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1 Year in Harbin: will I stand up to the cold?


Shai
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On paper, Harbin seems like the ideal place for me to study chinese:

 

pros:

 

1. Relatively cheap

2. Excelent 普通话

3. Friendly people

4. Very good institutions like HIT

5. Slow tempo - non hectic life style

6. Small but kicking night life (so I hear...)

 

Cons:

 

C O L D

 

 

really cold. way too cold for me. -35? is this for real?

 

anyway, 

 

It really is too bad the climate is the only thing pushing me back from Harbin, since it does like a great place to study Chinese in.

I would love to hear from people who have been to a full year - or even 1 semester on a language program. Please share your experience - is it really worth while?

 

 

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You can go there during the warmer months and move to a more pleasant zone in the winter. No real reason to stay all year, unless you are enrolled in a university program.

 

I did something like that one year, but was attending private schools. (Went to Zhuhai in winter.)

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@Shai

 

pros:

1. Relatively cheap

It is true, after all Harbin is quite far from the Chinese growth engine, which is in the southeastern part of the mainland. So it'll be cheaper than the coastal cities.

 

2. Excelent 普通话

Not really. Honestly, you have more than 50% chance to bump into people who speak with heavy 东北口音, who tend to change affricates (c->ch, zh->z), fricatives (sh->s), change tones and mix their speaking with 儿话. I lived in a city where a lot of 哈尔滨 people lived, and experienced the same problem. Two of my exes came from Harbin, the firs one spoke crystal clear putonghua, the other one had a heavy accent. Deal with it: in this regard, Harbin is not better or worse than any other Chinese cities.

 

3. Friendly people

I found most 东北 people to be 冷淡, and it's really hard to be on good terms with them. You really have to try your best to earn their trust, which can be tiring. It's not easy to make friends with Asians, but it is possible. Making friends with Northeastern is more challenging. Maybe it is the weather what makes them like this: people in the North (even in Europe) are a little bit "cold" in their manners, while those in the South are more open and fun (my experience is that the most easy-going and fun people are from Sichuan and Hunan, I simply love them, most of my friends are from that area)

 

4. Very good institutions like HIT

Are you planning to do a degree program or just want to participate in a language program? If it is the latter, then the prestige of the university is not relevant. Good university =/= good language program. I had classmates in China who had changed university (some of them originally studied at BLCU, some of them at Nankai) due to the fact that in their original places the classes were fully packed (more than 15 students per group), and the teachers couldn't focus on everybody equally in the group. Moreover, in my opinion, the language teaching methods are generally crappy in China (every single language program I heard about used the same crappy textbooks published by BLCUP or PUP), and you will pick up most of your Chinese knowledge from interactions with your friends, whether you're at Fudan, Qinghua or some third-tier city's university. Spending time together with your friends is obviously a bigger problem in Harbin: you can't really organize outdoor programs from October 15th to the end of April because of the weather.

 

5. Slow tempo - non hectic life style

Yes, that's true, the pressure is not that great as it is in the more internationalized cities. If slower paced lifestyle is what you're into, then consider Chongqing and Sichuan as well.

 

6. Small but kicking night life (so I hear...)

I haven't heard about it, but maybe it is true. But please take note that in most cases, nightlife is not driven by Chinese but by the expat community, and hanging out with them can be contraproductive in terms of immersion and studying Chinese. I'm not into clubs and stuffs like that, but I visited some of them in China, and their main audience consisted of expats and foreign students (this is true for the clubs I visited in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou). The only exception was the club I visited in Chengdu, where I was the only foreigner visitor that night - though the manager of the club told me that it was quite a rare case.

 

Cons:

 

C O L D

 

Yes, it is. It is f.cking cold there. I lived on the border of Hebei and Liaoning, next to the sea, and it was freaking cold there as well. Long winter, starting from November and ending in the middle of April. December, January and February is like a good quality fridge, with temprature as low as -20 Celsius for days. This is why most Chinese - and of course, fellow foreign students studying in the North - go to the Hainan islands and Guangdong during the winter break and Spring Festival. Sanya during the Spring Festival is generally fully packed with 东北人.

 

Don't misunderstand me, I don't want to persuade you that Harbin is a bad place to study Chinese, but maybe it's not as good as you think, so you should consider other cities as well.

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I think Zhang Kai Rong (ZKR) makes some good points, but as they say "your mileage may vary".   I have lived in Chengdu, Beijing, Hefei and Harbin for a few months each and here are my thoughts and some of my own comments:

 

  1. Harbin's weather is like weather in the midwest of the US (where I am from) and is not in my opinion particularly cold.   It's not tropical like Chengdu or Kunming, but then in those places you have to deal with sweaty, hot and relatively polluted summers.   Spring, summer and fall are clean, clear and stunningly beautiful in Harbin.  Winter is like being in the US Midwest.  I'm use to this, and actually prefer a clear set of seasons to a tropical climate.
  2. Harbin's air is generally quite clean compared to other Chinese cities (only on the first few days when they turn on the winter heating systems do they have pollution problems, but it does get pretty serious at that time)
  3. Excellent 普通话 ... there is simply no comparison with Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, or other 'warmer' cities which all speak their very idiosyncratic brand of standard Mandarin. As ZKR points out, accents and non-standard pronunciation are a problem everywhere, but in my opinion, Harbin is the least problematic city in China.  You will have an easier time learning standard Mandarin, and you will have an easier time understanding people (by far) in the 东北.  In comparison, I was never sure in Chengdu if people were speaking Mandarin or their own dialect.  This has a huge impact on your learning experience.
  4. I've had no problem with meeting Harbin people, or with making friends in Harbin.  I find them quite congenial; but again "your mileage may vary".  Harbin doesn't have the massive number of tea houses in Sichuan, which has more of a leisure atmosphere than Harbin.   But then China's tropical cities don't have the plethora of city organized events like Harbin: Ice Festival, Music Festival, Beer Festival, etc. etc.  Harbin has the best musicians, the biggest beer festival (well maybe Qingdao competes) the most varied cuisine.  It shares Korean, Russian, Jewish, Chinese influences which make it unique as a Chinese city
  5. ZKR is 100% correct when he opines "the language teaching methods are generally crappy in China; every single language program I heard about used the same crappy textbooks published by BLCUP or PUP".  You definitely want a private program which uses some of the more recent materials available for study of Chinese.  HIT is a good school (one of the C9 League schools) but the language programs are no better than BLCUP (and I don't mean that as a compliment).
  6. In my opinion, Harbin has the best food in China (though Chengdu is up there as well).  The street markets are also very good if you prepare your own food (which you will be doing if you plan to stay long).  Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities don't come close to the variety of foods, vegetables, mushrooms, etc. you can buy in Harbin. 
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1. Relatively cheap

2. Excelent 普通话

3. Friendly people

4. Very good institutions like HIT

5. Slow tempo - non hectic life style

6. Small but kicking night life (so I hear...)

Unless you've already decided on Harbin, perhaps consider Taipei.

1. Life is not expensive, not sure how tuition costs compare, but there are scholarships.

2. See the many threads on accent elsewhere, but you can learn excellent Mandarin in Taipei.

3. In spades.

4. NTNU's MTC and others.

5. In spades.

6. Check, and nightlife includes plenty of locals, depending on where you go.

And the weather is lovely year-round, unless you don't like hot summers.

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