Experiencing Culture Shock

Culture shock? Me? Nope, never. At least, that’s what I would have said a couple months ago. I thought that I might have been one of the lucky few who was immune. There were no sharp, skull-splitting pains, nor full-body convulsions due to familiarity withdrawal. This was how the word “shock” made me picture someone’s psyche, fracturing at their inability to process anything unfamiliar. It seemed antiquated and quaint, like a character from an HP Lovecraft novel where they lose their mind from seeing a never-before-discovered animal. Those silly people!

A year deep into my Beijing adventure, I finally researched culture shock and found myself in stage 3 of the 4-5 stages. I realized I had been in the grip of culture shock since stepping off the plane. Even the 6 months I spent in Australia had been sprinkled with it. My current experience is like a manual-transmission car, shifting between stages wherever I am: 3rd in China, 1st when visiting Germany, 5th when I returned home to Canada, and never seeming to find a comfortable place to park.

Stage 1 – Travel as a Grand Adventure

Most of us are familiar with stage 1. Popping over on vacation, spending a week or a month in a new, wonderful location. Look at that! How about this! So delicious, cool, and exotic! They do that here?? Oh man, why don’t we do this back home? And so on.

The people are so nice, the accents are novel and/or sexy, and the game of picking food from a picture-less menu can be a mini-adventure at every meal. From the comfort of our favourite armchair, we might assume that most post-globalization countries will have the same functional designs as us, more or less.

They don’t, of course. Even the things that “just make sense” our way. In the past year, I’ve encountered at least 10 different styles of faucets, each slightly different. Twist it, pull it, bop it.

In stage 1, you tend to be surrounded by fellow travellers who speak the same language as you, locals who politely cater to the tourist industry, and your foreign dollars earning you just that little bit “extra” that locals aren’t afforded. Oh, how wonderful it all is!

Like any good high, it comes to a screeching halt, leading us to…

Stage 2 – Sinking Reality (~3 months)

I lost my bank card. Think for a moment about how long replacing it might take you to get a new one. That in mind…

You arrive at the bank, and you’re the only customer. Great! In and out! The reception says something to you. What? They sigh, handing you a piece of paper with a number on it, then indicate for you to sit down. The numbers tick above the stalls the tellers, who sit behind plexiglass and communicate through low-quality, squawking boxes. Your number is eventually called, though you’re still the only one there. You tentatively approach. They speak in broken English and explain that they will be happy to help you get a new card if you show your documents. Last time you were in your home country, you renewed your passport, but your visa is glued in your old one which is also the one you registered your account with. You hand them both of your passports to prove your identity. More ID, more evidence, right? Wrong; this confuses them. Why two passports? Your picture and signature sure look alike, but the numbers are different! Why are the numbers different? You slap down documentation from your work and sign a piece of paper to show that it is, indeed, your signature on everything. Mmm, still not 100%. After punching in the correct password for the account, they remain agnostic on your identity. Some bargaining, pushing, pleading later, you walk out with your bank card. Elapsed time: 1h 45min.

This is just one of many, many, many examples I have from China. Full disclosure: I actually had someone from my work translating for me in this particular example. Generally, I can be patient, but something that should be simple, such as using ample ID to get a bank card, is like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.

Welcome to stage 2 – life has become nonsensical and everything is difficult.

The language barrier which began a quaint, fun game of charades has personified into an annoying man who stands between you and anyone else, waving his arms and fouling you like he’s trying to block a three-pointer. It’s times like this when you’ll risk buying conditioner instead of shampoo because you don’t want to bother wrestling the language man out of the way.

You may not be eating the best, overall environmental cleanliness might be lower, and you’ll encounter armies of foreign bacteria. It’s a lovely combination if you enjoy violent illness and spending time studying tiles in the bathroom while rocking back and forth. When sickness hits, you’ll have yet another institution to figure out, hopefully with help. I went to a public hospital once and had people shuffling around the door of the examination room, each vying to be next. They looked onward, either out of curiosity or to time their approach, as the doc inspected the current patient. I was thankful he I was there for something non-invasive.

