homework for this class is still often just a little less than the others, which I appreciate.

I absolutely adore my speaking class. Though it has slow days, as every class does, the format truly encourages us to discuss things we find interesting. Each week every person gives a short 5-10 minute presentation, the major requirement is to use vocabulary and grammar from the lesson. However, if the lesson (perhaps on hobbies of people of different ages) does not suit your taste, you can instead discuss your opinions on the best ways to encourage children to pursue new interests and develop them, or talk about your personal hobbies and why you enjoy them. Besides the flexibility of these presentations, we often engage in fairly casual conversation, steered lightly by the professor, discussing our lives, perhaps what differences we see in China and America. my classmates are all very different from each other in personality (there’s five of us in total) which livens the atmosphere and often allows for humor.

I have to say one of the things I was most worried about coming to China was the language pledge changing my personality, not because I truly changed, but because I wouldn’t be able to express myself in the same way. However, I have increasingly found that even if you can’t say every word you might want perfectly, you can still get a point across, and though super complex topics may take some time searching vocabulary or thinking about how to say what I want, most things are possible. Though sometimes it requires using more simple words to describe something rather than one or two word I would use in English, I’ve enjoyed getting to the point in my friendships (and language skills/comfortability) here to discuss things like how people view (and would/would not) change the college testing and application system here, views on Taiwan, and thoughts on relationships and other things I discuss with my American friends at Wellesley. The language pledge is part of what’s also helped me to progress. When you can only speak Chinese, you implement new vocabulary from class pretty frequently to communicate better, it’s only natural. But beyond that, not being able to just say the few English words you really want to use to make things easier but instead searching up their translation (which is sometimes hard to find) or finding another way to explain it makes you think much more about what you say and how. I also respect our roommates for taking the time to describe things to us quite patiently much of the time. There are a lot of times I stop a conversation to get a word or two explained or to ask the difference between to words I thought were roughly the same from their translation but are actually fairly different in implementation.

Overall, though it’s still hard, I’m enjoying my time and my classes and I cannot believe how quickly the semester is going!

Food Adventures

A fruit stall where we bought fresh fruit

Hi! I had this written last weekend and forgot to post it like a dolt, so here it is!!! This is probably part 1 of 2 – 3 posts about food as this definitely is not everything I could say/share, especially on dishes specific to this region, but I haven’t decided exactly when the next ones will be.

When I have time (on days when I do not have an 8am class) this is my typical breakfast. A tea egg (an egg hard boiled with tea flavoring) and on the left what is essentially a savory pancake with meat in the middle.
On days where my morning is a bit more rushed, I like grabbing a yogurt drink like this one (which is blueberry flavored).
Many of your favorite fast food chains are here in China including MacDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut. They have some different flavors/options but are fairly familiar, however, they are not particularly inexpensive here, unlike their bottom dollar reputation in the US.
Some US snacks can be found here as well, but most have unfamiliar flavor options.
CocaCola is particularly popular here (though so is Pepsi), and Lays also has a great selection. I personally don’t know how I will live without Spicy Hot Pot flavor Lays when I return to the US……
Similar to instant coffee, this is instant milk tea, with flavoring, a separate sugar packet, and a small fruit add in (similar to boba pearls). I personally like this chocolate flavor.
I find this kind of pre-packaged fruit convenient to pick up after class fro a snack. It is usually 4-6 yuan, under one American dollar.
One style of meal at the caf (apart from noodles, buns or dumplings) is this, where you can choose one from several meat dishes and 2-4 vegetable dishes.
Dumplings with my roommate!
A meal at one of the cafs with a buffet-style line, which I liked a lot the first few weeks to try lots of different things.
Buns at a small place on campus, slightly more expensive than the caf at 9 yuan per group of beef filling buns, but still inexpensive compared to many American meals.
Malatang (which literally includes “Spicy Soup” in the name) is a style where you choose what you want from a cold case, you pay by the weight of what you’ve chosen, and then its cooked and brought out to you in a hot (and often quite spicy) broth.
The Malatang choices at a place just off campus, including various noodles, vegetables, and some meat and egg options.
One of the options at the market on campus, this is essentially the Chinese answer to the hamburger/pulled pork sandwiches.
Hot pot is a shared meal with (extremely) hot broth set into the middle of the table, which you then use to cook various meats and vegetables.
The aftermath of a group of us going out for Chinese barbecue, with so many skewers of different meats and things I cannot possibly name them all, but I tried ( and liked) chicken heart for the first time.

