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 I Stayed Sane While Experiencing Culture Shock in China: Part 1

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.

Copenhagen Airport on my first ever trip to China
Copenhagen Airport By Mikkel Larsen

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.

The Nasty Truth About Teaching ESL in China

Anyone who spends ten minutes reading online reviews of schools in China knows this: teaching English in China is a horrible, miserable experience you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

But why is it when people come here and actually speak to expats who have been teaching for a while, they hear a different story? Their friends say: it’s fun, they love their school, and they plan on staying two or three more years.

The reason is simple: selection bias. Wikipedia says selection bias occurs when, “…groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.”

So what is it about the people who write these horrid reviews of ESL schools that skews the sample? Generally speaking, those who gather on ESL threads to bash their school are negative people who’ve developed a herd mentality. They say “misery loves company,” and what better way to increase your feeling of self-worth than to join into a frenzied mob of disgruntled teachers with an ax to grind?

Their posts often start like this: “I worked at Blah Blah Blah English School for three years and boy they were a bunch of….”.

Riiiiight. So, this place was so incredibly terrible you stayed for how many years?

Many people forget an important fact: You’ll have problems at your job in China….just like you did at your job at home! There’s no such thing as a “perfect job,” and being able to cope with difficulties in your workplace is a part of life. Learning how to deal with these problems means you’re not lying when you write, “Works effectively in cross-cultural settings.” on your CV.

There’s also a subset of people in China who “can’t hack it” in their home country, and are forced to stay in a foreign country for much longer than they’d like. They’ll tell you how much they hate the food, the people, their school, etc. If you talk to this person long enough, you’ll probably also discover they think their home country is rubbish, too. These people have no business teaching, especially teaching children!

 
Okay, okay – I’ll get off my soapbox now! Do you want to know the truth about teaching ESL in China?

  1. You’ll be surrounded by the laughter of happy children every day
  2. You’ll work with a diverse group of really interesting people
  3. You’re doing something bold and growing as a person
  4. You’ll see sights, eat foods, hear sounds, and smell smells you never imagined
  5. You’ll earn good money while doing work that’s challenging and rewarding

I know it can be pretty shocking to hear, but that’s the nasty truth! The people who teach overseas (and stay because they love it) generally don’t spend their hours trolling ESL message boards. Ya’ know, because they’re outside…enjoying their life. Maybe eating dumplings, or climbing a mountain, or writing in their journal.

 

Have you spent a year or more teaching overseas? We’d love to hear your thoughts and stories! If you have incredible travel photos, please send them our way!

Also, if you’d like to learn more about how to become a guest blogger, write us at info@eslsuite.com with the phrase “Guest Blogger” in the SUBJECT LINE.

Written by Christopher Ribeiro | Managing Director at ESL Suite

roundedChristopher came to Tianjin via Buffalo, New York, and Los Angeles. He’s lived in China since 2009, and has traveled to over 20 countries on six continents. Christopher has been in teaching and recruiting for over five years – he’s the co-founder of ESL Suite, a husband, and father to two strapping little boys. If he’s not at work, you’ll find him in the gym, or narrowly dodging oncoming traffic on his fixed-gear bicycle.

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Wondering What to Pack for a Year in China?

Travel to ChinaYou’ve accepted a job offer, picked up your visa and booked your flight to China – now it’s time to decide what to bring. Narrowing down your list will be essential – after all, how many pairs of chunky heels (women) and popped collars (gents) does one really need to survive day-to-day life in China?

Most airlines allow for one to two bags, (23kg/50lb each) plus a carry-on and a personal item, so your packing strategy is critical. If you’ve got a friend taking you to the airport, forget about the luggage restrictions and pay the fee for an extra bag (or two depending on how many you can check for free). A little extra money upfront might save you some heartbreak in the long-run. Plus, most schools will send a driver and someone from the school to fetch you at the airport so you won’t have to worry about lugging three or four suitcases around your new city.

 

Personal Hygiene:

These items are important not because you can’t find them, but because it’s hard to find the brands you like OR the price is two or three times higher than in your home country. It’s good to stock up on at least six months worth of each – you can ask your family to send more about three months later (they can send a care package by slow mail and it likely won’t get opened or held up by customs). 

  • Deodorant
  • Hair gel/paste
  • Hair clippers (a great way to save money on haircuts, guys!)
  • Razors
  • Dental floss
  • Face lotion
  • Sunscreen

Body/Health 

  • Multi-vitamins (very expensive in China)
  • Protein powder: This is a must if you’re really into fitness – I buy six (6) two-pound containers every time I go home and pack it in a standard unmarked brown cardboard box, completely wrapped in packing tape. They never check the box at the airport. 
  • Prescription medicine (can be packed safely in your checked bag)

 

Misc. Items:

  • Coffee grounds (you’ll thank me later)
  • A good, sturdy bike lock or chain
  • Power adapter
  • A money belt (an absolute MUST when traveling in Asia)
  • Sleeping mask & earplugs
  • A good DSLR camera for taking memorable photos!
  • A laptop (electronics are surprisingly much cheaper in western countries)

Clothes:

Some schools have a uniform, but most just require ‘smart casual‘ attire. That said, it’s still useful to pack some formal attire –  it’s not unusual to be invited to attend events such as weddings, banquets etc. And since it’s likely you’ll be adventuring a bit while you’re in Asia, it’s also a good idea to pack hiking clothes and some basic gear.