Once you’re done with biological sickness, you’ll have to contend with its cousin: homesickness. Scoff all you like, as I had, but some people are actually driven to disappearing in the night without so much as a note. You’ll miss smells, people, places, foods, and music, but most of all you’ll miss oddly specific feelings, like when seasons, food, smells, and people come together. You’ll also miss being able to reliably find a comfortable bathroom for when emergencies hit. You’ll miss the ability to banter with service industry people.

What most affected me while in Australia was being isolated from everyone I knew. It’s easy enough to lose touch in the same city, but try staying in touch with a 35h series of flights and 12-13h time difference between you. Like me, you’ll likely make plenty of friends locally. The catch is that they’re also strapped to rockets with short timers, and each will take their turn to jet out of your life as quickly as they landed. As for meeting locals, how many backpacking foreigners do you come across on a daily basis?

Depending on which country you are living in – or squatting precariously on a visitor’s visa – you may be stared at on a regular basis. There will be bad days. Remember stories in gossip mags where celebrities blow off, scream at, or otherwise act rudely to fans? Let’s just say you’ll become more sympathetic to their situation. Sometimes it’s just not the right time to come up and touch you, take your picture, or stare, slack-jawed.

Four seasons had passed before I returned to Canada. On my flight back, I was shaken awake from a terrible nap with the urge to never return to China. This isn’t abnormal in stage 3, and is often the point when people say goodbye, giving in to the impulse. This may be a mistake, as it could leave you forever hating a country that you could otherwise come to see as a second home.

The rain eventually stops, the clouds part, and sanity begins to re-emerge by entering into…

Stage 3 – Rolling with the Punches (6-12 months)

Once you’ve been forged through the emotional fires of isolation, frustration, embarrassment, and homesickness, you come out the other side stronger, more resilient, and hopeful. You can function here. They may have different, comparatively frustrating ways of doing things, but you’ve been dealing with them long enough that you’ll be fine.

The main turning point for me was finally finding a competent, reliable map app, and having the Chinese-Uber (Didi) finally offer an English version. I no longer need to rely on my local friends whenever I wanted to quickly get a cab, nor run around frantically hunting for one to flag down. I no longer felt like a disabled puppy because of my infant-like language skills and had earned some level of functional freedom.

They say the bigger the problem you solve, the greater the feeling of accomplishment. Solving these issues resulted in an enormously satisfying mindgasm. It takes somewhere between 6-12 months in most countries to finally hit stage three, and China definitely took its damn time.

As I write this, I am still somewhere in the second half of this stage. I make an effort to speak with locals, though I don’t have any good friends who can’t speak English. I sometimes hang out with my girlfriend, who is Chinese, and her local friends who all speak Chinese – despite being capable of speaking English. Inevitably, I tire of trying to keep up with lightning-speed language and sink into a bored fatigue. This prompts them to ask why I’m in such a bad mood. I try to view it as practice for my Chinese listening skills or, at least, open-eyed meditation.

The country is no longer shockingly new, though there is still the occasional surprise – like seeing an old man walking a turtle. I never did find out if it was a pet or food. In general, you learn to focus on daily living, to deal with most simple problems, and to start viewing cultural differences in a positive light rather than pure annoyance.

You’re still not fully on board yet. That’s might be saved for…

Stage 4 – Becoming One with the Strange

This is the stage that gives you its number, then doesn’t answer your calls. It can take years or decades depending on how much someone insulates themselves from the environment surrounding them. You should be fluent in the local language by now, and understand how the institutions work. You can voice your opinion, and make friends with people who don’t speak your native tongue.

This does not mean you are totally converted. Instead, people in this stage are usually considered “bicultural”, where they’ve have adopted elements of the old mixed with the new.

Some people never climb to this height, as they choose to cling to their home culture, and only interact with others from similar backgrounds. That group will eventually return to their home, which has surprises of its own!

