Portraits of Daily Life at HNC in Winter 2022

Portraits of Daily Life at HNC in Winter 2022

When I first lived abroad as a student in China five years ago, the thrill of novel sensory phenomena combined with the creation of new personal rituals left an impression that is difficult to replicate. Before enrolling at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in Fall 2022, I lived and worked in Shanghai a total of four years. While I had become comfortable with my life in Shanghai over time, some of my most lasting memories of the city were from the first few months living there. As many times in the years since as I foolishly weaved my shared bike between vehicles while in the seas of organized chaos that are Shanghai’s downtown streets, my early roadside adventures in Hongkou District(虹口区)half a decade ago will always remain among the most memorable.

Indeed, moving oneself to an entirely new country, particularly when as far off as a separate continent in the opposite hemisphere, is an experience of enormous scope. Surely many of those reading this article have already enjoyed a stint of study or work abroad, if not both. But what happens when you depart a place where you’ve already established roots in abroad? Can you find soil for them elsewhere? 

As a “Shanghairen” in Nanjing, I hereby merrily declare there is plenty to anchor a lifestyle around as an HNC student here in China’s old capital. I hope that this post can give people interested in the HNC a tour of what life in Nanjing is like, both on and off campus. 

Studying on Campus

The library is never a poor starting point for a tour of a grad student’s daily life. 

When you trot up the steps on campus’s newer east end and come into the library, it frustrates you the same way I imagine libraries at acclaimed institutions generally do – you’re greeted by giant atlases on reading stands, rows of recent publications like Foreign Affairs with glitzy covers, and much else that screams “Read Me!” while usurping your gaze. It’s all wonderful until realizing you won’t have time to read much of it until that deadline you just entered the library to address is off your shoulders.

In terms of spots to study, a word that comes to mind to describe the library is “comfortable.” There’s a lot of padded furniture in this library, such as this sofa I sometimes work from. 

I quite like that sofa for easier tasks, but when I have something needing a “flow state” or two to get the best of, I find this desk an apt companion.

As a writing center student worker, I’ve chosen to host my office hours in the Morningside Reading Room on the upper floor of the library, so I’ve been following the lao gui ju (老规矩) and occupying the same space each Tuesday and Thursday. It’s nice to meet folks in person here to give my Chinese classmates advice about their writing. 

A parting note on the library: Master’s students are also able to gain access to a carrel desk in a wing of the library separate from each of the areas you’ve seen pictured above. 


A friend I was having coffee with once remarked how odd it was that the petite vessel of cappuccino warming her lips was valued at thrice the price of brother muffin, despite the latter dwarfing the beverage in size and capacity to satisfy a stomach. Econ students may pause here to postulate how this came to be, but suffice to say most outings for coffee or a meal in Shanghai will start at 5 USD. Lunch fare cheaper than this is often baptized in oil and converted to the church of caloric excess.

Now, there is nothing at all outrageous about this price in a global cosmopolitan hub in 2022. And of course, Nanjing’s prices are a little lower than Shanghai’s. But saving money as a grad student is a precious skill. 

Enter the HNC cafeteria, or shitang (食堂).

Picture a heaping tray of xi hong shi chao ji dan (西红柿炒鸡蛋), dun bai cai (炖白菜) zhu rou pian (猪肉片), an apple and a cup of yogurt on the side. Now, imagine receiving all of this for around 11 RMB, or barely more than a buck and a half.  

Yep, it’s a pleasant image.

The shitang is neither Michelin-starred nor set to leave you starry-eyed. But it will keep both you and your wallet full and reasonably satisfied. And, of course, this is very much the kind of place where frank discussions with classmates thrive. If you aren’t shooting the breeze with your Chinese classmates at the HNC, you’re shooting yourself in the foot!

Now, don’t sweat it if at times you have a presentation in a half hour and just need to quietly scarf down some noodles without fanfare. There are certainly other campus-based avenues for conversation beyond the lunch hall.

One such place is – well, let me first ask: Can you dunk? 

