Posts Tagged With: Harbin

Thoughts From an “Old Foreigner:” Sense of Having Privacy in a Crowd

“Old foreigner, or laowai (老外), is a somewhat derogatory term that describes a foreigner in China. For most expats, we play with this identity by calling ourselves, laowai. Might as well embrace how Chinese view us, because this perception won’t change…our physical differences will always separate us from “being Chinese.” At times, this sense of separation hurts, since I want to understand Chinese culture, immerse myself in the everyday life of Harbiners or Kunmingers…but this separation also brings about understanding of difference (foreignness) that protects me from being judged. For instance, I took off a pair of pants the other night in a restaurant because I was wearing a dress underneath. That action of taking clothes off in public is “weird,” but no one really took notice or cared. “It’s a foreigner thing.”

If a person approaches me that I do not want to talk to, I can pretend to not understand and go on my way. I can make funny faces, laugh loudly, and joke around without worrying about being “graceful and subdued (婉约).” This is a popular behavior that men like in Chinese girls, also can’t forget the cuteness factor ( that often leading to ending sentences with “a” “o” “bei” “la”). I don’t need to worry about these expectations, I am free from Chinese cultural norms because I am different. In this sense, I feel free.

This brings me to my other observation: Sense of Being Alone in an Endless Crowd. When an American thinks of China, one of the few things he/she thinks of are “the crowds:” The streets that are crowded like sardines, the outdoor super-sized pools that are filled wall-to-wall with inflatable tubes, the beaches are also a mad-house of colorful umbrellas and beige bodies. This perception of China, is at times trues–train stations during the Spring Festival, morning/night markets (see picture below)–but the crowds are not to that extreme. However, wherever you are in Chinese cities, there are always people around…a lot of people. The most common phrase I hear Chinese people say is “人太多” “There are too many people.”  And it is true.


Picture taken in Dalian, Liaoning Province: Crowd at Morning Market

Though there are ALWAYS people around, I have noticed that it has made Chinese people more distant from each other. From the pushing/shoving/pumping on buses without any care of the person you pushed, to singing loudly on the street without anyone giving you any notice. Even though you are always surrounded by people, a Chinese person still has privacy in public simply because everyone is in their own little bubbles, surrounded by a billion of other little bubbles. At least, this is what I have observed.

Since I am not Chinese, I get a completely different experience here. EVERYONE stares at me and I feel like I don’t have any privacy. People are curious about what “the foreigner” is doing, what is she saying in Chinese, what is she buying, what is she reading? I’ve gotten used to it. But, sometimes when I’m walking about campus, I observe a college student walking by himself around campus (maybe to his dorm or class), singing a pop tune loudly to himself. He wears a thick winter jacket, his eyes are looking down to the snowy sidewalk as he sings. His notes freeze into the frigid air. I feel envious for his privacy. He isn’t different, he is simply another face in the crowd, and thus is ignored by the others. I will not feel that kind of freedom.

What does it feel like to live in a country that has “too many” people, to the point that its leads to everyone distancing themselves from each other. I only experience the outer layer of it all as a foreigner.

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Exploring Harbin: Second Visit to Old Harbin

I tagged along with a classmate to Old Harbin. I brought my tote bag along  in preparation for all the cheap, delicious snacks and treats that I would buy. We set off by bus and meandered through the stampede of vehicles on Dazhi street (5 lanes) and city center until we finally hit the old part of town. We actually had no idea which stop to get off at…which isn’t that out-of-the-ordinary. We spoke with locals who helped us figure out our way. When I saw the deteriorating Baroque style buildings peak through the alleyways that we passed, I knew we were close.

Rotting Baroque Downtown

This neighborhood was influence by the Russian population of Harbin in the early 1900s, but this style of architecture fits more wit late 19th century Russia. Besides the renovated parts of town (Zhongyang Street), most of these old buildings are peeling away their once vibrant exterior. While walking through Old Harbin, I felt like I wasn’t in China. But, I didn’t feel like I was in Europe either. It more felt like an eerie combination of post-apocalyptic film and steam punk.

