Earlier this summer a group of fifteen undergraduate Drew students travelled with Professor Bai Di, associate professor of Chinese Studies, to Harbin, China. Located about 800 miles northeast of Beijing, Harbin is one of only a few cities where people speak near standard Mandarin–the most spoken language on the planet. During their 29-day trip, students got a chance to test and expand their comprehension and conversational skills, as well as their horizons.

Bai is very clear that this is much more than a language program. “I push students to ask questions like: Why have the Chinese built these walls? Why is meat served in small pieces?” she explains. “It’s a way to talk about social issues, to exercise critical thinking.”

Students spent the first eight days of the trip in Beijing where they were given assignments based on their interests–an art student was sent off to visit a museum, a biology student to the zoo. They had to navigate and negotiate their own way around the city, restaurants and shops, forcing them to use Mandarin, to be self-reliant and to fully engage with an unfamiliar culture. As a result, many came home with a more nuanced understanding of China than the monolith it is seen as in the west.

After an overnight train to Harbin, the Drew students attended Chinese classes for four hours each morning; this was followed by afternoon outings to cultural and recreational sites in Heilongjiang province, and two hours of study hall each evening.

Drew has embraced international study for over fifty years, but language and culture programs such as the Harbin trip are even more important today. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “They enable us to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives.”

“I really enjoyed seeing the hutong (traditional residential neighborhoods). They were so different than the modern skyscrapers we think of as Beijing,” says Vaneisha Thomas ’14, one of the students who participated in the Harbin program. “That’s just one example of how everything about this trip forced me to think outside my American box.”–Barbara Price

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