Beidaihe Excursion

Hi all, food and money have been pushed back, since these past few days CET Harbin students all took a trip to Beidaihe. Beidaihe is a fairly well known destination in China, it’s along the seaside fairly close to Beijing.

To get there (and back) we took the train. Since the train ride is 12 hours from Harbin to the station nearest Beidaihe, we were in bunks overnight. I personally was looking forward to this, as Chinese trains are often included in various textbooks as they are a very common and convenient way to travel in China.

The setup
The view while laying down (only the lowest bunks have enough room to sit up) in my middle bunk on the way.

After arriving we went to breakfast at a picturesque little area made/kept fairly classically Chinese looking.

A tree full of crickets in cages, considered lucky in China

We then went to LaoLongTou or Old Dragon Head, where the Great Wall originally had an end into the ocean. The original is no longer standing, but a replica from (I think) the 1950s is great fun and a beautiful spot. LaoLongTou was also where troops were once kept, and also has an area to see recreations of historical buildings for that purpose.

The stables
The jail for soldiers who broke laws or camp rules
A bed for an upper level man and his wife
A recreation of a meeting of upper level officers
The Old Dragon Head reaching into the sea
The view of the beach from inside the Dragon Head
The view of the beach from out at the end of the Dragon Head
Me inside the Old Dragon Head (in the window)
Walking along the beach with friends
Paintings of dragons at the Old Dragon Head

After that, we bussed to Beidaihe where we had the afternoon to do as we pleased. I went to the beach (which was across the road from our hotel) with several others and walked along the water as well as spiking out from some rather large boulders. In the evening we went to a nearby amusement park type place called Biluota where they were holding a bonfire and had a DJ.

Our hotel, as seen from the beach
New Facebook Profile Pic? (unseen, about 20 other similar shots)
A sculpture on the beach that captured my attention
Our lovely program director brought S’mores makings to the bonfire! (A very American thing in China)
One of the funniest things in China is when signs also have English
The Five Star Toilet sign had several of us wondering if there were other restrooms that were not worthy of five stars (though it’s an accurate translation of the chinese name as well)

The next day we went to Lianfengshan or Lianfeng Mountain in the morning and a Hot Springs in the afternoon. It was really refreshing to visit the hot springs after walking around (not very tall but very beautiful) mountains in the morning.

The view from the top of LianFeng Mountain
The top of LianFeng Mountain
Stairs to the mouth of a cave, inside of which is a statue of a reposing Buddha
The entrance to the Hot Springs
The hot springs!
They had a swim cap rule, which I don’t think anyone particularly liked, but we followed

The next (and last) day we didn’t have any special plans. I woke up early to join a group to see the dawn, and later I went with a group to walk around Beidaihe and see a bit more of the area.

Collecting seashells by the sea shore
A shop with sea-themed trinkets and gifts had these animals made from shells, so cute!
A park with excessive equipment (meant for all ages) is not an uncommon sight here
A place to rest in the park
The park entrance
Interesting Russian inspired architecture
Waiting for the train!

Photo Journal (An Attempt)

Today I’m going to try something new with a post of pictures! I’m not sure of the best order and such, but last post had no pictures so I’ll change it up this time.

A map of China, which I’ve heard likened to a chicken in shape, Harbin is in the head of the chicken, near where the eye would be I think.
A map of HIT Campus, with helpful English titles as well. I live in Dorm 6, one of 2-3 international dorms, across the street from the basketball and tennis courts.
My dorm!
The street along which the cafeterias, HeiDian (explained below) and my class building stand. I personally think HIT campus is pretty and has done a better job than most US city schools I’ve seen of making sure there’s still lots of trees and greenery.
The HeiDian or Black Market. It’s on campus, it’s not illegal, it’s just a bunch of food stalls and a convenience store type place that don’t take your student cafeteria card. The food is pretty good and pretty cheap, it’s a great option when you want to eat during the off hours of the cafeterias or want to try something new.
One of the cafeteria buildings. It has three floors, each of which has a cafeteria with different food options.
The supermarket on campus is in the middle here, with the yellow and red sign, next to it on the far side is a pharmacy and a fruit stall. They all take the student cafeteria card for payment.
The fruit stand inside the market. Most things are by weight, like the US, though some are by container (like strawberries and blueberries which are more expensive than other things).
This is one of the smaller cafeterias on campus, there are 10 in total I think. I personally like to get noodles here, their light soup noodles are great.
A picture of from our activity last weekend walking along the SongHua river.
Our group for last weekends activity, pictured at the Harbin Railroad Museum (the museum’s pretty small, but Harbin was/is an interesting stop at several crossroads between Russia and various destinations in China).
Chinese BBQ place!
I take a TaiChi class twice a week. We are slowly learning a form. I like it quite a lot. However, we are in essentially a hallway in the student activity center for class, so a lot of people stare at us as they pass. It’s mostly funny, but sometimes slightly awkward.
On the streets of Harbin. It reminded me of Love Park in Philly.
St. Sophia’s Cathedral, a famous church and landmark in Harbin.
Harbin has a long history of music and arts, particularly as one of the places western music and arts like ballet were introduced into China.
I find it funny that Peppa Pig has brand endorsements here.
Dumplings!!!!

