How I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China. Part 5: The Adjustment

When the depression finally hit me in China, I made a conscious choice that I wasn’t going to let it ruin my time here. I decided not to give in to the homesickness, focus on my work and try to learn about the things I didn’t understand, instead of just complaining about them. I also knew that my time in Changsha was going to be limited. Once I would finish my internship, I would likely move somewhere else, and I’d have a chance to start over fresh.

This method isn’t necessarily the magic cure, just bite down and focus on work, but for me, it helped. Focusing myself on working and learning as much as I could about my surroundings, meant that I kept myself busy (too busy to think about other things), and I also accumulated a lot of knowledge about the local culture, customs and their way of life. For some, they’ll need to focus more on physical activities, or do sports or go to the gym like they’d do in their home country to feel more at home. We are all different, and we will need different ways of dealing with the depression phase, if and when it sets in.

Doing observation classes with teachers and the school principal at my school in Changsha.

After a while, things started to get better. Once you start to accept your new surroundings and how different everything is, you can focus on learning more about it, understanding it and take it in to make it part of your new life. You won’t be able to live in the same way as you did back home. Luckily for me, I didn’t want to. I moved to China to explore something different, to live differently and more independently than I had ever done before. But when I first arrived, I still had blinders on, expecting the Chinese people to behave like Danish people. It doesn’t work like that, and you have to embrace it, learn from it and make it part of your new life.

It isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, and it takes a bit of work finding a suitable compromise between being who you are and changing just enough to fit into your new surroundings. You learn to appreciate the 2-hour lunch break, the energy of the people around you, the funny little things you see every day that you’d never see back home. You also learn to be flexible. Danish people tend to love schedules and to have plans for weeks ahead. In China, things are sometimes more fluid, and you have to adjust your plans a lot. That used to bother me a lot at first, but now, it is just a way of life.

I have learned to embrace and love the life I live now. I still miss Denmark, and how quiet and calm everything is. As I am writing this, I am back in Denmark on holiday for three weeks, and I love everything about being back home. Being home makes me realize how much I am missing all the things I took for granted when I lived here more than seven years ago now. Which brings me to my next article, about Reverse Culture shock, which is what you experience when you have been away from home for a while and come back to what your life used to be, which is typically quite different from your life in China. It can sometimes feel like Culture Shock all over again, but in your own country and in your own home.

How I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China. Part 4: The Depression

This article is part of a series on experiencing, and dealing with, culture shock in China. The articles are based on my own experiences moving to and living in China, looking back at how I overcame each phase of culture shock, making it through to the other side and having stayed in China for over seven years.

Previous (The Honeymoon Stage)

Have you ever had that feeling, when you wake up in the morning of just not wanting to go to work? We all have it occasionally, but it can be an indication that your depression stage is setting in. For the first few months at your new job, you’ve likely felt full of energy, excited and happy about where you are, so how come suddenly you no longer want to get up and do it?

This very feeling, was how I knew my mood was about to change and that harder times were coming. Having experienced it before, meant I could start to prepare for it mentally and already now start processing it. I began to notice a chance in my attitude and my energy towards work. I’d usually arrive smiling, greeting students and having my can-do attitude. But it was slowly changing into me rushing to the office and avoiding people as much as possible. Getting up in the morning got harder and rather than arriving 15-20 minutes early I started arriving more or less on time. I spent more time by myself than with others, often going straight home after work, not attending social events or going out to dinner with anyone.

Even though I had gone through this before in Australia, it is different in a country where people do not speak your language or behave the way you are used to. I wasn’t the only one, though, and some of my other foreign colleagues were also dealing with this stage to some degree, but handling it in different ways. There is no recipe for getting through this stage, everyone is different. But I remembered one of the things that helped me in Australia was not sitting around by myself. I had to force myself to go outside, meet people, and try to have fun. Who knows, if I tried, I might have a little fun by accident. But I also decided to give myself a purpose. I liked teaching but I always knew I wanted to do more than just being a teacher and the next day I decided to devote myself to my job, and let everything else come to me naturally. I was going to be one of the best teachers this school had ever had, and it was going to be my way out of this little bubble.

