Five days ago, I was on the other side of the globe. Exhausted from twelve weeks of attempting to keep up with this fast-paced Mecca of the international business world, I was still not ready to extract myself from the extrovert’s haven that is Shanghai. This is the land of business cards and alcohol, where the networking maniacs of the West flock to jump into the Eastern financial “boom”, assuming that the “bust” is nowhere in sight. For one brief summer, I was a part of this cultural mish-mash, ecstatic to surround myself with the expats, entrepreneurs, and “students of life” that are so enthusiastic to be exposed to the challenges of living in such a foreign, yet increasingly Westernized, environment. Being a student of psychology, the best way for me to summarize my experience in China is to describe the mental processes I used to adapt. Looking back on my little adventure, I can easily identify the points at which I hit the various stages of Culture Shock, and it is through this cycle that I feel others can catch a better glimpse of my path of growth.
CULTURE SHOCK STAGES
The effects of Culture Shock Stage One are the only reason I was able to make it through my first afternoon in Shanghai without lashing out against the thieving, manipulative locals found prowling about in the touristy parts of town, hungry for fresh weiguoren (foreigners) from whom they can pocket a healthy years’ living in one foul swoop. I chose bravely (or, rather, ignorantly!) to venture out into the city alone shortly after my arrival. Before the sun had even set, I had been tea-scammed by a quartet of eerily convincing college kids and had my camera stolen from my purse in broad daylight.
While under normal circumstances I may have fled home in tears, a feeling of euphoric awe, so typical of this first stage, led me instead to think of how lucky I was to learn such important lessons this early in the trip and how important my money and camera would be to these penniless vultures, now sitting on what must seem to them like a mountain of wealth. During the earliest weeks, I was almost overwhelmed with this excitement and awe, seeing everything in an artificially positive light.
This radiance waned quickly as I was immersed in the bitterness and opposition of Culture Shock Stage Two. I had become a bit of an irritable mess. The traits of local coworkers that I had once found only mildly distracting and even perhaps humorous at times now seemed to be absolutely unbearable. The belching, slurping, and smacking during meals, the lack of detail orientation and generally disengaged work ethic, and, above all else, their inability to speak English with proper grammar (heavens, no!) led me to withdraw to my cubicle for solitude rather than to even attempt to socialize with what I saw as inexcusably incompetent employees. To counterbalance this effect, and to maintain my sanity, I immersed myself in the Western crowd, both at work and outside, spending time only with English speakers from non-Asian countries.
Many foreigners seem to become stuck in Stage Two; they never attempt to speak the language, find ways around eating the foreign food, and can’t use chopsticks as anything more than coffee stirrers. Thankfully, being an insatiably curious individual, I sought a deeper knowledge and understanding of the culture. In early July, I began to lighten up more with my coworkers. We were able to laugh at one another’s oddities. I smiled each time I heard “oh, we are so busy!” when no one had made an attempt at anything productive all day; I giggled with anyone who was obviously entertained by my feeble attempts at Chinese pronunciations; I learned never to expect a straight answer no matter how direct the question; and I even developed a toleration of my colleagues’ favorite local dishes, such as duck tongue, pig intestine, and (yes, oh, yes!) the dreaded stinky tofu.It was an incredible relief to enter this third culture shock stage, as I gradually started to find a balance between the best sides of both worlds and a tolerance for the things that I could not appreciate in each.
As for Stage Four, I am under the impression that this peak of immersion is most likely unattainable for any non-Asian Westerner in China. My first morning on the job, our Australian GM gave me a run-down of what to expect from the culture. The first year you’re here, he explained, you have no idea what’s going on in the minds of the locals. After two years, you think you know it all. Another year goes by, and you realize that you’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg– the Chinese culture is one that we cannot possibly understand without sharing their genetic ethnicity, history, and upbringing.
Again and again, I have been told that the Chinese people are the most insular of any group in the developed (or, in this case, partially-developed) world. You can never be one of them. Hence, Culture Shock Stage Four, the level of full cultural integration and a sense of belonging, is a height that I doubt I could ever reach.
Having skipped the latter stage (typical in this cycle of immersion), I am now prepared to dive into the final phase of the process – the harshest of them all, so they say – the dreaded “repatriation”. I hear it sneaks up on you without warning. Prepared to return to your normal routine, you come home to discover that (gasp!) you’re not the same person that left! To add to the trauma, you discover that your friends and family have not been frozen in time during your absence, nor have they been shedding tears of withdrawal for every second that you’ve been gone. Having been abroad for less than three months, however, part of me feels as if I’ve never left.
Sure, it’s exciting to be able to see the stars at night and to breathe easily without hacking up the phlegm of pollution-coated lungs every other minute, but things are also generally the same. The Chattanooga mountains are as eye-catching as ever and the overload of combined work/school life has returned with a vengeance. It seems that three months is not quite long enough to miss out on anything, for better or for worse.
Despite the familiarity of home, there are subtle differences I notice in myself. While the rest of the world has kept spinning as usual, I’m the one that has changed. Shanghai exposed me to more than just Chinese culture; rather, this city was a mesh of people on global adventures, and I had the great benefit of getting to know people from all over the world. I was able to hear opinions of my home nation from European, Australian, and South American perspectives, and I learned about the policies, trends, and general lifestyles of a variety of cultures. Seeing that my three best friends were from Singapore, Austria, and Norway, there was a great deal of anti-American sentiment surrounding me, but somehow I managed to keep my own quiet sense of patriotism afloat. It is a great feeling to be able to intertwine the viewpoints of the outside world with those in which I have been immersed for a lifetime.
After a few days back in the states, it is nice to reflect on this hectic summer of networking, fun, and growth. I am maintaining contact with friends across the globe; many of us have promised to reunite in Shanghai someday soon.
Acquaintances for future career moves are stored in my address book, as well. In addition to people, I feel that it is crucial to keep in touch with the new, transnational line of thought that I have only just begun to develop. With this in mind, I am determined to return to the international lifestyle ASAP. Every minute that I am away from that world, I realize more and more just how ethnocentric we become when we limit our exposure to outside perspectives.
Although I do miss the pampering and VIP lifestyle that comes from being a blue-eyed, blonde-haired American in China, I feel pangs of withdrawal even more from the lack of cultural challenge here at home; I don’t feel as if I’m pushed everyday to evaluate the justification of my beliefs; I’m not constantly confronted with the “uncivilized” behavior of a less-developed society; and, most ironically frustrating, there is no struggle to communicate with others. I am terrified of becoming comfortable in my simple, familiar world of the Southeast U.S.
A more trans-cultural lifestyle is screaming for me, and as soon as I can escape the graduate school ball-and-chain, I’ll be right back out there for more.
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