Next week will be about food or money. The food is great and I’d love to share, but the use of mobile phones to pay for all sorts of things is also interesting. The next two weeks I’ll cover both, I just haven’t decided the order yet.

Week 2: Listening to Chinese Recordings as well as the Sounds of the City

This week will be about some of the work for my classes and my personal study methods, as well as some of the general soundscape as I’ve noticed it. Also, I would like to make it very clear that what I’m writing comes from my personal experience and observations. China is a vast and multifaceted country and I cannot possibly do all of it justice, so please take my sweeping generalizations and notions with some salt.

With that said, lets begin!

My two on one drill class meets four times a week, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday for forty-five minutes. Every week or two our Friday class is done as a whole group with all of the American students doing an activity to practice our Chinese “in the real world” – the first week we went to a street that had a few fruit stalls and vegetable shops and had to ask about prices, as well as buy a few things with 10 yuan they gave us. This past Friday we all had activities to celebrate Mid Autumn Festival, which can be loosely equivalent to Thanksgiving (big family meal is the tradition, but without presents like Christmas or Hanukkah). The following Monday our class is half the time individually to discuss with the teacher, again practicing our Chinese from the real world experience, what we did. This class truly is about our pronunciation, and so has relatively simple vocabulary compared to some of my other classes, and essentially no grammar structures/sentence patterns to learn. Each class has a dialogue to read with about 20-30 vocabulary words. The teacher sends us on WeChat a recording with the next days vocab and dialogue each day, and we are to listen to it at least three times before class. I personally listen to it more than that most days, as I usually look over the vocab and dialogue once to get a feel for everything and look up any other words I may not know, then read it over several times while also listening to the recording, and then I will also listen to the recording on its own several times in between doing other things since this way I can keep hearing what I want my pronunciation to be. Since the vocab is not the focus and is relatively simple, I usually do not use flashcards for this class, instead opting for the repetition of the recording as well as just looking at the list quite a few times.

My literature class each meeting has about two pages from a story to read. To me, two pages of story is absolutely nothing in English, but going through and understanding in Chinese often takes me several hours. I usually have my phone at the ready (as always) to translate words that I don’t know that also aren’t vocab (which happens fairly frequently in literature). I first look and try to read, when I don’t know words I first check the vocab list and if it isn’t there find it on my phone. On my phone I use Pleco, with the Apple keyboard that allows you to write characters in the keyboard space and then choose from a list above. While reading I write the Pinyin underneath words I don’t know (but not their translations, if I go back later I want to know what meanings I still don’t know). Afterwards, I put the starred words from the vocab list into an app called Tinycards on my phone (similar to nay flashcard app, just the one I use). It has options to make decks personal or private, and then has various modes with Learn and Quiz, as well as flashcards that are just squares you can flip over back and forth, like paper flash cards but without the paper waste if you don’t use them afterwards. Each literature class our homework includes several grammar structures/sentence patterns we must practice using with one or two sentences. Each class meeting also has a small quiz on the vocab (starred vocab) from the previous class. The direct translation from Chinese is Listen Write, and that’s what we do. The teacher says the various vocab words we needed to learn (in Chinese of course) and then we write them in our notebooks (like Blue Books).I usually use the Learn and Quiz functions to learn the vocab for each day for our discussion, and use the flashcard setting to study for the quiz (called a tingxie in Chinese).To study for the tingxie I like to flip to the English side of the flashcards and see if I can write them on the back of my hand with my finger (so as not to waste paper/ink with my clumsy learning attempts), and then see if I did it correctly when I turn it over. If I got it right, it stays on the Chinese side, if I got it wrong, I flip it back to English for when I cycle through again.