We walked to Harbin’s best bun shop (张包铺-Zhangbaopu) to grab some lunch and then went to the market to buy 小吃 (snacks) and treats. It was a bit early for the night rush. The most interesting think I saw at the market were in-midst cocooning caterpillars. They were brown/green and looked fat and juicy. I did not buy one, but maybe next time.

Early for the Night Rush

Pigeons for Sale

Alleyway in Old Harbin

After buying Taiwanese pastries, we walked to the Bird, Flower, Fish market. I entered a little shops that were smaller than my freshman dorm room, but were crammed from floor to ceiling with cages filled with colorful birds. Outside had a row of vendors that sold fighting fish, gold fish, prawn, crab, and fish food. After the sun set, it became incredibly cold, which is a prevailing pattern these days. So, we headed back by bus to prepare for class the next day.

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Exploring Harbin: Confucian Temple and Ethnic Minority Museum

View from the Main Temple

A group of my classmates and I woke up early on Sunday morning to visit Harbin’s Confucian Temple. It is the largest Confucian temple in North Eastern China and pretty to boot! The temples are primarily made out of wood, which have been painted with a combination of reds, blues, greens, and yellows. The roof tiles range from a golden glaze (which are placed atop the most significant buildings) and brown-black normal coloring. The area was dotted with tall bristled trees, short bushy trees, and lawns of flat grass. It was a silent morning. A haze of pollution clouded the temple like mist.

Tree of Wishes and Ambitions

Doorway to Main Garden

I only have a fundamental understanding of Confucianism, so my explanation will be a mix of my knowledge and Wikipedia. Confucianism derives from the teachings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.). His teachings have a number of principles, but the three fundamental bases are: ren (仁-humanism),yi (义-righteous/justice), and li (礼-propriety/etiquette). Humanism is at the core of his teachings. His principles’ goal is to build a common person into a respectable, moral human being , or junzi- nobleman. His other teachings include filial piety to one’s family and to society. During the Mao Era, Confucius’ teachings were looked down upon because it advocated an “unequal” stratified society. After the Mao Era, his teachings have become popular once again and are now a part of every Chinese student’s curriculum.

As far as I know, the temples are no longer used for study, but as a remembrance of Confucius’ teachings and admiration for the temple’s architecture. While we visited, traditional Chinese music was playing from mysterious loud speakers, making the environment “soothing” and “Confucian-esque.” This is a common strategy for tourism sites–setting the mood by music. Does the music hurt or add to the atmosphere?

Intricate Paintings Painted on Gate’s Walls (looking up at a bird)

Glazed Gate

The temple also had a Heilongjiang Ethnic Minority Museum within one of its temples. I thought the combination of the two (Confucian Temple and Minority Museum) was unexpected, but they do share the same purpose: cultural preservation. They just harness two aspects of culture–religion and local customs & identity. I will most likely go back to the museum to analyze the display’s design and language. I was not expecting to find research here! What a beautiful place…

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Exploring Harbin: Shopping in Hongbo Underground Market

Since I lost my mitten in Inner Mongolia, my roommate and I decided to venture to the gigantic underground market that is Hongbo Square. It is an intricate underground mall (3 levels) with endless halls of clothing and random knick-knacks. Though I do not like to go shopping, I enjoyed the atmosphere: thousands of locals bartering with vendors for deals and couples window shopping. So, this is what average “Harbiners” do on the weekend.

Shopping in Downtown Market

Mengnan (my roommate) wearing ear mitts

A Piece of Home in the Underground Market

I’m surprised the shirt was spelled correctly! Are there such things as Minnesota Wildcats? I bought new gloves and spandex with fleece on the inside. I’ll be warm this winter!

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Exploring Harbin: “Old Harbin”

This weekend, CET organized an outing to visit the old downtown of Harbin. It is a worthwhile site because of its old (almost withering) baroque-style architecture and slowly depleting alleyways. When we got off the bus, we first visited Harbin’s mosque. The architecture was a pretty site, compared to the concrete apartments surrounding it. There is a large Muslim population (Hui minority) that lives in this area.

Mosque in the Middle of “Old Harbin”

From the Mosque, we walked down the street and observed the baroque architecture and busy streets of locals buying ingredients for dinner and enjoying the autumn day.