Over the past few weeks, since the onset of my more negative emotions, i had changed from this outgoing and welcoming person into someone who just wanted to be alone. I was going to change that, and become more sociable, more active and more appreciative of my new surroundings. I volunteered to every assignment I could get my hands on, participated in every activity I could and started making myself known for my work. I spent more time planning my lessons, stayed late at the office if I hadn’t finished my work and started to arrive early again.

Focusing on my work, gave me a purpose and a goal that I could work towards. It worked, but it will not necessarily work for you if you are facing this situation. The most important thing was that I kept myself busy. I spent time planning classes, I went out to dinner, participated in activities and helped do observations for the Chinese teachers giving them suggestion on how to improve their English. I did not leave a lot of time for sitting around and not doing anything. There more I was on the move, the better I felt and before I knew it, the depression was as good as gone.

From listening to others who have dealt with culture shock and the depression that sometimes follow, one of the most common things I hear is that isolating yourself only makes the depression worse. As hard as it can be, going out and being social really makes a significant difference. It can also be tough if you only have non-local friends. Having local friends means someone can explain you to the things you don’t understand. By understanding why people say or do what they do, life also becomes much easier. Everything is about balance and finding a mix that works for you.

Depression is a natural stage of culture shock, at some point we all have to go through it, but with a little preparation, the depression will not be as crippling as it can sometimes be. But you will need to make an effort and take control of your time and your feelings. The good news is, it is easier than it seems. Go out, meet people, learn about the culture and the things that are different and confusing. Focus on your work and become the best that you can be and before you know it you’ll be feeling much better!

How I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China. Part 3: When everything is Cool

This article is part of a series on experiencing, and dealing with, culture shock in China. The articles are based on my own experiences moving to and living in China, looking back at how I overcame each phase of culture shock, making it through to the other side and having stayed in China for over seven years.

Previous (What is Culture Shock?)

The first time I visited China was my trip to Shanghai in 2010 right before the Chinese Spring Festival, the Chinese festival similar to our Christmas and New Year’s Eve put together into one. Everywhere I went I saw red lanterns, happy people, and tall skyscrapers. I fell in love instantly.

Shanghai Skyline

A friend of mine, a local Chinese girl, was working in Shanghai at the time, and she agreed to show me around. Coming to China for the first time as a tourist can be a bit overwhelming. Many do not speak English very well so having someone around who could help was valuable.

Having someone around to talk to the taxi drivers, show you around and take care of you was great. I got to experience everything while worrying about nothing. My visit to Shanghai was smooth, energetic and full of excitement. A great experience, everything was cool!

I finally moved to China in the summer of 2010, starting out with a month-long TEFL training program in Beijing and then moving to Changsha in Hunan province for my 5-month teaching practice. The time in Beijing was like a study-holiday. We would study during the week, but we would go on trips on the weekends.

The Great Wall of China

Arriving in Changsha, we lived at a privately owned boarding school for primary grade students. We worked in the English teachers’ office, and all the teachers communicated well. They took care of most things for us, and we were even assigned a kind of “buddy” who would help us out with anything we needed.

It was great! It was not my first time in China, but it was my first time in Changsha, entirely different from Shanghai and Beijing. Every day was a new experience, and something as simple as going to the supermarket was a new feeling. Shopping alone was a challenge and an experience. Missing your bus stop was an excuse to wander and get lost, talking to a person saying more than just “hello” felt satisfying. “I could live here!”

New people, new tastes, and smells, the language, the culture. I felt like I was living an adventure, nothing could compare. I was not making much money or anything special, but the experience was fantastic, and I loved every second.

Chicken feet, you gotta have’em!

