There are so many things to think about when you move to a new country, like looking for a place to live, a school for the kids, grocery stores to shop at, and so on, that we often forget to mentally prepare for the whirlwind of emotions we’re about to face. This is called “culture shock,” and it’s sometimes the biggest challenge for new arrivals in Beijing.
Culture shock is defined by the dictionary as “a feeling of anxiety, loneliness, and confusion that people sometimes experience when they first arrive in another country.” While this definition considers the negative, difficult emotions one might experience, it misses the transformational power that moving to a new place can bring.
But what if we could call this grand upheaval “culture awe” instead?
Awe is a positive emotion that recent research has shown to help one feel more connected, increase altruism and even improve overall wellbeing. Dr. Dacher Keltner is a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of bestselling books about the science of happiness. He emphasizes the importance of experiencing awe, which he defines as “the sensation of being in the presence of something vast that simultaneously transcends one’s understanding of the world.”
So let’s explore the four stages of Culture Shock Awe to make your stay in the Jing a little more “awesome” and less “awful.”
Stage 1 & 2 -The Beijing Honeymoon, with a Side of Frustration
The first stage of culture shock is often said to be the honeymoon period.
Titi Hill, a counselor and psychotherapist at LIH Olivia’s Place says, “In my experience, people who come to Beijing often fall into one of two categories. There are those who want to come here for adventure, to explore a fascinating new culture and learn about China’s rich history, or to develop themselves professionally. Others may come because their partner is here, and so they arrive in Beijing somewhat reluctantly or with a degree of apprehension. The fundamental reason behind a person’s decision to make such a significant relocation can undoubtedly affect the mindset in which they respond to the challenges of adapting to life in Beijing. These challenges include day-to-day communication with the language barrier, adjusting to a new job, forming new relationships, and dealing with environmental factors, in addition to settling a family into a new culture away from their home country.”
As Shane, who’s been here two years, puts it: “I felt excited about moving to Beijing for the new opportunities, friends, and fresh beginnings.”
But not everyone has this feeling. Leora, an expat of five years, says: “Did I experience a honeymoon period? You mean like being super happy and excited about this place? No. That came after two years or so.”
For me personally, I was pregnant when I arrived here. Apart from taking care of the logistics, I realized what I needed most was to give myself substantial time and mental space to make the emotional transition to pregnancy, motherhood and family life in Beijing.
While a few said they enjoyed the excitement that moving to a new city brought, for many, a honeymoon phase barely existed. They jumped right into Stage Two: Frustration.
Natalia, a trailing spouse, says, “I felt a complete rejection of the reality here, isolated, frustrated, angry and hopeless.” Tom, an English teacher, remembers being apprehensive about going out on his own because he couldn’t communicate with taxi drivers or shopkeepers.
So if you’re not feeling great, be patient. Everyone’s been where you are now. Take heart and be kind to yourself.
Here’s what can help you create “Awesome” experiences during this stage:
• Be in observation mode rather than reaction mode. Remember that every feeling is temporary, and this too shall pass.
• If you do manage to have a honeymoon stage, that’s wonderful! Take time to savor the excitement, wonder, curiosity. Explore the city, meet people, and do the groundwork that will help make the city homely.
• Think about what brought you to Beijing – was it work opportunities, a partner, financial benefit? Reconnect with your purpose for being here daily.
• Feel grateful for what you have. One idea is to have a Gratitude Jar. Every day, write down on slips of paper three things you’re grateful for and put the slips in the jar. Observe how your mindset shifts.
• Self-care and compassion. Get those spa treatments and massages. Find a counselor or therapist to help you through this transition. It can work wonders just to acknowledge and talk about the issue.
Stage 3 – Adjustment
In time you’ll begin to settle, as you start to adjust to the new environment. This means accepting that not everything can be perfect. As expat Yolan says: “Even though I’ve lived here for 4 years, I still have a love and hate relationship with China, but learning the language and making good friends helps a lot.” Andrea, a Life Coach, offers an interesting insight: “Acceptance can transform your life. If you are suffering, it is because you are rejecting something in your life. You need to understand what it is in order to move forward.”
