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 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.