Culture shock in China is the inability to understand and react to what’s going on around you. For example, the first time you go to the post office or wait in line for a Metro ticket, several people may cut in front of you, perhaps rudely nudging you out of the way in the process.
At home, you could simply say “Excuse me” and expect the violator of common etiquette to move aside and wait their turn. However, when it happens in China (and it most certainly will) you may feel totally unable to control the situation. This feeling of helplessness is common and to be expected. Helplessness easily turns into frustration and stress. The way people react to stress varies. Some feel depressed and isolated, some become irritable and some react with cultural chauvinism – giving the impression that the way they do things back home is the best way, and locals are just not clever enough to figure it out. Depending on your own awareness of culture shock, as well as the amount of support you receive, it can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Experts say that almost everyone experiences culture shock in stages.
What a wonderful world! In this initial stage, Shanghai can do no wrong. It’s thrilling to see China up close. Interactions with the locals are seen as small victories, the local Chinese food is wonderful – even if you can barely identify it – and each excursion is an adventure into a new land to be laboriously retold to friends and family back home.
What in the world am I doing here? After a while, the euphoria of new travel fades. Your brain begins to notice patterns in your routines and the feeling of being an outsider sets in. It gets tiring to walk in crowds, get shoved in lines and dodge taxis who lay on their horn as if it was your fault for being on the pedestrian crossing. Trying to learn basic Mandarin Chinese is too difficult and seems pointless. In this stage, you may find yourself spending a lot of time on the phone or Internet complaining about Shanghai, perhaps daydreaming of being back home.
Shanghai is my new home. The day will come when you meet new friends who’ve been here less time than you. It’s somehow a pleasure to offer them pointers. You know some Chinese – enough to order food, direct a taxi driver and greet your neighbours. There are social events to attend and a trip to the post office is no longer so daunting an obstacle. When someone attempts to nudge you out of the way, you can confidently say “duibuqi”! In this stage, when you’re on the phone with your friends at home, you’re telling them to come and visit you.
Get a Grip
So what should you do to keep culture shock under control? There are measures you can take to mitigate the negative aspects.
1) Get to know your immediate locale. You may be in a foreign city, but being familiar with a few neighbourhood restaurants, Shanghai markets and green areas will at least allow you to feel that you have control over your immediate domain.
2) Start a journal. This is an invaluable tool. A journal will force you to reflect on your own feelings and consequently get you thinking about ways to control them. It will also be a priceless experience to read it a year later when you’re an old hand in Shanghai.
3) Sign up for a Chinese class. Knowing even a few phrases right away makes a big difference when speaking to your ayi or the neighborhood shopkeeper. It’s also a good way to meet other expats.
4) Gain a new perspective. After all, you’re in an entirely new place. Try to be an explorer and see things existentially, learning from a way of life embraced by over 1 billion people. Keep in mind that when Chinese people visit your country, they experience culture shock as well.