The items below are in addition to normal, everyday clothes you’ll automatically bring with you – for example, underwear isn’t listed, but you ought to bring some anyway! You’ll also note I’ve suggested a lot of shoes. Why? Because it can be very hard for westerners to find shoes here. Anything above a size 11 (men) and size 9 (women) can be difficult to find!

  • Smart casual basics for work (and shoes)
  • One suit (men) or formal dress (women) – with the appropriate shoes/accessories
  • Comfortable sneakers (wear on the plane)
  • Sandals (if you normally like to wear them in the summer)
  • Hiking shoes/boots
  • A good day pack  (carry on the plane)
  • Seasonal outdoor clothing (if you like hiking)

Note: If you come during spring, summer or fall and don’t want to bring a heavy coat with you, don’t! You can pick up a good one for about $50 after you arrive!

 

To do:

  • Cancel your mobile service
  • Make copies of your passport (every page) social security card, birth certificate (give a set to a loved one in your home country and keep a set for yourself)
  • Rent a mailbox or set up mail forwarding to your parent’s or sibling’s home
  • Call your bank and credit card companies and tell them you’re moving overseas – they can ‘unlock’ your account so it’s not frozen for suspicious looking activity.

Packing can be a nightmare if you don’t know what to bring – with the above items in tow, you can feel confident you’ve got the basics (and then some) for your first year teaching abroad!

I’d love to hear if you have any other suggestions!

Interested in teaching ESL in China? Send us an email with your CV at: jobs@eslsuite.com OR visit our job board and apply online!

 

 

 

 

City Profile: Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China

Wuxi is split down the center by Lake Tai and is one of the urban cores of the Yangtze River delta region. Known as “Little Shanghai”, Wuxi is one of the origins of China’s modern commercial development. Located in the Golden Triangle of the Yangtze River, Wuxi is a key member of the “Wu” region of China which comprises the triangular-shaped territory near Shanghai and includes southern Jiangsu Province and northern Zhejiang Province.

This area is notable in China for its distinctive dialect, architecture and its unique waterway transportation along the Grand Canal. Owing to its pleasantly warm and moist climate, it boasts a reputation of the ‘Land of Fish and Rice’. Relying on the near-by Yangtze River and ancient Grand Canal, it had been a port city with the busiest rice and cloth market in China before 19th century.

Besides being a rich cultural repository, Wuxi is blessed with charming natural beauty: the vast Tai Lake with its fascinating water scenes, the ‘Sea of Bamboo’ in Yixing, the Second Spring, Huishan Mountain — the ‘First Mountain South of Yangtze River’ — and so on. Various aspects of nature give you a new experience at every turn.

Located along the main intercity high-speed railway, Wuxi can easily reach Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and other regional hot-spots. The international airport flies directly to most major Chinese cities and other nearby transit hubs in Asia. The new metro line offers city dwellers convenient transportation to points of interest within the city.
With its moderate climate and beautiful natural surroundings, Wuxi is an attractive destination for people to live and work as well as for tourists. With plenty of parks and green spaces, mountains nearby and its proximity to the Yangtze and the Grand Canal, Wuxi offers attractions for all types of travelers, seekers and explorers.

Take a look at the ESL Suite job board for more about teaching jobs in China and in Wuxi City!

City Profile: Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China


The city of Shijiazhuang is the Provincial capital of Hebei Province and located just 170 miles from Beijing (about two hours by train). Just southwest of the capital city, the population of Shijiazhuang has swelled to just about 10 million people.
Shijiazhuang is in the heart of northern China and just a short distance from Peking, Xi’an and Qingdao. The city center is rapidly growing while the surrounding area offers mountains, Buddhist temples and fabulous scenery. The ancient walled city of Pingyao and the sacred Mount Tai are a short and cheap train journey away. Mount Cangyan is famous for its appearance in the movie “Hidden Tiger Leaping Dragon”.

The more frugal minded should be pleased to know the cost of living in Shijiazhuang is incredibly low compared with other cities in China. Buying fresh produce from street markets is very inexpensive and there are restaurants all over the city which are very reasonably priced.

Party-goers will find Shijiazhuang has several bars and pubs and dance clubs in the city including many 24-hour restaurants. In the summer the main attractions are the street restaurants – people set up barbecue pits along the streets and you can sit and eat and drink late into the evening or relax at one of the several beer gardens throughout the city. Several shopping malls have opened in Shijiazhuang which have modern supermarkets and other western staples such as Wal-Mart, H&M, Starbucks and others.

Shijiazhuang is a modern and vibrant city offering foreigners the real Chinese experience – the city only has but a few “外国人” (or waiguoren, which means literally, “outside country people”). Most of the people here speak Mandarin Chinese, so living in Shijiazhuang provides foreigners with an excellent opportunity to be immersed in the language.

Because of its eclectic mix of modern and classic Chinese features, many expats feel Shijiazhuang is northern China’s best kept secret.

Visit the ESL Suite homepage for ESL teaching jobs in China and in Shijiazhuang city!