Baroque Architecture in Old Harbin

My friend, Mengdi (Dare), and I lost the group and decided to explore the alleyways. Previously, Harbin was similar to Beijing, in that it had a intricate network of alleyways that hosted local residences. Now, the alleyways are nearly nonexistent except for the few that cut between the streets of Old Harbin. While Mengdi and I were walking through a newly developed outdoor shopping area, we exited onto a small street that lead to a dark, messy alleyway. We entered it.


We cut through and found hole-in-the-wall bars with tables of older men smoking cigarettes and drinking late-afternoon beers. There were some vendors selling tuan(r)–food on stick–and owners drying their laundry outside of their stores. It felt nice to walk through an old part of town that is still a part of today’s culture. It had a rustic feeling to it. We walked through and stumbled into a busy market lined with fruit, fish, spice, meat, vegetable sellers and crowds of people.

Buying Pig’s Cheek at a Local Vendor in the Busy Market

I bought a pomegranate and then joined one of my classmate’s roommates to what he said is Harbin’s best bun (baozi) shop. We had pork chop buns. We devoured them and then walked to the riverside. We walked along the shore and then joined our classmates for dinner at a Muslim restaurant. It was a nice outing for a cool Saturday night.

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Exploring Harbin: Jewish New Synagogue Museum

My One-on-One professor, Dr. Wang, switched our Friday class to Monday (National Day). He brought me to the Jewish New Synagogue, which was built in 1921 and used to be the largest synagogue in Northeast China. It has been converted to a museum in 2004 to remember the once flourishing Jewish population that resided in Harbin in the early 1900’s.

New Synagogue (Jingwei Street, Daoli District) Photo borrowed from here.

This post’s goal is to organize my thoughts about my experience at the museum and prepare me for my speech and paper that’s due next week.

Joseph Levikin designed the building so that it could hold up to 800 worshipers. A part of the synagogue also took the position as the Harbin Jewish Publish Library. The synagogue was used from when it was built to around the mid-1950’s. In the mid-20th century the majority of the Jewish population moved (to where, I don’t know…Israel and Europe?). The New Synagogue Museum has three levels:

First Level–Art and Photo Gallery: First half consists of traditional-style water and oil paintings of Old Harbin. Painting included St. Sophia Cathedral and other religious or European style buildings around the city in the early 1900s. Second half of the gallery consisted of modern-day photos of Harbin and modern art pieces that expressed Harbin culture. This gallery’s goal seems to compare the different time periods (early 1900s to today) and emphasize on the recent increase in economic development. Many of the modern photos showed tall skyscrapers, vast public parks, a tall television station radio pole, advanced bridges, and European-style buildings juxtaposed against Chinese city backdrop. The first level did not talk about Jewish history.

Second Level–History of Jewish Entrepreneurship: Entering the second level entryway, there was a 7-foot tall Menorah and a semi-circle hall that introduced the history of why 20,000 Jews escaped from persecution (xenophobia) and landed in Harbin. A quote introduced the second floor:

“Harbin is a city in China where some 20,000 Jews lived for many decades. Most importantly, they encountered no antisemitism among the Chinese, such as [was] prevalent in other lands. [F]rom the Chinese people they encountered no anti-Jewish bitterness or violence. As one result, former Jewish residents of Harbin called themselves ‘Harbintsi'” –Israel Epstein

The second floor (and the entire museum in general) emphasized the fact that the Jewish population in Harbin were never discriminated against. Discrimination is a sensitive topic in the CCP. Contemporary debates continue about whether the Chinese government is or is not discriminating against the populations in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. With this in mind, I understand why the museum emphasized on this fact. This fact in history is a good model example for how China’s promotion towards societal harmony–和谐 harmony–and a peaceful nation. Whenever one can brag about one’s achievements, brag; however, always keep the bad parts hidden. I thought Peter Hessler made a good point in Oracle Bones: “One important fact about propaganda: the key information isn’t what you put in, but what you leave out” (Hessler 2006: 113). I’m not saying that the Chinese were actually cruel to the Jewish population. The frame that is being used to describe the non-discriminatory behavior towards the Jewish population in this modern museum can be analyzed to understand how the Chinese government (who put money into this project) wants us (the viewer) to perceive the Chinese nation. Is this museum’s goal to show Jewish history, to promote China, or both? What is the museum organizer purposely leaving out that rekindles modern day phenomenons?