Stage 5 – Strike That; Reverse It

Home is no longer what you think it is. Things should be one way but have changed in obvious ways. Remember that amazing café with the best coffee in town, which had somehow expertly struck the balance of warm lighting, perfect-height-for-laptop-work tables and just enough space between seats? Well, that treasure burned down. Oh, sure, it still exists – now it’s a shit-filled shell of it’s former self, shoving an impossible number of tables into a space half its original size. Other things are more subtle, like a new A&W. Welcome to Bizarro World.

Remember the frustrations from Stage 2? Well they’ve rebranded! Home is supposed to be a place that puts you at ease, but now doesn’t match your memory. Instead you feel out of place. This uncanny valley is a combination of remembering your country fondly by forgetting the bad and amplifying the good, AKA idealization. While abroad, we seem to lose the mental landmark of “object permanence” and fall for the incorrect belief that home is just as we left it. Like in the good ol’ days your Grandpa invented and loves to revisit, home was never as good as you remember it to be, and it sure as hell wasn’t in stasis. The people back home are like boiling frogs, unable to notice the subtle change as it has progressed. You, on the other hand, are the frog tossed into the boiling water, reeling against the scalding water.

Pointing differences out to people just makes them think you’re weird. One friend told me he felt overwhelmed standing in Walmart back in the US. Why? When living in China, you see ads and signs all the time, but they’re just illegible pictures to us. Your brain processes them the same as you might street graffiti. In Walmart, however, his mind overloaded trying to process the countless signs screaming “SALE!” at him after having tossed the filter years ago.

After 11 months, I experienced a hint of reverse culture shock. My cousin picked me up from the airport and I kept pointing out how Toronto was a ghost town. The streets were empty of both street and foot traffic. “It’s 11pm on a Tuesday, of course there’s no one around” he pointed out. That’s not my normal anymore. In Beijing, there will always be 20+ people within eyesight if you’re standing on a street corner, no matter the time of day. 1am on a Sunday? Yep, there they all scatter.

Something as commonplace as going to a big box store or witnessing the Christmas rush can make you cringe and wonder what is wrong with your fellow countrymen. As another friend put it:

I went from living a colorful life in Indonesia to going to a grey store with florescent lights where people were buying 20 cinnamon rolls, 20 pounds of flour, or 500 ferrero rochers. It was during Christmas … Costco was blaring out plastic, tin-sounding carols while everyone was rushing to eat samples and buy too much of everything. So fucking strange.

The main character in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 becomes “unstuck from time”. Instead of time, expats can become “unstuck from familiarity”, adrift with a cork anchor. I’ve read that the readjustment to home can be more difficult than the initial adjustment away.

Luckily, this isn’t always the case. There appears to be three primary common outcomes for people who move abroad:

  1. Rejecters – As mentioned in Stage 4, some people isolate themselves and reject the culture, eventually moving home. This group, ironically, also tends to have the most trouble re-integrating. Not entirely sure why that is. Best guess: these people fall head-over-heels for their romantic notions of home. Upon landing, they are even more distraught that their utopia doesn’t actually exist. You can’t go back to a place that only ever existed in your head.
  2. Adopters – Roughly 10% of expats stay in the new country, shedding their original identity and take on all parts of the new culture.
  3. Cosmopolitans – ~30% of expats hold onto the positive aspects of their new country while also maintaining some of the ones they arrived with. They create their own blend of old and new, typically having a relatively easy time returning home or relocating to another country.
  4. ??? – Everyone else, I guess. The above were the only groups that I came across.

Culture shock is not the most uplifting of experiences, but it certainly is eye-opening. It’s important to say that it was all a worthwhile, as some who read this may feel that they might just stay home in the comfortable bosom of Netflix, King, and Country. The things I have taken from these (mis)adventures will certainly stick with me for a lifetime and have helped shape me into a more durable, adaptable person.

Home now feels like life on easy mode. Are there days I wish I was back there? Of course. But these urges come and go, and I learn to enjoy my new country a little more with every month that passes. Ask me again in a year.

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