Prior to moving to China, I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t research Chinese culture, I didn’t consider picking up some survival Mandarin, I didn’t even consider the fact that I could and definitely would go through all four stages of culture shock.
During my 24 hours in transit from Phoenix, Arizona to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, I had only one thing on my mind: I was going to see my boyfriend for the first time in six months.
I was so occupied with this thought that I could literally not think of anything else. I didn’t consider how I would even get my bags at the Beijing airport, or how I would board my next flight to Hohhot. So, when I landed in Beijing on zero sleep, no caffeine, eyes bugged-out, hair not brushed and wrinkled clothes; I lost it.
I was so delirious that I forgot I was in an English speaking international airport. Everything there is extremely convenient and had been recently renovated because of the 2008 Olympics. All the staff is warm-hearted, and there are signs in English everywhere.
Unfortunately, it had just hit me that I was in a foreign country. I was so overwhelmed with this idea that I didn’t even consider asking the staff to help me. I got all teary-eyed and decided to make that four-dollar per minute phone call to my boyfriend.
He told me what any sensible person would, “Calm down. Ask for help.”
So, I sniffled, wiped my eyes, and then asked for help. Needless to say, I was helped.
I had darted past the one of the first stages of culture shock and dove directly into the I-hate-this-place-get-me-out-of-here stage.
Stage One: Infatuation
During the early stages of culture shock, you’re in awe. If you were to see an apple at this point, you might think it was by far the most brilliant apple you had ever laid eyes on. This apple is in no way different from the apples you are well acquainted with back home. But right now, it’s marvelous.
Seeing as how my boyfriend had been here six months longer than me, he had to deal with all of my excitement, “Look!” “Woah!” “Did you see that?!” “They drive on the same side of the road as us!”
Again, he did what any sensible boyfriend would do that was sick of hearing his girlfriend scream.
He bought me a puppy.
This has kept me pretty distracted over the last two years.
The city I live in, Hohhot, is pretty run down, which is what I still particularly like about it. It’s dirty, the people have no manners, and there are loads of stray dogs. Seeing this in America makes me feel disappointed, but during my first month in China, I couldn’t deny that charm.
My advice: Live it up. This is your honeymoon stage that should be taken full advantage of. Do some exploring and become one with this exciting new culture.
Stage Two: Self-Negotiation
I’ll be straightforward. These stages of culture shock aren’t any fun. Some people just never come out of it. Depending on who you are, this stage comes anywhere from the first week to even three months after landing.
While experiencing this stage, you’ll be saying a lot of, “Back home we do it like this.” or, ” We have this back home. Why isn’t it here?”
Not only are you constantly comparing your current life to your old life, you’re missing certain foods, people, places, and you’re having a communication breakdown depending on the tier of your new home. Living in a third tier city, like myself, you absolutely, positively, must speak survival Mandarin at the very least.
I can’t count how many times I’ve racked up a tab joy riding in a taxi just because I didn’t know how to say, “Stop!”
Trying “Okay, okay, okay,” doesn’t really cut it with these guys.
If you’re living in a city like Beijing, speaking Mandarin is not mandatory and most foreigners who do speak it are either doing business, students, or are purely interested.
My advice: The best way to get out of this stage as quickly as possible is to explore your neighborhood, frequent a small restaurant, make some Chinese friends, study a little bit of Mandarin, spend time with the staff at your school, and above all, create a routine.
Stage Three: Adjustment
So you’ve made some friends, picked up some useful terms in Mandarin, sampled some great dishes, and you could possibly even have a new love interest. You’ve been in China somewhere between six and eight months and you’re adjusting to day-to-day life expectations.
You now know where you can get a quick, cheap breakfast, you know what nights are best to go out and have a beer at your neighborhood pub, your teaching skills have drastically improved, in addition to the relationship you’ve created with your students.
Let’s not get carried away, you’re still craving western food, you’re still making occasional comparisons, and you’re still likely to get upset at people staring at you, asking to take your picture etc. Particularly, since you’re starting to feel like a local yourself. You just want to be treated normally.
My advice: Keep on keepin’ on. You’ve already made it this far and you’re so close to being a master expat. People staring at you will soon be unnoticeable. Your language skills are going to develop rapidly as you start to practice speaking and listening more, your social circle will strengthen, and you will miss the little things from home less and less.
Stage Four: Master
You’ve made it! There is a good chance you understand 70-80% of the culture you’re in. Your Mandarin has improved substantially, you can go to a restaurant and order meals without looking at a picture menu, and you even find yourself fighting over who pays the bill when dining with your Chinese friends. You could possibly be the local tour guide for new expats. Don’t be shy, now. You deserve a high-five!
My advice: To arrive at this stage is extremely satisfying. You’ve made it in a new country for about a year and definitely deserve praise. A few things to keep in mind; you still don’t know everything about this new culture, continuously be open to trying and learning new things, especially if traveling through China.
Each province has their own traditions and they should always be honored. Most importantly, don’t forget about your own culture! You should still be proud of where you came from. Get a VPN and follow up with your home country’s pop culture and current events. Be able to proudly represent the journey you’ve been through.