Culture shock in China

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as: “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”

In my words, culture shock is what you experience when you go to another place and see things you are not used to seeing back at home. That is when you are constantly stunned, amazed, and open-mouthed in a better or worst way. You must adapt to the different customs and traditions that the hosting place has if you want to enjoy the most of it!

Stages of culture shock

Personally, I consider that culture shock has four stages: in the first place, the honeymoon phase, as it is called; secondly the frustration phase; thirdly the adjustment phase; and finally, but not least, the acceptance phase. Hey, and a fifth one! Don’t forget about the reverse culture shock. Let’s take a close look at them, exemplifying the most typical culture shock experiences that expats and foreigners have in China.

Honeymoon phase

Wow. Yes, you made it. You are in China. Definitely you are shockingly moved by tumultuous thoughts and feelings. You are in a new country, you have new aims and you are about to experience a new culture. Motivation, excitement, hope, interest… You feel you are ready to start this adventure because you are full of enthusiasm. It seems that all your dreams and plans about coming to China, become true. And yes, they did.

Rejection phase

Doing things you are not used to, it is sometimes difficult to handle it. Without a doubt, the language barrier makes it worst. The struggle is real. It is so hard to get used to too many and different things in a short period of time. Therefore, the differences between you and the hosting country citizens become really apparent. Irritating feelings start to show up. The frustration sets in. To sum it up: you are confused and misunderstandings are really common in your daily life, so does anxiety.

Adjustment phase

You had been already crying for too many days. It is time to see it in another way. Therefore, you must change your mind and do not give up. As a consequence, you start to develop strategies in order to cope with the difficulties that you have to go through. Adaption is the word. There is no other option than to adapt to the host culture.

“The one who doesn’t try it is the one who loses’

Acceptance phase

Accept it. Enjoy it. In the end, you will embrace and enhance those cultural differences. You learn the benefits of different customs and traditions. The other country, the one you were seeing as the host, becomes your new home. Get used to it. Integration is the key.

Reverse culture shock

It’s a different kind of culture shock but it does also exist. And, honestly, it happens. It consists of when you get back to your home and have to get used again to everything that once was normal for you. As a demonstrative example, when I first came back home… I was so used to hold the bowl while eating that I was still doing it at home. My family was astonished.

Types of culture shock

Food in China

Food has always been such an issue for a picky eater like me. Besides, being aware that occidental and oriental food is really different, I was excited but also afraid.

I always say that “you can know a country by the products they sell in their supermarkets”. So, there I went. Sometimes an image shows more than a thousand words and … there it is:

China even has a different way to eat: no forks, no knives, CHOPSTICKS! They also use spoons but, personally, I preferred to try using chopsticks. It was challenging.

Rice and noodles are the main dishes. In the beginning, to eat noodles was so challenging: I couldn’t eat with chopsticks, either with a spoon. Those spoons are too deep and big; I am not used to them either.

Another challenging and culture shocking fact are that they do not eat as many times as we do the Mediterranean diet followers: five times per day. While they eat three.

Spicy food

Nothing much to say… Dang! Everything is extremely spicy in Hunan province and in Huaihua city. It was hard to bear with that. My stomach can’t handle that level of spiciness.

I had already passed through the honeymoon and rejection phases. So, I decided to start eating in western restaurants even there were few. Let me remark that back in 2016, Huaihua didn’t have McDonald’s!!! Luckily, I had some food from my country, which I could take with me and my family had sent me♥.  

My advice: do not give up. Keep trying it. In the end, you are there for that reason: to live new experiences, to try new things. Luckily for me, I met so many caring people. One of them, Anna, she used to teach me how to use chopsticks. I was kinda disaster with them, just look 3 months being in China and…

Being famous

It is such an exciting feeling, for real. Once you put a step out, everyone starts to approach you. But… no one speaks English. And … I didn’t know Chinese. Most of them just ask for a picture or to add you to Wechat, a famous and must-have app in China.

