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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:


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


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