The majority of the second floor’s display showed the entrepreneurship of many Jewish “Harbintsi,” including the opening of many pharmacies, schools, mills, and other industries. There was also a section that showed the “average” life of a Harbin Jew, but the life they showed was extremely extravagant: long, intricate wooden tables and desks, sculptures, paintings, figures…there was a Menorah made out of jade (syncretism).

Third Level: Upon reaching the top of the stairs, the wall leading to the main hallway was covered with dozens of picture frames of “Famous Jews:” Einstein, Spielberg, Gershwin, Salk…We then enter the main hall, the displays continue with the entrepreneurship theme and then moves on to the daily lives and culture of the Jewish population. It emphasized on the arts (violinists, pianists, etc), education, and outdoor activities (sledding, ice skating). My favorite part of the exhibit was the individual stories of the well-known Jewish members of the community. There was an entire wall of their stories. It gave the “Harbintsi” a face, than just a name.

Everyday Live of “Harbintsi”

The final part of the exhibit was the current state of the Jewish population–which is non-existent. However, descendants of the Harbintsi still come to Harbin to see their childhood homes and/or visit their parent’s graves (in the Jewish cemetery outside of the city). Also, the end was the collaboration the government and Jewish population in creating the museum. Unfortunately, I had to skim this portion of the exhibit.

My classmate, Emily, joined my professor and me to the exhibit. She is Jewish and was able to give us more information about her religion past the displays and exhibits. I really appreciated her company. After the walking through the museum, we walked to Zhongyang street and had a delicious lunch at East Dumpling King. We ate all sorts of dumplings (vegetable, beef fried, and pork soup dumplings), slices of pork, pickles, spinach, and other scrumptious foods.

Happy Birthday CCP!

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Exploring Harbin: Buddhist Temple and Jile Pagoda (极乐塔)

This weekend we had class on Saturday because our Academic Advisor didn’t want us to have two long weekends in a row. This weekend was a “double holiday weekend:” 1) Mid-Autumn Festival and 2) National Holiday (Chinese Communist Party’s Birthday). On Sunday, Mid-Autumn Festival, I decided to celebrate by exploring Harbin. I organized a trip to visit a Buddhist Temple nearby. A few classmates (Mallory, Jenny, and Ryan) joined me.

We first got onto a bus from Harbin Institute of Technology and then rode for about thirty minutes East through the city to Nangang District. Even though this is my third time visiting China, I am still not comfortable riding buses. It’s easy to miss your stop and get lost. So, my normal routine is to find friendly faces and ask them which stop we’re at. We successfully hit our final destination, got off, but saw no temple. Once again, I found a friendly face and politely asked where the Confucian Temple is. However, whenever I ask one Chinese person a question, everyone listens since I’m a foreigner. A middle-aged fellow said that he was going in that general direction. He led us into an underground underpass that was a technology shopping district (under the 6-lane highway above!) and showed us how to get to the other side of the road. We got through the maze of small shops and onto the road again. The middle-aged man gave us his business card: Center for Eye Science Studies (Ph.D) .

We walked down the street for five minutes and then were surprised to see a magnificent, colorful gate next to the highway. We walked through.

Jixiang Gate (吉样 auspicious) and Ancient Tales of the Past

The narrow park was lined with stone tablets that showed century-old tales. All the stories were in Ancient Chinese (which I am currently studying), so I understood about %20 of their meaning. At the end of the semester, I should come back and see how much I have improved. We exited the cobblestone pavilion and found the Buddhist Temple on the other side.

Outside the temple were Chinese peddlers illegally selling parakeets and disabled/crippled Chinese begging for money. It’s been a while since I have seen a beggar in China. They are often in tourist spots (especially religious tourism spots). They are persistent, but politely smile, saying “Xiexie Xiexie (thank you)” or “Hallo Hallo (hello).” Most are missing an arm, a leg, or an eye. A little (person) woman approached me asking for money. I don’t normally give money because I feel uncomfortable. This uncomfortableness comes from much experience with seeing this population during my stays in China. Maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner that disabled and crippled Chinese flock to me when I walk by: Laowai must be wealthy! One aspect of China that makes me squirm: the disabled that have injuries that are NOT natural and beg for money (for others’ benefit, most likely). I’d rather not continue with what I have seen, but if you’re interested, you can send me a message.