Traveling solo and without being able to speak even a word in Chinese… it gets hard.  It is so overwhelming and stressful… You are on the bus and… FLASH in your face! Another photo… The enthusiasm of Huaihua citizens for seeing a foreigner for the first time in their lives was …. It is hard to describe. I mean, in the end, you find it funny and you get used to it. You end meeting lots of new people and new friends.

Squat toilet

SURPRISE!!! At the first moment, it is exciting and quite funny, because it is something new. After a few days, you miss your western toilet, your “normal toilet”. During the adjustment phase, you learn its benefits. There is an acceptation, once you see the positive side.

Chinese squat toilet

Exercising and dancing on the squares

All around China it is common to see people dancing on the streets and squares at early hours or at night. They dance or they stretch themself out just to exercise or release their stress. At first-sight is quite shocking. Then, you realize how important it is to be healthy and stress-free. They achieve it through exercise and dance. In this way, they create a nice atmosphere that makes you want to join them. In fact, I did it:

Driving

It is shocking to see that they do not use helmets. As it is also shocking to see more than 5 people in a car or more than 2 people in a motorbike. No helmets and no seat belts fastened. Something quite impossible to see back at home.

“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly”

― Barbara Haines Howett, Ladies of the Borobudur

First days in China

It seemed that two weeks had passed since I left my home; since I said goodbye to my loved ones. Yet it was just three days and, finally, I did it to Huaihua 怀化. Yes, finally. Do you remember the long flying trip; the first night in Changsha? Little by little, tiredness and jet lag were taking control of me. I was exhausted but I didn’t want to lose anything. Even that, I took a nap at the three hours train. For me, it felt like a blink of an eye. I could hear: “Wake up, we arrived”. I knew the message was for me because I was the only foreigner in the whole train, the only English speaker over there.

High-speed train ticket

Price: 152.5 ¥

Time: about 3 hours

High-speed train. Changsha – Huaihua

The feeling of being observed was constant. Honestly, I didn’t like it. I could understand them though. Most of them had never seen a foreigner in their lives. Well, maybe yes: in a movie.

On the road

We took a taxi from Huaihua Railway South Station, which was on one side of the city, to the Huaihua University Campus where international students like me, would study, on the other side.

HUAIHUA (怀化)

On the way: high-rise buildings on construction which made me realize the speed that China keeps developing; cars passing us and changing their directions without using at any moment flashing car lights, just using the horn of their vehicles. The noise was loud and constant. Lots and lots of motorbikes were also on the road, using the same “noise system” and no helmets. I even saw, on the first-line, an accident. Fortunately, it was just a little crash. As a consequence, I was shocked and a little bit insecure when I realized the taxi driver’s way of driving: quite fast, no seat belt fastened and… watching a movie. Can you believe it? I couldn’t at that moment. Later on, I would see it as something usual or even normal.

Traffic jam in front of my room

Changsha vs Huaihua

On our way, I could also appreciate some differences between Changsha 长沙 (the capital of Hunan province), and Huaihua 怀化, a prefecture-level city of four million and a half citizens, more or less. Changsha was more crowded, it has about seven million and a half citizens.

The roads were similar: long, wide and big, but, of course, with more lanes in Changsha. Huaihua doesn’t have an airport, Changsha it does. Huaihua didn’t have metro back in those days, I don’t know about nowadays. Changsha had and has a metro.

Around Changsha

The pollution level is less in Huaihua: the sky was less grey and, even though it was also polluted, it was cloudless. I felt the Sun, though, still far away. 

CHANGSHA (长沙)

Huaihua University

Huaihua University, 怀化学院, had two Campuses. The main one was more centered, while the one where I was studying was on the outside of the city. Both were huge. In the Campus were all facilities: dorm rooms, libraries, gymnasium, athletics track, canteen, etc. International students like me lived in a new dorm room apartment. It would take me months to remember the address: Huaihua Xueyuan Dongqu 怀化学院东区. That wasn’t the hardest part though.