David Blanco, a psychologist and psychotherapist based in Beijing says: “Expect that sometimes you will not feel fulfilled. You will go through different stages, some of excitement or curiosity, some of the tiredness, frustration and feeling homesick. To assimilate the differences and adapt to them calls for your patience and tolerance.”
Titi Hill adds: “Be honest with yourself about the realities of adapting to life here. When it comes to our feelings, we can experience life in either the comfort zone, stretch zone, or panic zone. In many cases, a move to China can force people very quickly into the panic zone where they can feel disorientated and unsure of what to do. Having the self-awareness to realize that you are out of your comfort zone is an essential starting point for making a smooth transition. Embrace the journey of living outside your comfort zone and celebrate your successes, no matter how small.”
For myself, only after learning Chinese for six months was I comfortable enough to get by speaking to locals, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and even kuaidi (delivery) guys. I also joined many parenting and family WeChat groups which gave me incredible support. I started to feel more self-confident, and quietly proud of finding my way around life here.
Overall, many people we talked to said that social support, and learning Mandarin, made the greatest difference in accepting Beijing as their new home.
Here’s what you can do to create “Awe” in this stage:
• Connect with a like-minded community: colleagues, expat groups on WeChat, parenting and family groups, InterNations Beijing, or the International Newcomers’ Network. Find people who share your hobbies and interests. Being part of a community has many positive benefits for mental health. Not only do you feel less alone, it also provides a sense of belonging and social connectedness that research shows to be the most important predictor of well-being and happiness.
• Create a Chinese language goal for yourself. Goals help you to stay motivated and can be as small as just wanting to speak enough Mandarin to get by. There are many options available for learning languages, and apps such as Chinese Skill, Memrise, Skritter, and YouTube are incredible resources. Beijing has some excellent Chinese language schools for classroom-style learning, which is a great way to meet people too.
Stage 4 – Acceptance
Marisa, after five years in the city, says: “It feels nice to just let go of fear, and go with the flow. Don’t try to live the same life you lived before. Let China introduce you to new ways of life. I’ve learned to be adaptable and flexible.”
For me, acceptance is something that comes and goes as one navigates deeper into a new lifestyle. It is the realization that you do not need to understand absolutely everything about how things work to thrive in a new environment. All you need is to draw on the resources that sustain you at that point in time. As you learn to accept the things that were once hard to digest, your mind and heart open a little wider.
David Blanco reflects: “Living in Beijing can become a very rich personal growth experience. It can take you out of your comfort zone and open the horizons of your mind. It can make you come face-to-face with the conditioning of your own culture, letting you know more about yourself. Foster the feeling that a part of you and a part of your life belongs here in Beijing. Be a good ambassador of your country and make Beijing a better place by cultivating a good state of mind. It helps to appreciate the many good things that living here offers. It helps to choose tolerance instead of being judgmental, and humbleness instead of arrogance. Being multicultural is enriching. Let Beijing have space in your heart and Beijing will make your time here very meaningful.”
It takes about a year for most people to feel like they’re just starting to master their environment. The great thing about this stage is that you’re now a different person from the one before. You have more confidence, strength, and knowledge to explore the opportunities that only Beijing can bring.
Many expats said China had given them the chance to venture into areas they wouldn’t have ever explored in their home countries. Maybe this is something you can try yourself.
You can start by asking yourself these awe-inspiring questions:
1. What do I absolutely love in life right now?
2. If I had to start all over again, what would my life look and feel like?
3. What opportunities could Beijing offer me towards my goal?
4. What is one action I could take to move towards the goal I envisioned?
Whatever stage you’re at, remember that everyone’s journey is different. You can feel like you’ve fully acclimatized one day, then that you’re back to square one the next. Give yourself time, don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes, and use the support that’s out there. Soon you’ll be the one giving sage advice to newcomers!
If you’re looking for professional support in dealing with your transition, Titi Hill and David Blanco can help. Contact them here:
David Blanco Psychology Centre
8497 0781, firstname.lastname@example.org
This post appeared in the beijingkids October 2018 Mental Health issue.
Photo: Adobe Creative Cloud