My speaking class has a dialogue to read using our grammar and vocab each meeting (though really we read part of a dialogue each time ((about one whole one in a week of three meetings)) ). For this I prepare similarly to Literature, except that the focus is on speaking, and so instead of writing out sentences using the grammar, we practice them in class. I still use Tinycards for the vocab. The tingxies are also shorter, usually only 4 or 5 groups of 4 to 6 characters, rather than literature which is 10-25 ish words with 1-4 (usually 2) characters each, so for speaking I often write out the tingxie vocab quite a few times instead of my literature method. The shorter vocab lists is made up for by the presentation once a week, about 5 mins, during which you practice using the vocab and grammar structures to tell everyone about a topic you can choose related to that week’s dialogue. My personal presentation prep style is to try several times on my own without a plan and take those and develop them into talking points (grammar structures and vocab) and then leave some flexibility. If I get too scripted, I forget the whole thing if I get off track.

My one on one class meets just twice a week, and for that I have a reading each class, as well as a vocab list with some that are starred, much like literature. I read the text as above, and then put the vocab into Tinycards (Tinycards and Pleco are some of my most often used apps in China along with WeChat). Once a week I must write a short essay on the weeks readings which I like to type first as changes are easier, before making the necessary hand-written copy. Each class also has a five-minute report on the previous class as well as my thoughts on it, or how America and China differ in respect to what we talked about, etc. For that, I like to look over the last class’s text again and formulate what I want to say, though I can’t have it written out, just a flashcard with a few notes of words that I don’t want to forget, so I prepare that similarly to the speaking presentation.

There’s a lot of flashcards. During meals, even before I get out of bed sometimes, I’ll go through my vocab lists for the classes that day, and sometimes re-look over previous ones to ensure I haven’t forgotten anything. That’s all for today on classwork, possibly I’ll share again when things change or if I completely change my methods during the semester. Now, on to the sound landscape!

Personally, I think that Harbin has interesting differences from what I’m used to in this respect, the aural plane. Part of that is because this is a big school in a city while I usually go to Wellesley in the suburbs with many less students. But part of it is also that I’m in China. There’s often people talking, as well as the sound of people playing basket ball and tennis (there are courts right by the dorm) also, basketball is really big here, in a way I hadn’t been expecting, its been interesting to see how full the courts always are. I think these are fairly normal collegiate sounds, as are the cars. Things I think are more specific to China are the motorized bicycles which whizz by as well as the Chinese music played of loudspeaker in some locations. The sound of construction is also (to me) fairly widespread, whether machinery or people. Here on campus the library is under renovation as well as having several other small projects going on. Just outside of one of the school campus entrances is a massive road project I’ve seen develop over just the time I’ve been here. China’s development demands a lot of construction not only to keep up old buildings and roads, but also to forge ahead with the new. One thing I didn’t notice until someone else mentioned it, but now notice all the time, is the spitting. And no, it’s not the “polite” spiting one might encounter in America occasionally. It’s fairly frequent “hawking a lewgey” spitting. I sometimes wonder if this was a sound in the times of the Wild West with spittoons and such. But that’s for another day. Another thing I’ve noticed about this (here comes the women’s college education lol) is that it seems to be mostly men who produce this sound. Though I don’t look around to find who spat every time I hear it, I have yet to see a woman do so. Though there’s nothing wrong with this, I do wonder what would happen if I were to do it.

That’s all for this edition. I’ll be back next week. I’ve not decided yet what I’ll write on.

Week One: OMG Chinese is HARD (But Also, Things are Pretty Okay)

I’ve emerged from my books and (seemingly endless) vocab lists to share with you all again! After this first week I can say I will probably be keeping to a once a week, on the weekend, posting schedule.

Now that I’ve had a week of classes and practice with the language pledge, I’m going to attempt to explain some of the experience. Not going to lie, the language pledge is hard. It works like this, we cannot speak any English to anyone, in the program or not, 24/7 unless there is a medical issue or we are in private calling home to friends or family who don’t speak Chinese. (They also subtly recommend that you don’t do this very often, if possible.) However, we can listen to English music, read English (news, google things, etc), and write in English in our notes. One of the main things we also use is translation apps, my personal favorite is Pleco (I only use the free capabilities), but Google Translate also has a helpful camera translator which can be quite useful for signs or packaging. Quite often conversations will be pause while one person says, “Wait a moment, I don’t know how to say it” and looks up to show the other person what word they want, usually both in English and Chinese. CET Harbin’s language pledge is very strict, if they were to catch you speaking English too many times you could be sent home from the program. One of the fascinating things I’ve discovered is also how the language pledge has revealed how much I do and do not know. In class I usually understand what the teacher is saying, and they quickly explain things I say I don’t understand. Though I know they are intentionally using words and grammar I can understand as a student, I also had been quite nervous that I would miss things in these first few weeks or struggle to make it through the classes. One the other side, I have already been frustrated quite often by my lack of vocabulary and sophisticated grammar while engaging in more casual conversation with my roommate and others.