Neither can I, but that doesn’t quell my fantasy of doing so or, more crucially, the need to exercise bodily appendages after hours of invoking the spirit of Dashan to assist my deconstruction of Chinese texts. Some students here jog through the city, while others master ping-pong; for me, I enjoy basketball. 

The HNC is quite spacious relative to the number of students dwelling here, but when juxtaposed against Nanjing University’s neighboring undergraduate campus, its modesty in size is evident. Yet here on this campus lies a full-length basketball court. I’ve taken part in several small-scale games on it already.

One other spot ideal for social interaction I’ll mention here is the student lounge (学生活动室). Nearly everywhere in the library is nominally a “quiet area,” so I’ll often set up in the lounge instead to join online classes since conversations with people or screens are expected. 

It’s a study area too and, arguably, the most versatile room in terms of environment. This same room plays host to seasonal parties, impromptu board game gatherings and much else of that ilk, but I have also completed more than a couple intense study sessions here. 

And when it’s time to get some air, you are but a few steps from the central courtyard, with its friendly benches and ample greenery. Yes, I don’t tend to pause in this space for so long in the winter, but if I had not this space for strolls, breaks, and briefer interactions with classmates and professors, the winter would be much more to bear.


As heavy an intellectual challenge as the first semester at the HNC often is, crucial to my wellbeing is my continued practice of a craft unrelated to coursework. As a former music teacher and lifelong musician, music composition or “jamming” is my personal choice for a cathartic craft, and there is, directly below the student lounge, just the kind of space I like for this avocation.

There’s also a larger room next door with a full drum set and various other instruments, but I like the one pictured above both for its piano and because it has been the site of our erhu (二胡) class! At the HNC, I got together with a group of classmates to hire a professional erhu teacher. I am, finally, learning a Chinese instrument via Chinese-language instruction, in the company of several Chinese classmates. As we say, ru xiang sui su (入乡随俗)… 

I like this space very much. It has been more of a quiet sanctuary than a site of social interaction for me, but with a classmate’s recent request to show him some stuff on the piano, it may well soon be both. 

In the Neighborhood

Lastly, well, seeing as the outset of this post mentioned explicitly the city of Nanjing, it would be appropriate to say a bit more on other sites in the city itself. Mind not that each of these described below are within 150 meters from campus… 

Just a short walk from the HNC down Shanghai Road is Skyways (云中食品), a European-styled bakery. Their special deal to buy a pastry plus coffee for only the price of a coffee is one I enjoy taking advantage of. A considerable number of other foreigners, especially teachers and professors, stop by for the hearty Danishes regularly as well. Grab an outdoor table here whenever it’s not too chilly.

That said, this isn’t my favorite spot for coffee. That honor goes to Coffee and Art (咖啡和艺术), a premier local establishment that delivers everything in its name and more. It has become something of a Friday-afternoon tradition to come here with classmates who, likewise, have plenty of tasks they could be doing, and even some they well should be doing, but have wisely chosen to tarry on for just a moment. Remember that, by each Friday afternoon, you have in the preceding days and hours completed a grand, sprawling adventure through the Mirkwood that is prelude to every academic achievement. 

I would suffer in the long run without the presence of great company. Friendship in grad school is necessary. We’ll often still “work” during these Friday outings, sure. But it’s contained at a walking pace as lattes accompany our laughter and imperfect, yet cozy combination of lighter tasks and interwoven conversation. All of this – plus the fact that proprietor, Wang Laoshi, plays classical music 24/7 and displays an extraordinary personal collection of art on both the first and second floors – accounts for why Coffee & Art is my go-to when off campus. 

So, what are you waiting for?

As China reopens, domestic travel is becoming easier. Given extremely affordable train tickets and proximity between the two cities, I’m now able to get over to my “home base” of Shanghai from Nanjing quite often if I wish, whether alone or in company, for events or gatherings with old friends.

However, I rather like my life here in Nanjing and at the HNC, and am contented with seven days of it in a week. Likewise, I believe any of my classmates, both Chinese and international, who choose to dwell here will find their rhythm amidst a welcoming, growing community.

Written by Chad Higgenbottom 方毅, HNC Certificate Class of 2023