Houlton alum spends month studying in China

6 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — While most college students were enjoying their summer relaxing from classes, John Thatcher of Houlton was busy spending a month overseas learning about Chinese culture.

The Sophia, a Russian Orthodox church used as an art gallery, was one of many examples of the architectural differences in Harbin that Houlton resident John Thatcher observed. (contributed photo/John Thatcher)

Thatcher, 19, recently returned from a month-long excursion to China, as part of a cultural program through Drew University. The 2017 graduate of Houlton Middle-High School recently completed his freshman year at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where he is majoring in music with minors in Chinese studies and theatre.

“When I was registering for my first year of classes, I wanted to take a new language class,” he said. “So I signed up for the Chinese program. A lot of people thought I was crazy because it was so difficult.”

As part of that class, Thatcher was invited to spend the month in Beijing and Harbin in China as part of an intensive language course and cultural immersion. Thatcher was one of just two American students on the trip, along with 22 Chinese students who attend Drew University.  He received eight college credits for the trip.

The food in China was one of the many differences in culture that Houlton resident John Thatcher experienced while spending a month in China. This photo shows the “insect stand” at the Harbin University night market. (contributed photo/John Thatcher)

From May 20 to June 17, Thatcher along with several other classmates spent three weeks in Harbin, the capital of the Heilongjiang province, and largest city in the northeastern region of China with 5.2 million people.

He also spent one week in Beijing, the capital of China with 21.7 million people.

A typical day started with three or four hours in a classroom “with a teacher that doesn’t speak a word of English,” Thatcher said. “You try your best to follow along.”

“I tried to go to China with as few biases as I could,” he said. “That was hard because you always have preconceived notions of how people are going to be or what the culture would be like. I didn’t expect China to be as culturally diverse as it is. Every city is completely different because of all the different influences that have split China over the years.”

Thatcher said he was surprised at how Harbin turned out to have a climate very similar to Houlton.

“There is also a Russian-Japanese contrast going on in Harbin and it made for much more interesting architecture,” he said.

Thatcher said he was surprised by how few people spoke English.

“It took me by surprise as I was on my own a lot more than I thought I would be,” he said.

The food was another bit of a culture shock for him as the chinese food found in America is very different from what is available overseas.

“I don’t think anyone can understand how vastly different the two are until you have tried both,” he said. “There were things like duck tongue, which was one of the strangest experiences I have ever had. It tasted like you were kissing a bird.”

KFC is one of the most popular American eateries found in China, he said, far surpassing McDonalds. But the food at both was completely different from the offerings here in the United States.

“KFC is huge over there,” he said. “You could order something that looked like a chicken sandwich, but tasted completely different from what you expect.”

While in China, Thatcher found he was somewhat of an attraction for the local residents. People would often walk up to him, say, “Hello,” and then run away giggling. Some also snapped photos of him.

“It was interesting being a very tall, white kid in China,” he said. “People would run up to me, take a photo and then run away. It was surreal.”