Me and my roommate Li Yue

My roommates name is Li Yue, she’s a second year masters student studying Materials Engineering. Each one of us Americans has a Chinese roommate who attends HIT, which I think benefits all of us immensely. They applied to be part of the program as roommates because they want to know more about the US or have other similar interests, and at the same time, they help us practice our Chinese with people who aren’t also learning the language and help us get a feel for the language as it’s used in a non-educational environment. (They also may be able to check our homework on occasion if we are truly, truly struggling.)

My four classes this semester are: a one on one class where my topic for the first half of the semester is the technological advancement’s influence on China’s transportation and communications, a two on one drill pronunciation class, literature, and speaking class. My one on one class topic is something I helped design as I am interested in science, but have almost no scientific vocabulary in Chinese right now, I’m really excited to learn more about the topic throughout the semester. I have one on one twice a week for about an hour and a half, with a short break in the middle. The two on one drill class is myself and another student with a similar pronunciation level. We spend about 45-50 mins four times a week to use some fairly simple vocabulary to practice speaking and learning better pronunciation (this class especially focuses on tones, though all classes work on proper pronunciation of vocab). Literature class is just myself and one other student and we will read a number of shorter stories from about the last 70ish years (I think) throughout the semester. Speaking class uses dialogues we (three of us, classes are quite small) read to introduce new vocabulary and grammar structures which we then learn to speak about different topics and better express ourselves in conversation. Literature and Speaking/Conversation class each meet three times a week for a little more than an hour and a half with a short break in the middle. All of my classes have their first goal to improve Chinese level, its just all in different ways.

Vocabulary for my Literature class, reading 《来自草原》

There’s a LOT of vocabulary. Drill class has about 20 words each time we meet. My one on one class has had about 20-30 vocab words each time this week, but this weeks work was also on a more introductory topic note, and will probably progress to more vocab in the near future. Speaking class had about 25-40 vocab per class this week. Unfortunately, literature has had between 80 and 100 vocab words each time we met this week. However, putting it as above is a bit misleading. Most materials have other words I don’t know as I prepare for class, but there are also the vocab lists within the lists of the words that are important and they want us to really know. The whole vocab list is made of words that are needed for the material and they think we should be familiar with, but a subset of those are highlighted or starred as important vocab. So, there’s a lot of vocab, but the number of words we need to be extremely comfortable with is a bit less, and varies a bit more. Though I thought about putting a character count of words I’ve learned up somewhere, I don’t know that I can really do that. Do I put up the number of vocab words that have been on my lists? The number of starred/highlighted words? What about the other words in my materials that I read and didn’t know before? What about words I learn in class during the teacher’s explanation of something? Do words I learn in conversation with my roommate count if I can’t read or write them?

The Pleco App, one of my best friends right now

Next week I’ll plan to write a bit more about the type of homework and prep I do for each class. I also have some thoughts on the sound landscape. For now I’ll finish up with a note for those planning to go to China some day.

Please feel free to stop here if this is not your cup of tea, but I thought I’d make a note about bathrooms, as it’s something that differs from America. I thought about whether I should write about this, but I decided I could put it at the end so people can read it or not as they please. (End of content notice.)

Public bathrooms here are pretty much all squat toilets, which I found different from America, but I know is fairly common in different places around the world. What I found more distressing (though that’s not really a good word, perhaps stress producing or thought provoking….) is that public bathrooms (like in my classroom building or the mall) pretty much never have toilet paper available that I’ve seen so far. It’s BYOTP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper). Beyond that, the sink is not guaranteed to have soap, so if you want to do more than rinse your hands, consider bringing your own soap as well. Hand sanitizer is also not easily/readily available unless you go to a foreign store like Carrefour to look for it specifically. Some options put forth by others in my program are buy a small bar of soap and keep it in a small container (like a tupperware etc) that fits in your purse, or buy a travel shampoo bottle and fill it with hand soap. Though some bathrooms have one or both of these things, it is a very good idea to also have your own for the times when they’re not available.

