NOTE: After talking with some of my friends who had been abroad for an extended time period, I realized that I downplayed reverse culture shock too much in this entry. This is because, when I went back to the US again, I was only there for one month before going back to China, and so never really got past stages 1-2 of culture shock. Reverse culture shock is rough and, according to several of my friends, even harder than culture shock itself.
But let’s talk about culture shock, shall we?
The thing with culture shock is that it’s not just being shocked by things in a culture, despite what the name implies. It’s a complicated, many-horned beast. And it doesn’t end when you go back home, either. Reverse culture shock is going through the phases all over again, but with the added tinge of confusion because, come on, our own cultures are supposed to make sense, right?
And now, I have the added gift of having a bit of reverse-reverse culture shock (a phrase I have coined myself) because, after being in China for two years, I went back to the US for one month, and then, after that one month, went back to China, only to be a bit shocked by little things all over again (but in warp speed).
It never ends!
So what are the stages?
If you want more researched stages, look it up. But here is how I understand it based on many conversations with other expats, my own experiences, and readings. And this is how I waded through culture shock while in China.
Stage one: EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT AND IT’S AWESOME! ADVENTURE!
In this stage, the culture is vibrant and exciting. Buying groceries is an adventure, riding the bus is an adventure, crossing the street is an adventure…you get it. Everything is exciting and new and I remember having a lot of energy to try and experience it all. I also remember feeling like I had a “bravery quota” near the beginning, because everything was so intimidatingly DIFFERENT that after I’d cross the street, buy groceries, and ride a bus, I’d get back to my apartment with a cool drink and think “Okay, I have been brave enough for today. I can relax now.”
I also found that in this stage, I tended to be aggressively positive about everything (though this might only apply to us ever-optimistic Americans). I’d see a difference and think “Oh, but it’s almost better this way, because…and anyway, it’s a different culture” and then find a reason to like it. Maybe someone was spitting on the sidewalk. But it’s almost better this way, because they can make sure to keep their throats clean and anyway, it’s a different culture. (Not really. I just made that up).
There might be snags and strange things, but they are seen as almost novel. “Did you know that in China, people…?” I might have said. Later on, this difference might actually be a huge sticking point for me, but in stage one, it felt like little more than walking through a movie and giving a synopsis later. I knew that the place, the people, the language, the culture, was all real, but it didn’t feel real yet.
In this stage, time in the culture feels precious and not to be wasted, and there’s also a little pressure to suck the marrow out of life. Which is great, but eventually leads to the next stage…
Stage two: Oh my god, I’m going to be here for a while.
This is different for everyone. For some, stage one lasts months. For me, it lasted one month. I remember it because after that first month, I suddenly realized on National Day (October 1) that I was not just on an adventure and was actually going to be living in China for a loooong time. I was staying with a family celebrating the holiday, and then all of a sudden, I realized that I would not be celebrating Thanksgiving or seeing most of my own family for a long time. I felt a creeping despair, but still tried to hold onto stage one excitement thinking “All the more time to experience everything!” but even so. There’s a little bump in the road here: when you realize that you are not actually on vacation. It might not be a long stage, but it definitely exists.
This is also when I started to notice things I didn’t so much like about China. The spitting. I stopped trying to spin it in a positive light. The “insistence culture” that comes from a history of bargaining (where a “no” means “maybe” and a “maybe” means “yes.”) I got a bit bitter in this stage, which is best summed up when I tried to eat a peach. I was told not to eat anything I couldn’t peel, and that also I should boil my water. So I peeled this peach, boiled water, and then put the peach in the strainer as I poured boiling water all over it. The peach was hot and mushy, and I stared at the blank kitchen wall thinking “This is life. This is life in China.”
(Note: I have since found a much less idiotic way to eat peaches).
All the same, since I was seeing more negative things, I thought I understood it better, which leads to…
Stage two and a half: By George, I think I’ve got it!
I call this one a half-stage, because it can happen at any time during the culture shock phase. For me, it happened after stage two and onward. I have met people who have this stage in tandem with stage one.
This is the stage in which, despite not having as much exposure to the culture, I felt that I understood it pretty well, and was wont to explain the culture to other people. This is different from the ultimate acceptance stage that comes in the end. In acceptance, you get it, or at least get that you don’t get it. In this stage, it’s more like taking tiny points and connecting them together. It’s false acceptance, because you just don’t want to be shocked anymore or don’t want people to think you’re struggling, or really do think you understand a culture after being there for like 2-3 months. The reasons vary. And hey, some people are more astute than me and actually “get it” earlier on. For me, I would usually be correcting people and saying “In China, people…” based off of the limited exposure and personal encounters I had in one coastal city of a massive country.
“In China, people tend to eat more rice than noodles.”
No, in Hangzhou, people tend to eat more rice than noodles.
I find this a lot with backpackers, actually. Sometimes people hit upon great insights based off of raw first impressions. Sometimes it’s frustrating, though, because a person who has only been in the country for one or two weeks already starts to correct other people’s experiences (even though they might only be in Stage 1). Or worse yet, when someone has read a lot about the culture, hasn’t actually lived in it, but decides to explain it anyway, never mind what the locals say. I think this one comes up a lot in China, because of the censorship. “Well you only think that because you’re censored.” Could be true, or could just be an oversimplified, lazy argument.
