Published on CET Academic Program’s Website Blog, at following URL: http://cetacademicprograms.com/category/china/harbin/page/5/

Traveling Seminar, Harbin, Dandong, North Korea

The adorable place that we stayed at in Dandong’s countryside


Last weekend, the CET Harbin program took its semi-annual weekend trip to Dandong, a Northeastern Chinese city on the border of North Korea.

Although there were many fascinating aspects of the trip—for example, staying in an adorable lodging in the countryside, seeing a part of the Great Wall of China (it was my first time!) and taking a hiking path along the side of a mountain that was extremely fun and, possibly, also a little dangerous (there were literally parts where the path dropped off and we had to climb vertically up the mountain)–the most memorable part of the trip was without a doubt looking over at the border of North Korea.

We had the opportunity to see the border many times throughout our trip. My first glimpse of it was as we were riding a bus from Dandong’s train station to the countryside. At that time, it was raining, so it was hard to make out any features of the distant border across the water—it was nothing more than a long strip of bleak landscape. The next day, as we hiked the aforementioned trail, we were able to look out clearly over some of North Korea’s fields…at points, we were so close we could have jumped in the water and swam across in a minute or less.

Harbin teacher

Three of our teachers, who accompanied us on our trip. The one in the center is Ren Laoshi, the academic director of the CET Harbin Intensive Mandarin program

But it was when we took a boat that traveled as close to the North Korean border as it could that I really began to understand the impact of what I was seeing. This was that country across the world that I always heard ominous reports about in the United States—that country that still closes itself off from the rest of the world in this era of increasing globalization and communication. It is a country that we all still fear.

But now that distant dark threat was actually literally right in front of me, maybe fifty paces or so away, and there was nothing that frightening about it. Certainly compared to the extremely developed Chinese city of skyscrapers and honking cars across the border, it was quite underdeveloped; the landscape consisted mostly of forest, with the occasional ugly black-chimneyed factory here and there, suffocating the sky with plumes of smoke. Strangely, there was also a Ferris wheel in this seemingly industrial area, although, unused, it stood ghostly quiet. This was probably the element that reminded me most closely of the strange, mysterious North Korea, presenting a face to the world that didn’t match its actual character, that I was already familiar with from news reports,.

Traveling seminar to Dandong, North Korea, Harbin, China

North Korean currency. We were able to buy it on the boat we went on. Of course, I’m actually not sure whether it’s real…

However, most of us weren’t paying too much attention to the factories or the Ferris wheel. Rather, we were looking at all of the people who were buzzing around working in the factories, or riding boats as part of a tour (I assume) to get a better look at the Chinese border across the way. They all waved and smiled at us as we passed. At the time, I didn’t know what I felt. Now, I still am totally dumbfounded. At some level, what I was doing made me uncomfortable; we were ooh-ing and aah-ing at the North Koreans as though they were animals in a zoo. “Oh, look, I saw another one!”

But they didn’t seem to mind it, and in fact, probably treated us the same way. These people with whom we shared a moment on the lake—waving, grinning, as though we were old friends reuniting—are the same people viewed as a threat by the rest of the world. I think most realize that a country’s government and actions often have little to do with its people; if there is any lesson that can be reinforced from this experience, I suppose it is that one. North Korea’s people may be more willing than we think to welcome us into their culture with open arms and, at the same time, take an active interest in learning about ours. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t try too hard to come up with a lesson. It’s enough just to know that we shared this moment of warmth.

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