Around eight years ago, I found myself sitting in front of my computer, experiencing a broad range of emotions. On the screen in front of me, was a “thank you” note, confirming my application for a teaching internship in China. This program eventually leads to where I am now, living and working in China, making this my chosen career. I was 21 years old, scared to leave everything behind but excited about what my new like might be. I was hopeful of what the future might bring, but doubtful if I would be able to pull it off. I was proud that I made such a dramatic decision but remorseful that I didn’t include my family more in the process.
Nonetheless, I called my family to tell them the good news. I remember my mom being emotional and my father’s resistance. But they understood this was something I needed to do, and they even lent me the money I needed to pay the program fee. They were worried because China is so far from Denmark, and so different. They couldn’t fathom their son living so far away, let alone imagine how I could get used to living there. The image Western people have of China is distorted, and coming to China is vastly different from anything you think you know from movies and the news.
Before making this decision, I had just returned from my first overseas trip alone. I spent two weeks in Shanghai, looking for a university to study at, but ended up spending most of my time just touring around. I experienced the kindness of the people, the great food, amazing architecture, and stunning views. I had always known I was a big-city person, even though I’d only ever lived in smaller towns, and I fell in love with Shanghai in a matter of hours. My camera was glued to my face, and I still go back to revisit my photos to relive my memories of my first visit. For those two weeks, I was euphoric; everything was new and exciting, and I loved every second.
Traveling to a new place, be it on business or holiday, makes us feel excited. I have traveled to a lot of locations in the past, and the feeling is always the same. But, that feeling of excitement is just a fraction of the emotional rollercoaster you go through when you visit another country. Your holiday is typically not long enough, for you to experience the rest of the ride. Being on vacation for one, two, or even three weeks, you only feel the newness. When you get lost, you see a chance to explore, and when your food tastes funny you just photograph it, post it on Facebook with a comment and quickly order something else. You’re only experiencing what is commonly known as the “honeymoon” phase of culture shock, something you are likely to face if you move to a new country for an expected period. Knowing about culture shock and how to deal with it, can significantly improve your experience of living abroad.
Culture shock happens in four distinct phases known as “honeymoon”, “depression”, “adjustment” and “adaptation”. Each step, its length, and impact vary from person to person. The honeymoon period is what you experience in the beginning when you first arrive in a new country. Everything is new, the language is interesting, the habits of the locals, and the food will almost get you high. But when the honeymoon ends, reality starts to set in, and you start feeling depressed with your surroundings. The language barrier, traffic, safety, difficulty of doing things without assistance, and missing home are all very prominent feelings. The second phase is usually the hardest, and it can last anywhere from 3-9 months. This is the stage that makes some people return home. But once you make it past this stage, comes the adjustment. Here, you will start to grow accustomed to what is going on around you, you develop a routine, you start learning the language, and you can support yourself. You develop skills to deal with everyday problems, and adverse reactions to the culture around you lessen.
Finally, adaptation sets in and you begin to take control of your surroundings. You participate in social events, you make close friends, you learn to accept the new culture, and you become somewhat bicultural. Now, living in the country is, in many ways, similar to living at home. You’re no longer bothered with the new culture, but start to embrace it.
In the following articles, I’ll talk about each of the stages I experienced, and I will touch on how you can overcome each of the stages of culture shock while living in China.