怀化学院东区

Huaihua University Views

My dorm room

During three months I was alone in a two people room. Then I started to share it with a new international student from Nepal due to I was the only person from Spain and she was the only girl from her country. When you have to spend one year in a place, you need to make your house your home. Your room must be cozy so I covered the walls with pictures and a calendar and I bought new bedsheets and a pillow. It was just the beginning.

Chinese toilet

It was a big room with new furniture. Everything was new: bed, mattress, desktop, wardrobe, washing machine… Honestly, it was a nice dorm room. Where was the problem then? Definitely, the problem was the bathroom. I am used to a seat toilet. Chinese people use squash toilets, another case of cultural shock.  But again, that wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest was that the shower tray was the same squash toilet. Yep, that’s how it was…

Things to do at arrival

Police registration

As a foreigner who holds a student visa, you have 30 days to register in the police station the place where you will live. Therefore, you get a resident permit, stamped in your passport apart from your Visa. In the resident permit, it says when you will have to leave the country.

SIM Card

In my case, the university helped me to get a SIM Card in order to be able to communicate with family and friends; it’s not enough but it is necessary. You just have to go to a Chinese telephone shop and buy one, always showing your passport.

Internet censorship

There is Internet censorship in China, which affects most of the apps I normally use in my country: Whatsapp, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, etc. In another article, I will talk about must-have apps in China.

Bank account

Even I was a student; I had to open a new bank account. I opened it in ICBC due to the same bank card had two different bank accounts: one for inside the university and another one outside the university. In the same university canteen, you could fill up the card. That is, in the university’s canteen you pay with your bank card. The same was in order to pay the light and water bills.

Citizens

Being famous

Let’s bring up, again, the issue of being stared. I spent almost a week waiting for the other international students to arrive, as I decided to go earlier in order to be able to start adapting to everything. So, the point was that every time I decided to put a step out of my room, I was feeling like a superstar. I am not kidding. People were coming to me so excited; they wanted to look at me, to touch me, to talk to me, to ask me things that I couldn’t understand… And yeah, I won’t forget about the photography part. It was crazy, for real. Every day I could take photos with more than 50 people. I had a mix of feelings: confused, excited, tired, disoriented, etc.

Caring people

I love this part of my adventure: caring people. Luckily for me, I met lots of caring people and I would dare to say that most of the Chinese people are very willing to help even the language barrier. You would incredibly be shocked about how many people had helped me during those days and I won’t forget about any of them. For me, it is nice to remember about it because, at that moment, I couldn’t even pronounce a word in Chinese. Therefore it means that I couldn’t understand or even speak to no one. No English in Huaihua. No, zero. Chinese is the language. It took me a few days to realize it but, it took me such a long time to be able to simply communicate with someone.

Arrival in China

I would like to mention the fact that I am writing this article in 2020, even I arrived in China for the first time in September 2016. And, yeah, I know, 4 years has been passed. But, I swear that none of the feelings I had at that moment had been forgotten. Being able to write about it 4 years later, in perspective, it makes me realize I was an adventurer.

Living abroad, far from your family, your home, your culture sometimes is scary. The fact of going out from your comfort zone and change everything that you were used to is an incredible and pretty scary experience. Especially when you have to start the trip and go to another country where you don’t know anything about it. Even so, you have to take the risk if you want to live your life wildly.

Views from the airplane window

Flying

So, I did it. I started my adventure taking a flight from Barcelona to Amsterdam, which was about two hours and a half. Land and wait almost five hours to take the next plane. Eleven hours and a half were the duration of the next flight: from Amsterdam to Guangzhou, in Spanish Cantón. Again, land and wait three hours and a half. Finally, the last flight: from Guangzhou to Changsha, this took about one hour fifteen minutes. Did you count the hours? It sounds … long, and yes, I swear it was.