Moving to China was, however, not my first time to live in a foreign country for an extended period of time. I spent one high-school semester studying at the TAFE institute in Wagga Wagga (Yes, that’s the name of the city) in Australia. Wagga Wagga is the biggest inland city, about 400 kilometers east of Sydney. I knew that eventually, I would face a wave of discomfort and slight depression because I’d gone through it once already when I was there. Having traveled a lot with my parents and sister as a child, I am very familiar with this feeling, and I can sense when it is starting to change. For me, personally, this is a great tool because I can then prepare for the coming phase of uncertainty where the excitement is replaced with worry, confusion and, sometimes, anger. Having had this particular experience before, also made me able just to enjoy how I was feeling, and mentally prepare myself. I wouldn’t be surprised by the onset of the depression stage, I was anticipating it.

In Australia, everyone speaks English, so even when I was feeling down, it was easy to talk to people around me. In China, I was surrounded by English Speaking teachers who all communicated quite well, but where Australia shares a lot of culture with other Western countries, China is vastly different, and sometimes the culture and how people behave can be tricky to adjust to.

While you are enjoying yourself, wandering around, getting lost and tasting the delicious food, remember to get to know the people around you. It is easy to get lost in your own agenda when all you want to do is explore your new surroundings. But your friends and colleagues will be an essential lifeline for when you start feeling down. Take them with you, explore together, share memories and your adventures. Don’t forget to talk to your friends and family back home, the more they know about what you are doing and experiencing, the more they will be of help when you need them later.

How I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China. Part 2

Culture shock is complicated. Moving to another country long-term affects people differently. I’m no expert on Culture Shock, but I’m happy to share my experiences trying to stay sane while experiencing culture shock in China. Everyone experiences culture shock differently, but it does affect everyone.

The model below shows one of the simpler illustrations of culture shock. It shows four phases that travellers or expats go through when visiting- or moving to another country. The four stages are called honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation.

We first experience the honeymoon phase when we visit another country. Everything is new, exciting, and interesting even though we can’t communicate with the locals. Little setbacks such as getting lost, or not finding what you needed from the supermarket, you shrug off as being on an adventure. Also sometimes called positive culture shock and this is why we like travelling. When we visit a new country or place, we experience this feeling, falling in love with the language, culture, food, and history.

When the second phase, the depression, sets in, this is what most people refer to as culture shock. You’ve been in the same place a while, and you’re no longer on an adventure, now it’s everyday life. You notice you can’t communicate efficiently, find what you need to buy, or order food at a restaurant without help, this leads to feeling powerless and dependent. The locals act differently than what you’re familiar with, and you start missing home and your family. It’s natural to feel sad, irritated or depressed and it’s important to have someone to talk to and lean on for support at this stage. Stay in touch with friends and family, keep a positive outlook. Some make it through this stage very quickly, but others need more time to adjust.

Everything improves when you reach the adjustment stage. You begin to overcome your depression and learn why you’re experiencing these emotions. You learn more about the people around you, the customs, traditions, and how to interact with your surroundings. Your view of your new home changes and starts to make sense. You’re on the right path, already further than many who go through culture shock. It becomes easier to take care of yourself, you learn the language and get into a routine of working, playing, socialising, and relaxing by yourself and your newfound social circle.

Finally, you’ll experience the adaptation stage. Also known as the acceptance stage, you feel that your horizon has broadened, you’ve become more open-minded and more tolerant of what bothered you before. Your more proficient in the language, you’ve made local friends, and you’re starting to make sense of everything. Life is more comfortable and normal and although you might not reach the same high as the honeymoon stage, you’ll feel like you belong.

Traditionally, culture shocks ends with the adaptation stage but I think it’s also important to consider how you feel going home after spending years abroad. When you return home you can experience reverse culture shock, having to get used to your old surroundings all over again. Reverse culture shock is not as prevalent as culture shock but it remains somewhat common.

