This is a part of a series of 6 articles I have written on the topic of dealing with Culture Shock while living in China. To read the previous article, click here. | To read the next article, click here.
When I came to China the first time, it was in 2009 in Shanghai right before the Chinese Spring Festival, the Chinese equivalent of Christmas and New Year’s Eve combined into one. Everywhere I went was filled with happy people, red lanterns, cheap food and tall skyscrapers. I loved it.
I had been talking to a local Chinese girl named Wenjuan who lived and worked in Shanghai. She was not really a local she is originally from Nanchang but she has lived in Shanghai for a couple of years and we were good friends. She was in between jobs and we had arranged to meet and for her to be my guide while I was there.
She took me around, translated for me since I knew no Chinese and she made sure everything went well. Because of her, when I was in Shanghai everything was easy. All I experienced was the vacation type culture shock when everything was new and exciting because I never had to take care of anything myself. She solved all my problems and I never had any worries. I left Shanghai after two weeks feeling happy and with a bag and mind full of memories and experiences.
When I moved to China in summer 2010 the experience quickly changed though. After my initial month of training in Beijing I moved to Changsha in Hunan province where I had my first teaching job.
At first everything was great. Because we worked in a school with a lot of English speaking teachers, life was easy, they pretty much handled everything for us. And so, in the beginning, even though you cannot understand the local people and they do not understand you, it doesn’t matter because there is not much you need to take care of anyway.
So life is good, every day is a new experience and something as simple as going to the supermarket alone for the first time is exciting and a challenge to conquer. The first time you ride a bus and get off two stops too late or too early is considered a success and the first time you talk to a local girl and get just a little bit further than hello is considered almost reaching second base.
New people, the food and all the tastes, listening to the language and taking in all the culturally different experiences. Life is cool and for the first few months I was in heaven. I didn’t make much money, I didn’t like my school that much but the experience of living in China was amazing. I loved every second of it.
All the while I was enjoying my new life, however, I also always had in mind that at some point, my feelings about this place would change. For some it takes a long time to come back up and for others it takes just a few weeks. I have been on numerous long holidays before, from a couple of days to several weeks in length, and I know exactly what the initial euphoria feels like. For someone who is well-traveled this can be a powerful tool because you can tell when the feeling starts to wear off and when excitement is replaced with anger, confusion and depression. For me, personally, I have been through all of this once already. I spent a semester in Australia during my high school and I certainly reached a point where I was constantly homesick, missing my girlfriend back in Denmark, my family and friends and I was very unmotivated at school. Now, Australia is an English speaking country and while the culture is a bit different, people were generally easy to speak to. This means that the shock was nowhere near as severe as it could have been for me.
In China, the story is a little different. I will get to this in my next post. But what I mean to say is, culture shock is something that you can, and should, prepare for. It certainly helped me and while I was enjoying my time I was also preparing myself for what I knew was bound to come later.
I made sure I had a network of friends, foreign and local and I tried to make a habit of speaking with.my family as often as I could. I tried to learn and understand the cultural differences between my home and China, so that if something happened I would at least have a vague idea of what was going on.
Culture shock can ruin your travel experience and I have witnessed foreign teachers who left in the middle of their contracts because they could not adjust. There is no shame in that, leaving your home country is a tough decision.