Flight information (Amsterdam to Guangzhou)

Landing in China

Once I got to Guangzhou and put my first step on Chinese land, I was nervous. Honestly, since the moment I said goodbye to my family and left them. But, being aware I was already in China for the first time was making me have those feelings that are hard to describe but, without a doubt, we all know the feelings you have when you get for the first time in another place: nervousness, intrigue… 

Flights were not only long but also exhausting, so were layovers. It should be noted that during my first layover in China, Guangzhou, I additionally walked around the terminal even I was extremely tired. Undoubtedly, I went to search for a smoking area and once I found it and I entered… ALL the people inside the room were staring at me. It was quite shocking. All of them were men on their fifties. For them, I am pretty sure it was shocking too. I was an occidental, 21-year-old girl, traveling alone and smoking; something not common for them, I guessed at that moment and could verify later on.  

Curiosity

China doesn’t allow to enter the country with a lighter. Now you will say, but Miriam, you explained you went to a smoking room at the airport; yes, it’s true. Then, how you light up your cigarette? Let me show you how:

Lighter in the smoking area at the airport

Can you imagine my face? I didn’t even understand how to use it so I waited until someone used it and … I got it! Indeed you just have to press a button and then the resistor turns on. For this reason, as an advice, don’t forget it: do not bring a lighter with you when traveling to China.

Arrival

After such a long trip I did to Changsha 长沙, which is the capital of Hunan province. Luckily for me, the person that I had been in contact with from the University was waiting for me. I remember it was noon, even I felt disoriented and I didn’t even know which day it was. Everywhere was quite crowded. The sun was something above in the sky, I felt it far. I couldn’t even see it at all. The sky was kind of grey and foggy. I could just follow the University representative and keep having the feeling that everyone was staring at me. Maybe I was looking so confused… or just so different from them.

First moments around Changsha

Firstly, we took a bus to the city center and once there we took a taxi that got us until the place where I would sleep that night. Even the blink of an eye was useless: too busy being focused on looking at everything. Those long, wide and crowded roads, the skyscrapers, lots of buildings on construction, the lights, the sky… Definitely, it left me speechless.

Building on construction

Without a doubt I will write an article about Cultural Shock but, at that moment, what shocked me more was that all citizens were riding motorbikes without helmets and even more the fact that more than 2 people were riding the same bike, even whole families.

Citizens riding bikes without helmets

We got to the high-rise building, full of apartments. At the principal entrance, I could see the red symbol and I asked about it. The explanation: “A couple who lives in this building just got married”. Nice way to share their happiness with their neighbors, I thought.

I asked to go and have something to put in my stomach. After all the long trip by plane, without resting well at all and without eating well at all either, (for all it is known the high-quality food that is served in the planes, plus, for all those who don’t know it, I am such a picky eater), I needed to eat, take a shower and rest. I didn’t dare to try Chinese food on my first day in the country, so I just opt for a hamburger.

Second day in Changsha

I was told that I had to spend the night in Changsha because the next day I had to go to the hospital in order to get new medical checks. Yes, I got medical checks in Spain but once you arrive in China, you have to get new ones. Luckily, I just had to get one medical check: an echography. Waiting in a long queue were only girls from all over the world.  

Medical check building

Going to Huaihua

As we finished the medical checks, it was time to take a high-speed train and go to Huaihua 怀化, where I spent one year as an international student, which would really change my life and I wasn’t even conscious about it…

High-speed train

From Spain to China

How all started

All started with an email from my Spanish University where it was written: “Scholarship to study the Chinese language during one course at the University of Huaihua, Hunan, China”

China?, Why not?

I would never believe in studying for one year in China. Traveling has always been a passion and, I consider myself a lucky girl because since I was a kid I always had the opportunity to travel and visit different countries. However, I have never been to an Asian country and, being honest, I was not the kind of person that was really attracted or interested in Asian culture (no offense). Even though, once I read that email I said to myself: “Why not?” As a famous quote of a Chinese philosopher says:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

Lao Tzu

So, I decided to take that extraordinary opportunity and apply for the scholarship.