Flying Far, Far Away and Beginning Once Upon a Time

Well, I think it has been one of the longest weeks in my life since I wrote the pre-departure post. After leaving on Monday and flying through Charlotte, LAX, Beijing, getting rerouted from Harbin to Changchun due to weather for a few hours, and finally making it to Harbin and my program, I spent over 36 hours travelling. Fortunately, I was pretty well fed on China Air, and they spoke enough English and I speak enough Chinese that I always felt like I knew what was going on during the delay. I also had gotten a good 6 ish hours of sleep on the flight to Beijing. However, before the delay, transferring from an international to domestic flight in Beijing is quite confusing the first time around. I may make a short post on just that experience and the various steps, because I for one had not found anything online that detailed it well before I got there.

CET Harbin Fall 2019 at HIT Main Gate

After arriving, I settled in a bit that evening and we began orientation on Thursday with our 17 American CET Harbin students. Though orientation has had a lot of useful information for the program, it also allowed all of us, especially those of us who hadn’t been to China before, to start acclimating to the atmosphere here and get over the first round of culture shock. There were some things that came pretty easily for me, like the food (more details below!), but other things are still an adjustment. Though I had read and heard about the staring non-Chinese people encounter before, and thought I was ready, I had not really imagined the way it would feel. Though it doesn’t bother me, per say, there is a certain weight or sense of the staring that I wasn’t expecting. Also, the traffic/transportation is fairly crazy to me, even in comparison to a few trips to New York. The taxi I took from the airport to my dorm had seat belts in the back seat, but not the buckle to actually use them. People cross the road anywhere it is convenient, often slightly reminiscent of Frogger on the busy streets, but even the sidewalks are not sacred. On our tour of part of the city, cars frequently would drive along or park on the sidewalk as though it was another lane, honking at pedestrians in their way. Though they went slightly slower than on the road, it’s clearly not the pedestrian turf it is in America. Another thing I’m still trying out is the hard bed. Chinese mattresses are often quite hard. The ones in our dorm are about 2 inches thick and feel like a mattress pad over very dense foam, not quite as hard and solid as wood. Over that lays a blanket, an inch(ish) thick pad which is like a very large, thin pillow or comforter, and then a thinner sheet over the top of that. The pillow provided is fairly thin by American standards as well. However, there is a very heavy comforter which is not particularly thick but is quite dense and warm to sleep under. I have heard from several people that the hard bed will do wonders for your neck and back, and I have slept fairly well the past few nights, and so I have decided to try it for at least the first few weeks and determine my sleep quality before running to buy a mattress pad.

Some of the interesting architecture in Harbin city

One adjustment I am quite liking is that for food. Harbin is known to be pretty bread heavy in the common diet, and that’s true, but there are enough noodle and rice options that I am not worried about getting tired of it. Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT from here on) has about 10 on campus dining halls. CIT students get a dining hall card we can fill and reload with money that works at each of them as well as the supermarket and a few cafes on campus. Though I knew that things are often less expensive in China, I had not quite been ready for good, even big, portions of food for breakfast probably coming in around $0.90-1.50, lunch for about $2 and dinner for about $2-3 (USD). I’ve enjoyed getting fried and hard boiled eggs, as well as meat in savory pancakes for breakfast and baozi and noodle soup for lunch so far. I had hot pot the first night I was here with some other students, as well as with the whole group last night to celebrate our last night before the language pledge kicks in and we all are worried we won’t be able to communicate well for a few weeks while our Chinese gets better.

CET Harbin Fall 2019 Hotpot at the Mall
Hotpot, Yum!

I am truly excited for this semester. I am writing this before lunch meeting my one-on-one professor for lunch to plan our class times and refine my topic, as well as our CET Opening Ceremony (where the 24/7 only speaking Chinese language pledge kicks in), and meeting my Chinese HIT student roommate. The other 16 CET students have all been a joy to begin to know, and I think I’ll learn a lot this semester. I’m still planning on blogging about once a week, but if I can get another blog in before next weekend, I will, to let you know what my classes are looking like and a bit more about the specifics of my program.

All of us crammed into an elevator

About Me: Lily

I’m a college Junior who’s a Physics and Chinese double major. This semester I’ll be in Harbin, China to study up on my Chinese! Wish me luck!

I’m writing here to make it easy for friends and family to know what I’m up to, even if its hard to share everything I’d like to with everyone who has said they’re interested. I’ll write about different things I do in China, the culture, as well as what I’m learning. (Perhaps I’ll make a Character Count for how many characters I learn each week.)

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