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

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