Stand by

I send all the documentation to my Spanish University because they only offered two places. When they send to me the email of the resolution of the scholarship I was really nervous. Unluckily, within the two people they chose, it was not me. I was the second person on the waiting list. I was extremely sad because I already had the illusion and I didn’t have much hope that those people turn the scholarship down. As I already finish the course at my University I was not checking the email often. Four days after I checked the email again and … surprise! The scholarship was for me. I was overjoyed and I couldn’t believe it. I replied to the message quickly asking what I had to do. They ask me to send “some” documentation… 

What do I need to study in China?

The following list is all the documents I was required to send to the Chinese University in order to apply for a “Student Visa”:

  • Application Form for International Students
  • Foreigner Physical Examination Form
    • Blood test
    • Electrocardiogram
    • Chest x-ray
    • Serodiagnosis
  • Statement of student status and transcript from current university
  • High school diploma
  • Copies of my passport
  • Document accepting the scholarship
  • Non-criminal record certificate

Documentation

Some of these documents were only filling up forms but some of them took more time. For example the Foreigner Physical Examination Form; I had to take a chest x-ray and attached to the email but, I had to ask in the hospital to record on a CD. The electrocardiogram was only about scan the paper and send it. As I had to go to China, the blood test was not a common one; I mean, they were asking about some diseases like yellow fever, AIDS, cholera, etc. It took time and a lot of days going to see doctors.

The other document that took me a while to achieve was the non-criminal record certificate. In Spain, everyone who has to be in contact with the minor child has to have this document. You cannot have it on the Internet so I had to go to Barcelona.

Fortunately, Barcelona is just about one hour by car from my home. I went expressly to the capital of Catalonia for the paper but, once I arrived there, the queue was really long. Already inside the office and I asked for a paper to wait for my turn, and … I couldn’t believe what they said to me: “We open at 9.30 and we close at 13.00. Today it will be impossible to do it because, as you can see, there are a lot of people waiting” My question was: “So, how can I do it?” Their answer: “You should come tomorrow at around 5 o’clock in the morning”. And, this is what I did. The next day I went with my father to Barcelona, going out of my home at 4 o’clock in the morning and wait in line for 4 eternal hours.

Waiting process

Once I sent all the information I just had to wait they send me the admission letter and the necessary documents to go to the consulate and apply for the visa. When I went to the consulate to apply for the visa I took all the documentation with me and they said in one exact week I would have to go there again to pick up my visa. I went on Wednesday but on Friday they called me asking for my old passport. In Spain when the passport expires, normally people throw it, in my case I kept it due to all the stamps I had from other travels. Luckily for me, I had it and on Monday I had to go to Barcelona again to give them my old passport though in Spain is not a valid document anymore.

Getting ready

Meanwhile, I start to search for information about China: bank issues, telephone cards, medical insurance, currency, internet censure, vaccinate, etc. There was no obligatory vaccination but, just in case, I decided to take all vaccinates that my Spanish doctors recommended. I took shots for: Japanese encephalitis, rabies, typhoid fever, and MACWY135.

Let’s Go!

From Spain to China
Airplane views

After all, the last thing I had to do was squeeze my life into a suitcase and be ready for the incredible adventure that was waiting for me. I had a combination of feelings: positive ones and others that were not so positive. I thought that was the best decision I could ever make because I am young, I have never traveled alone and moreover because I would grow up. In fact, moving away from my comfort zone and turn my life into a journey full of uncertain things would make me face new challenges, grow up as a person and know better myself and the world. As I said, I would go out from my comfort zone, from my routine, but that was something that I wasn’t sure if makes me excited or be afraid.

Being almost one year apart from my family, my friends, and my dog… that was the part that scared me. Because it is said that “Whoever is absent, soon ceases to be necessary” But whoever loves you, will always have you in his or her mind, due to distance separate bodies, not feelings.

Finally, I would like to express thanks especially to my family, the ones who always encourage and support me wherever I am.