Culture shock isn’t a disease and it is not the same as a depression. You should never be afraid to talk about culture shock. Admitting you’re experiencing it, sharing with friends and relatives and other expats are the first steps of dealing with it and getting through it.

How to Survive Your First Three Months in China

Moving abroad can be an exciting time – it can also be really scary! There’s a lot to think about and take in, with a new culture, new food, a new language, and new people. Whether it’s your first time or your 50th time (lucky you!) moving abroad, it doesn’t hurt to have a helping hand. So, I’ve put together a short guide on how to survive your first three months in China.

Street food – One of the first things I wanted to do when I landed in China was sample the delicious street food. I love trying new foods from around the world, and street food is some of the best food out there. BUT, when you’re trying street food in China (and most other places for that matter), the key is to go easy at first. Your body (most importantly your stomach) is still adjusting to a new environment, and going hard on the street food early on will likely mean a few extra trips to the bathroom than you bargained for.

Spitting – If you’ve done a bit of research ahead of time, you’ll have found that spitting in China is very common. Most foreigners find this difficult to adjust to when they first arrive. To be honest, I didn’t find it that hard to get used to. For me, it’s just another sound you hear when walking the streets. If you find it bothers you, try to tune it out and focus your other senses on something much more pleasant (like the amazing smells of street food!).

Air Pollution – It’s no secret that China has some of the worst air pollution in the world. Some days can be quite shocking – you can’t see the sun and people back home comment on the ‘fog’ in your photos. There are also days that are just gorgeous, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds (particularly after rains), so as they say, you take the good with the bad. You’ll definitely learn to really appreciate the crisp, clear days when living in China. Also don’t be afraid to wear a mask on days of high pollution, as most people do, and there are even apps you can download which show the pollution levels in your area each day.

Health – Most expats you talk to in China will tell you that at around three months in, you’ll get sick. At about my two month mark, I thought this was just something people said to sound ‘seasoned’. But sure enough, three months after I’d arrived in China, I came down with a pretty bad cold where I lost my voice and had to stay in bed for several days (not a great situation for a teacher to be in). To try to avoid this, or at least lessen the symptoms, I recommend a multi-pronged attack! Try eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (the local markets are great for these), getting regular exercise, taking multivitamins, and wearing a mask on days with high pollution levels (and during peak cold and flu seasons).

Driving – For me, roads in China really are the definition of ‘organized chaos’. There are so many crazy turns, varied speeds and traffic jams that wouldn’t work back home, but here seem like a natural part of the flow. You’ll see people stop randomly in the middle of the road, drive the wrong way down the street (sometimes in reverse), drive on the sidewalk – and this includes cars, trucks, bicycles, electric bikes, and motorbikes. The best way to deal with this is to stay alert if you’re driving or walking – make sure you look both ways even when you don’t think you need to – and simply marvel in the wonder that is driving in China.

Staring – No matter what you look like, how you dress and what you say, as an expat in China, you’re going to attract attention. This attention will vary from passers-by yelling ‘hello’, to people trying to strike up a conversation with you (in Chinese, even if it’s clear you don’t understand), to prolonged staring. Whilst you’ve most likely been taught that staring isn’t polite, here it’s just part of the culture. You’ll see Chinese people staring at each other all the time, it’s just that you’ll get more of the stares, and for longer. It’s best just to embrace this part of the culture in a light-hearted way and smile, wave or say ‘hello’ or ‘ni hao’ (or all three!).

Hopefully, this short guide on how to survive your first three months in China will help you prepare for your move, or maybe even help you cope with some of your feelings of culture shock.

What are your tips for surviving your first 3 months in China? Tell us below.

DSCN6110  Penny de Vine is a thirty-something Australian freelance writer with a love for travel and trying anything new! You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Culture Shock: China Edition

Language is one of many obstacles to overcome in China
”你是哪里人?“ (Where are you from?)

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.

Are you ready to find your China teaching job? Apply online or email us at recruitment@eslsuite.com to learn more!