Back to the fun part of my day, we entered the Buddhist Temple.

Chinese Praying to Buddha on the Mid-Autumn Festival

We entered the temple and immediately smelled incense smoke. Due to the holiday, many people were praying. The architecture of the buildings in the temple were mesmerizing: tall red columns, intricate designs of blue, yellow, and green along the golden tiled roofs. The rooms in the temples were large and open, each with their own statue of Buddha or different gods, and locals kowtowing to them (three bows facing, three bows not-facing).

  Ferris Wheel Peaks over the Temple

In the temple, I felt at ease. It was quiet, the smell of incense was soothing, and the company of friends made it fun. While walking by a large bell, I noticed above the dragon-lined roof of a worship hall that there was a Ferris Wheel. The juxtaposition of traditional Chinese architecture and the western amusement park device intrigued me. I took a picture.

Jile Pagoda (极乐塔)

We made it to what brought us here in the first place, the Jile Pagoda. I was not expecting the temple to be so vast with beautiful worship halls, trees, gardens, and the bustling local population praying to different gods. I was presently surprised. The Jile Pagoda was the icing on the cake. It was very impressive. Inside the hall below the pagoda were descriptions of hell. I am not familiar with Buddhism, but I was not aware that they had a hell. I need to look into how Indian and Chinese Buddhism are different.

We waited while our classmate prayed and then walked back to entrance. We spent about two and a half hours at the temple. It was a good visit. I often get sucked into big city culture that I forget how beautiful China can be. Going to this temple helped soothe my soul and prepare me for another couple weeks in Harbin–a big, urbanized Chinese city–and its big city culture.

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Exploring Harbin: Shangzhi Park Chrysanthemum Exhibition

My classmate, Emily, and I decided to explore the city by ourselves and travel by public bus to a flower exhibit somewhere in the city of ten million people. We hopped on the correct lu (路-bus number) and took a 45-minute bus ride to Shangzhi Park. I often forget how large Harbin is. I normally stay on-my campus and sometimes go off-campus to eat at a restaurant. So, while riding that bus, I looked at all the endless amount restaurants, shops, exercise areas, cars, and thought: what do the other 9,999,999  people do? I share this city with them, but I feel like it would take years to fully comprehend their (Harbin) culture and the atmosphere of Harbin’s neighborhoods and districts.
Today I had a taste of what average Harbiners do for fun on the weekends: go to Shangzhi Park’s Chrysthamum Exhibition.

The characters read: “The Golden Age of Chrysanthemum Fragrance–Harmonious XiangFang District

I was surprised at the amount of people that were at the park. Emily did not mention that there was an event, so the crowd caught me off guard. There were a lot of grandparents walking with their grandchild, young couples on a date, middle-aged couples either enjoying the flowers or playing cards–and then the two 老外 (laowai–foreigners). Since we were in a part of town that has very few foreigners, many Chinese asked for our picture, or just simply stared at us.

White Chrysanthemum

Grandfather watching his grandson playing on the river. 

There was a group of middle-aged Chinese men and women ballroom dancing. Emily joined in.

This brought a lot of attention from the park’s visitors, especially when the man (pictured above) told the audience that we can speak Chinese. We first talked to about 10 Chinese men, and then the small group turned into a crowd of 50 or more people (mostly men). Older men are more confident when talking to foreigners, older women do not normally take the initiative to talk to me. At first it was fun hearing about what they thought Americans were like. We mainly talked about stereotypes, but they actually believe they’re true–everyone is obese, all Americans are smart, all Americans are not good-looking, etc. But then, the crowd surrounded us, everyone wanted to talk to the strange-Chinese-speaking foreigners. We talked for about 30 minutes and then left when we thought the crowd was getting too large.

We walked through the rest of the park and headed back home. It was a good day.

This is my favorite past time in China, just walking around and seeing the everyday life of the 老百姓 (laobaixing-one-hundred last names, average people). Though I enjoy going to tourist spots, like Zhongyang Street, I prefer walking through public parks and joining Chinese in singing, dancing, and playing games! I think this is one of the best ways to get to know a new city, lifestyle, and culture.

