When students first think of studying abroad in China, their points of reference are often limited, and with good reason - the culture is foreign and far away, the language is challenging. And, as much as anything else, China is huge: did you know it has 100 cities each with populations exceeding 1 million people?
The vibrant city of Dalian, while it doesn't receive the international pop-culture attention reserved for the megalopolis cities of expansive Beijing, trendy Shanghai or towering Hong Kong, is a city on the move. This is a city in which business is booming, and it may just be the most livable city in China. As a result, Dalian offers some very big and beneficial points for visiting students.
The more than 6,200,000 people living in Dalian are an inviting, optimistic population - their overwhelming tendency is to be open to visitors, eager to point out and talk up the recent triumphs of their city, be they in the realm of sport, culture or industry. Visiting students find themselves happy to take in the beautiful coastline and nearby beaches.
The beaches, and specifically the ocean harbors surrounding them, are a key to understanding the identity of Dalian: It is China's northernmost shipping port that is untouched by ice during winter. This has made it a coveted locale for international trade, but it's far from the only key aspect of Dalian life and culture. According to The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has visited the city twice, once last decade and once recently, 'Dalian is in northeast China and is one of China's Silicon Valleys because of its proliferation of software parks...with six million people, [Dalian was] already had a mini-Manhattan when I was last here. It seems to have grown two more since - including a gleaming new convention complex built on a man-made peninsula.'
Studying abroad in Dalian might remind a student more of Europe than China. It is one of the few Chinese cities where you won't see millions of people getting around on bicycles. Instead, the streets resemble Paris or England's with traffic jams of tiny cars that can jut all around the thin roadways. It also has a terrific bus system and a Metro (Paris) or Underground (London)-esque railway system.
Dalian is the center of foreign trade in Liaoning Province as well as the second largest international commercial harbor in China. Dalian is of that rarest types of city - it has the look and does the business of a major metropolitan hub, but geographically and recreationally, it has the mindset of an island resort. Mountainous panoramic beauty is surrounded by beaches, and the city plays host to year-round festivals. With a stunning, towering landscape one would expect from a leading Asian city, and a European feel and flair that still maintains it's Chinese traditions, plus a beautiful ocean view from a flourishing and vitally important port, Dalian is an ideal study abroad location. It will allow you to experience authentic Chinese charm in a bustling, international environment.
Because it sits on China's lone northern non-icy harbor, Dalian has a history of being considered a jewel in the crown of foreign empires. From 1895 to 1955, Russia and Japan alternated as the controlling government of Dalian on four separate occasions. Both the Russian and Japanese colonists dreamed of establishing a city of their own on this land in those colonial periods. A group of Russian architects fascinated with French culture came to Dalian with the construction blueprint of Paris in mind, and they designed and built a series of elegant squares with artistic sculptures, lush lawns, and fountains. The squares formed the architectural basis of the present city, and radiating outward from there. (Today, the stylishly uniformed female troopers patrolling the squares have become a well-known feature of the city.)
By the time China claimed it back, Dalian - much like Hong Kong - had been infused with architecture of Russian, Japanese, and European schools of design. What were once symbols of foreign oppression now stand as fascinating representations of Dalian's worldly charm. With an abundance of foreign investment over the past decade, Dalian has become a force to contend with in modern China. Economic opportunity - most recently the software and techie culture boom - has transformed this once sleepy town into a curious dynamo. The cuisine is decidedly seafood-centric, with an emphasis on fish and sashimi-style dishes. Circular plazas divide the city with Soviet-like efficiency, without the dreaded architectural coldness however.
Then there are the festivals. Do you fancy yourself a current or future fashionista? The prestigious Dalian International Fashion Festival is held every fall. In this massive event, fashion firms from all over the world come to reveal their latest products and fashion items, with an elaborate opening ceremony that pays tribute to city officials and international celebrities.
Should you choose to study abroad in Dalian, you'll have the opportunity to learn about the business, history and culture of China while taking intensive language classes. You'll have the opportunity to take excursions to the neighboring cities of Beijing and Harbin. Become familiar with Chinese culture - and not in an area saturated by American programs.
SongLi is a Dalian celebrity who came to fame as the first foreigner to host the evening television news in Northeast China from 2004, and has celebrated success with his detailed historical novel 'Blue Sky Red Tears' (set during Dalian's colonial era). He says, 'Dalian is growing at an unbelievable rate, and I witness it daily...I like to take the paths less traveled, and talk with real people.' This is a city that offers this mixture of exploration and social interaction possible with every new day - truly, it is a thrilling place to be for a student studying abroad.