(Note: sometimes this stage crops up later on, too, but the difference is that after having been in the culture for a while, you are more open to what someone else has to say, or can recognize if you were wrong or just being a know-it-all).
Anyway, however this stage looks, for me it was a time of false understanding, which ultimately led to…
Stage three: Why can’t I just get it?
Again, this is different for everyone. In fact, I found myself oscillating between stages 2-3 a lot: some days thinking I understood, some days being a little blue, some days frustrated. Stage 3 is a bit similar to stage 2, except that it’s more frustration than creeping despair. I had already reconciled the fact that I was going to be living in China for a while. And I was trying to make sense of this culture. But it would not click.
For me, things came to a head when I was trying to add money to my phone. I didn’t know the phrase, but I knew how to say “my phone doesn’t work.” I went into the shop and said that, and then a bunch of garbled Chinese happened that I didn’t understand, and then I left without putting money on my phone. I ended up asking a Chinese friend to help (and there is no shame in that!) and got it figured out. But still. I was just frustrated.
Common phrases in this stage are things like “Why can’t I just…?” or “Why can’t people just…?” I saw what seemed to be obvious solutions to problems in the culture and got frustrated that no one did anything about them. Or complicated procedures. Anyone who has been to a Chinese bank knows what I’m talking about.
But then, one day, something nice happens…
Stage three and a half: This makes more sense than it used to.
(Again, this is a half stage, because it doesn’t necessarily happen in this order, and might happen repeatedly in other stages).
It might be a conversation overheard that you understand; it might be a trip to the bank that doesn’t end in failure; it might be a purchase that goes right. It does happen: something that didn’t make sense before does. And you realize that even though it’s impossible to tell, progress has been made.
Stage four: I don’t get everything, and maybe that’s okay
I live on the 6th floor of my apartment complex and there are no stairs. I got up early one day to practice Chinese characters, but when I got to the bottom of the stairs, realized I forgot my book. Went back up, then back down. Rode my bike to the school. Realized I forgot my bag by the place they park public bikes. Rode back and then just went back to bed.
I told my friend about it, and we just laughed.
In this stage, I realized that I wasn’t going to become fluent in Chinese. I wasn’t going to be the Great Ambassador. I was just going to be me, and even though there was a lot that still tripped me up, there was a lot that didn’t. This stage is very close to full-on acceptance, but not quite. In this stage, I saw the humor in failure, and saw how nice Chinese people were and how willing to help. I remember changing the words to a Florence and the Machine song and singing “you FAIL and you FAIL and you FAIL and you FAIL” and feeling floored by it. In this stage, contradictions felt like jumping-off points, rather than set-backs. Bring it on, I said. I can take it.
I also found myself admitting that some things in China were different and that it was okay not to like it. I keep mentioning the spitting. Well, I realized here that I didn’t actually like it and thought it was gross, and didn’t feel like I was offending the culture by saying so. (So long as you’re not being a jerk about it, like saying it repeatedly and loudly).
Stage five: This culture is pretty complicated; I think I get most things but not all; that’s okay, so let me just do my thing and be happy about it.
When I hit this stage, I could recognize that China was a very complex place, but that it was okay not to be able to explain everything. I stopped analyzing. Instead of saying “Chinese people do this because…” I would say “Chinese people do this.” And then maybe a Chinese person would tell me why, and then someone else would tell me why, and then we’d talk about that. I stopped putting words into China’s mouth and just let it speak for itself. This is when I started saying “Because China, that’s why.” I became more likely to ask someone what something meant or what they were doing, rather than trying to make sense of it all alone.
Maybe that sounds like I got lazy, but I don’t think so. I think of a foreign teacher from England who told me that the metal fixtures on top of houses that had balls in the middle were part of a traditional, religious belief because he had seen them around and they seemed significant. And then a Chinese teacher with us turned around and said “Those? No, those are just lightning rods.”
Of course, in this final stage, there are still frustrating moments, but they are seen as temporary. For example, I still get frustrated by the bank, grocery stores, and the doctor’s office. So when I go there, I just remind myself that for the next while, I will not like China very much, but that the frustration is not permanent.
In this stage, there is a sense of ease. The place is not perfect, but no place is perfect. It can be called home without a pause before or after saying so.
As for reverse culture shock, it’s the very same stages, but to a lesser degree. Stages 1-3 yes, but the acceptance comes sooner I think, and the frustration doesn’t feel so endless. Reverse-reverse culture shock? We’ll see. Right now, I’m exiting stage 3 (stages 2 and 3 sort of meshed together, and stage 1 lasted about 2 days), and might be vaulting right over stage 4 before landing where I was before.
The main thing to understand about culture shock is that it’s not just about feeling like you don’t fit in, it’s also about how you make sense of a place and how you respond to what doesn’t.
Anyway, just give it time.
All stages lead to another one.