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Scavenger Hunt and Zhongyang Street (中央大街)

This weekend our program designed a scavenger hunt for us to get to know our campus and Harbin. We were split into five different groups and competed against each other. We were given a list of questions that needed to be answered (with the help from locals) and places that we needed to go and take a picture in front of. My team included myself, Elise, Su-yee, and An-Sheng (I forgot his English name).  These were some of the things we had to do:

Tuan(r) roaster on Zhongyang Street

We had to find lamb on a stick (tuanr) and then pose with them in tango form. Meat/fish/tofu/vegetable on a stick (tuanr)  is a common snack food that’s ordered from street stalls. It was a little bit spicy, but really good! This stall was in front of the four-story Walmart, which we went to next to take a picture with an employee. The things we had to find were quite humorous! And yes, Walmart can four four-stories or taller in China!

Saint Sophia Cathedral-Remnants of Harbin’s once vibrant Russian neighborhood

We walked a few blocks from Zhongyang street to find my favorite destination, the Saint Sophia Cathedral. We had to rush through, but I still got a glimpse and feel of what old Harbin was like. Zhongyang street and its surrounding area used to house a thriving Russian population of 100,000.

Wikipedia says:

“St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral is one of the most magnificent structures in Harbin. It was built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903, which connected Vladivostok to northeast China. The Russian No.4 Army Division arrived in this region just after Russia’s loss to the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). St. Sophia Church was built and completed of timber in March, 1907 as part of a plan to reconsolidate the confidence of the army by building an imposing spiritual symbol.

In 1921, Harbin had a population of 300,000, including 100,000 Russians.[1] The church was expanded and renovated from September 23, 1923, when a ceremony was held to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone, to its completion on November 25, 1932, after nine years. The present day St. Sophia Church was hailed as a monumental work of art and the largest Orthodox church in the far east.”

Starbucks and the Far East – Moon Cakes

During the scavenger hunt, my classmate really wanted a cup of coffee. While I waited for her, I saw this sign. I have always found the combination of different cultures (syncretism) interesting. Here is a great example: The Mid-Autumn Festival is fast approaching, and the traditional food to eat during this holiday is a moon cake. Previously, Starbucks and this festival had nothing in common. However, since expanding into Chinese culture, Starbucks has transformed their American coffee shop into a place that can be shared cross-culturally. Therefore, Starbucks moon cake! I’ll be sure to try one, I wonder if it is espresso flavored?

防洪纪念塔 - Flood Control Remembrance Monument

At the end of the day, we all met at the Flood Control Remembrance Monument. “The Monument is the centerpiece of the popular Stalin Park, built in 1958 to commemorate the tremendous feat of the Harbin people in controlling the massive flood of 1957. The flood was the biggest flood ever recorded in Harbin until the summer 1998 disaster” (

CET arranged for us to eat hot pot near the monument. It was really good, but I sure do miss Kunming’s 饵块 (rice squares). Hot pot consists of a large pot of boiling broth in the middle of the table and then a plethora of ingredients to choose from. I really like frozen tofu and romaine lettuce in mine!

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Tour of Downtown Harbin and “The Snowflake”

This is the last day we can speak English. Rebecca (Mai Beijia), our RA, took us on a tour of downtown Harbin. We took a bus to “the snowflake” and got off. The area is called “the snowflake” because there is a large snowflake glass structure in the middle of downtown.

We walked around “the snowflake” and passed many familiar stores: KFC, McDonalds and Carrefour. The most interesting part of the tour was when Rebecca explained that beneath the “snowflake” there is a maze of underground tunnels that is now filled with shops and restaurants. When is gets cold, this underground tunnel system is filled with people seeking warmth and some fun. I plan to come back and explore this underground shopping system.

After the tour, I met my new roommate, Zou Mengnan. She is a Material Science Engineering student at Harbin Institute of Technology. This will be her second year. She likes to fence and play volleyball. I’m actually taking a fencing class that she is TAing this semester! So far, this semester looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. I really like my classmates and my roommate and I get along really well…but let’s see how tough the academics are. I hear CET Harbin is one (if not the most) rigorous Chinese language program you can attend in China!

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