When Barbara Strother, co-author of Living Abroad in China moved to Beijing 14 years ago, something from her childhood came back to haunt her: dinosaurs. "I didn’t realize just how much China was affecting me until one night I had a nightmare that I often had as a child," recalled Strother. "Dinosaurs were outside the house and it was unsafe to go out."
Strother found having this dream both amusing and confronting. "It revealed to me what I had dealt with as a shy child and what I was dealing with in adjusting to the culture in China – those dinosaurs represented the strangers that scared me."
the honeymoon period After the initial allure of living abroad, we often succumb to feelings of anxiety, fear and unease. This is completely normal and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of culture shock. After your honeymoon phase in a new country is over – that stage when you see everything in a romantic light – your new surroundings can feel unsettling, overwhelming, and undesirable.
Experts who study culture shock refer to this as the negotiation phase. It’s a time when apparent differences in culture – the same ones that were once endearing – begin to seem strange and offensive. Yes, the honeymoon is over, and it will take some effort to get over those cross-cultural hang-ups.
you have to want it "Once I realized what was going on with my emotions, I set out to do something about it," said Strother. "One day when putting my kids down for their afternoon nap, I happened to put in their favorite Raffi tape. It had a song that went something like this: ‘I’m gonna take a walk outside today; gonna see what I can find today.’ I found confidence in those joyful lines. Though Raffi was singing about finding squirrels and naming them Earl, I determined to get out and interact with people with the same joyful confidence that Raffi felt for nature." Realizing what’s going on in your mind is the first step to dealing with culture shock. The second step is overcoming your fears. "Ironically,what I most love about China now is the way it is so easy to interact with strangers," says Strother. "I love starting conversations with someone sitting next to me on a bus, or a taxi driver, or a street vendor. I love how interested they are, and how delighted they become when a foreigner wants to engage them in a conversation." What Strother did was both obvious and brave – she communicated. Experts agree that communication is crucial in dealing with culture shock. That might be easier said than done in a land as foreign as China, but communication can take many forms, and it just means interacting with others to the best of your abilities – smiles, hellos and goodbyes go a long way.
"Having kids really helps you integrate into the culture," says Jenni Johnson about her 3-year-old son Nate and her 4-year-old son Noah. "It’s like a magnet for integrating with Chinese people." Johnson and her husband TJ, both from South Arkansas in the US, admitted that at first they had some things to get over – they even considered going back home – but now the couple are in their element in Beijing. "I thought the crotchless pants thing was a joke. Then I found out it was true. I thought, ‘My son slides down the same slide that that kid does.’ Great." Now, the Johnsons are delighted that their children have the chance to play with kids of all different cultures, and feel that their perseverance has rewardedtheir family with a fantastic international experience.
kids and culture shock "The biggest cultural adjustment our kids faced was the attention," says Strother. "China is great for kids who like attention all the time, but can be misery for kids who want to be left alone." Children will most likely experience less culture shock than their parents – they may be annoyed by something new or miss something old, but they are generally more adaptable. "Parental attitudes towards culture are the biggest predictors of how much culture shock the younger kids will experience," stressed Strother. Experts encourage parents to maintain an open and decidedly positive dialogue with their children about their new environs.
overcoming the shock Bad toilets, persistent spitting and sticky sidewalks might be annoying, but it’s important not to fixate on the things you can’t change. The telltale signs of culture shock include excessive concern over cleanliness, irritability, and stereotyping of host nationals. All of these behaviors only serve to reinforce the divide between you and the locals. What follows is a rejection by – and a rejection of – the new culture.
Another sign of culture shock is a sense of helplessness, which may stem from feeling a loss of purpose. When we move, we may have to give up a stable identity and this can create anxiety. It’s important to find new activities to replace the ones we left at home. Try your best to not oversleep – this is one of the most common forms of withdrawal.
Rapid social change, as experienced with a big move, takes some getting used to. There will undoubtedly be periods where irritability bubbles to the surface. It’s important that you don’t give up trying to adapt. "It’s about being open to change, and change is a very scary thing for most of us," says Strother. "If you feel like an outsider on a temporary assignment, there’s not enough incentive to navigate that uncharted emotional territory. You have to want it. Without anticipation of the rewards at the other end, people give up."
"We could see ourselves living here for a long time," says the Johnsons. The family does miss home and family at times, but their weekly Skype chats keep them in the loop and have helped smooth out the bumps. "Get out of the country when you need a break," urges Strother. "Going home for a spell can help. A little bit of Bali doesn’t hurt either!" Everybody experiences culture shock in different ways – it can be a daunting learning process. It is the confrontation of all that you know put up against a completely new reality. It is a test you have to accept. You may be in China for one year, you may be here for ten. Whatever the case, what you feel and how you react to these feelings is part of your self-growth. Just remember, experiencing culture shock is completely normal, but it only happens under amazing circumstances, so get out there and live it up.