Imagine you’ve just arrived in Shanghai for a year of teaching English in China – sounds like an amazing adventure, right? After several weeks of exploring the city, meeting new friends, learning a few Mandarin phrases and sampling the incredible food, you notice a slight change. Anxiety comes on slow at first, but suddenly you can’t sleep at night and you start longing to return home. This is the onset of culture shock.
A country like China presents unique challenges – the exotic food and indecipherable language are enough to intimidate the most intrepid explorers. The obstacles are particularly formidable in rural areas where residents aren’t accustomed to interacting with foreigners.
But fear not. Culture shock is a common feeling experienced even by those with flexible and adaptable personalities. Thus, it’s important for aspiring English teachers to learn about culture shock and prepare themselves for the times ahead – the good and the not-so-good!
Defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to”.
Psychologists have identified four phases: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment and Mastery. Each phase is defined by distinct characteristics and it’s not uncommon for people to experience one or more of the phases several times.
The first stage of culture shock is the Honeymoon stage. During this time, you will probably experience euphoria and an almost constant feeling of excitement. You will find out what sensory overload really feels like as you are bombarded with new sights, smells, tastes and sounds. Everything is interesting and fresh – maybe you’ll even start a journal or a photo blog! Interestingly, during this stage people often lose their ability to be critical and easily look past annoyances, delays and problems. Most issues will be overlooked and rationalized as minor inconveniences on the road to personal and professional fulfillment. As with any honeymoon period, these feelings won’t last forever.
The second stage is Negotiation – this is when the ‘shock’ begins to take hold. You may begin to reject everything about the foreign country and its cultural identity. Anxiety usually builds gradually, becoming stronger by the day. During this stage you might develop sleeping or eating problems and become less social – you will begin to miss the comforts of home and may have a profound longing for friends and family. In more serious cases, people who drink or smoke may do so more heavily to help them cope with their stress.
Your critical judgement will come rushing back, and cultural nuances such as personal hygiene, traffic safety (or lack thereof, as in China) , language barriers and inter-cultural communication gaps become much more apparent. The sudden change in your emotional state may result in feelings of alienation, increase stress, negatively affect work performance and even lead to arguments. Sometimes you may begin to question if you made the right choice in coming here. During this stage it’s important to develop a strong support network consisting of people who are experiencing what you are as well as those who have already ‘been there, done that’ and can offer sound advice.
Though all of this may sound horrifying, the good news is that it’s all perfectly normal. In fact, overcoming this hurdle is a critical component of personal growth!
Thus begins the next stage: Adjustment. Also known as “The Recovery Phase”, this is the time when you ought to be able identify and recognize your feelings with more clarity. You will develop mechanisms to cope with and overcome any negative feelings you may be experiencing. You will begin to notice the differences between your own culture and that of your host country and become accepting of both. People with high emotional intelligence will be able to recognize and manage their emotions most effectively.
But be cautious during the Adjustment phase – it’s still wise to take emotional inventory every so often – you should remain vigilant in analyzing and assessing your feelings. It’s common for people to back-slide into the Negotiation phase and then Adjust/Recover again. Although the ‘lows’ associated with Negotiation usually aren’t as pronounced as they were the first time, you should continue to calibrate your emotional state.
One suggestion that might encourage the onset of ‘Adjustment’ – immersion into the host country’s culture. In China, you may begin studying Chinese, traditional ink painting or martial arts. Community involvement and volunteering are also great ways to connect with the people and feel more in touch with your new home. These types of activities can reignite your original passion, will give you a deeper sense of appreciation and will remind you why you came to begin with.
The last stage is Mastery – this simply means that you have assimilated into your host country and it begins to feel like a second home to you. You may have achieved some proficiency with the language by this point and can handle your day-to-day affairs independently. Feeling at home in a foreign country is an impressive achievement and will help you in other areas of your life. You will become more flexible, more adept at working in cross-cultural teams, develop a larger world view and will cope with change more effectively. Not to mention, you will be better equipped to deal with culture shock in the future if you find yourself in another country for work or travel.
Culture shock isn’t something to fear – it’s merely something to be aware of and prepare for. As Christopher Columbus once said, “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Overcoming the challenges of living abroad will make you stronger in mind and spirit and shouldn’t deter you from making the bold move to teach a year (or two) in China.