The following article is number five in a series of articles being published by the management of the Will-Excel TESOL Institute. The purpose of these articles is to acquaint those considering moving to China with Chinese culture, language and expectations, particularly those entering the TESOL field, in order to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.
This article is comprised of three parts: an introduction to the four basic stages of culture shock, common situations foreigners encounter in China, and strategies for coping with culture shock.
The Four Stages of Culture Shock
The term “culture shock” is generally used to describe the feelings a person encounters when traveling to a new country. Whether it be on a temporary basis (short holiday or vacation, business trip) or more permanent (studying and/or working abroad), it can be argued that we all experience culture shock.
There are four basic stages of culture shock: fascination, friendship, frustration and fulfillment.
The first stage of culture shock, the one which we all arguably encounter, is fascination. Many tourists never pass this stage of culture shock because their duration of time in the host country is too short. The fascination stage of culture shock is just how it sounds: fascinating. This is when we, as outsiders, look upon our new country of residence as fresh and exciting. Everything, no matter how different or unusual, seems to be tolerated as we make allowances for things we might normally accept back home in our own country. The Chinese, for example, that never queue up, disobey every traffic law in the book, spit everywhere and those who start blasting their loudspeakers advertising their tea-boiled eggs or umbrella-repair service at five a.m. every morning are not irritating, but “peculiar”, “represent a distinct characteristic of Chinese society” and, even sometimes, “cute”.
The second stage of culture shock, friendship, occurs when our feet gradually start to hit the floor. Though we are still fascinated by the host country, our feelings of wonderment and adventure are beginning to wane. It is during this stage of culture shock that we begin to feel the need to reconnect with other human beings. For many travelers this means establishing friendships with other foreigners in the area. For others it may mean beginning to learn the language and making local Chinese friends. Regardless of the relationships established, the traveler will be connecting with others and setting down roots.
During the third stage of culture shock, frustration, reality bites. At this stage our feet have completely reconnected with the earth and the awe of being abroad in a new place has worn off. Generally, at this stage the traveler has been working and or studying for a number of weeks or months. How long it takes for a person to go from fascination to frustration varies from one to another. However, what is tried and true about this stage is that all of those little things we shrugged off as “peculiar” and “neat” during the fascination stage are now starting to get the better of us.
It’s not longer “very interesting” that a man specializes in fixing umbrellas, but outrageous that he could be so awake and loud before the sun has finished rising. That no one queues up for anything has gone from “funny” to infuriating. And those little old women on the street that spit better than your beer buddy at university have lost all sense of “cuteness” and instead become just disgusting. The frustration phase of culture shock is certainly the most difficult for us to deal with. However, it does not have to last long, and it does not have to ruin that fantastic frame of mind that we began our great adventure with.
The fourth stage of culture shock is fulfillment. This is when everything seems to have come together. We now know and understand some of the details as to why Chinese culture is different. It is often at this stage that the traveler has made a number of local friends and laid down stable roots. The traveler is, at this stage, no longer an outsider, but an active participant in Chinese culture and daily life. He or she almost certainly has a number of local friends, and has thus developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of the culture. The fulfillment stage is certainly when all of the frustration endured in stage three has come to past and in its place provided the traveler with a number of entertaining stories to share with friends and family back home.
What to Expect in China
The following section of the article deals with some of the common situations foreigners will encounter in China. Though the list is by no means exhaustive, we hope it will cover some of the more common encounters.
Depending on where you are living, being stared at may or may not be uncomfortably common. Generally, in cities other than the hectic mega centers (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc) foreigners are not so common that locals see them every day. So, for those who do notice others staring at you daily keep this one word in mind: curiosity. It is not everyday that some Chinese come in contact or pass by a flesh-and-blood foreigner. Most people are just curious to steal a glance.
It will happen. You’ll be walking down the road or waiting for the bus when out of nowhere someone yells “Hello!” Distraught and confused, you may look every which way to see if that “Hello” was coming from a friend or colleague. Most of the time, however, it will instead be from a random passer-by wanting to practice the one word of English he knows.
No privacy in public places
Going back to the curiosity factor, many Chinese are interested in what foreigners do. Most of their information about westerners comes from the media, and it is rare that they see a foreigner in a grocery store or other public place. For this reason, it is not uncommon for some Chinese to look through your grocery basket at the supermarket or over your shoulder when eating at a restaurant. They are just curious to see what a “real” foreigner is eating or buying.
Rudeness to “servants”
Many places in China still abide by the master-slave relationship when it comes to the service industry. In the case of a restaurant, for example, the customer is the master and the waiter or waitress the slave. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see customers treating their servers in a degrading manner. This is, however, a part of the culture. [One such example (though to the extreme) perhaps familiar to those in the West is the “Rising Sun and Anger Release Bar” in Nanjing City. See this link for more: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006 ... 658196.htm
Parental / Spousal abuse in public
In China, the house is the man’s domain. What he says or does to his family is of no one else’s concern, and nor is it their right to comment on how he raises / governs his family. Though by far a commonplace act, you may see parents slapping around their children, or husbands their wives, on the street. The worst thing a foreigner could do in this situation is interfere.
Very pushy salespeople
Chinese salespeople are known for being extremely pushy. A good explanation for why this: imagine that you are competing with hundreds, if not thousands or others, on the same floor of a mall or in a market. Then imagine you have a family at home to feed and that the income made from your small booth is the only source of food your family has. If I were in that situation, I’d be pushy too.
Paying more than you should
A friend once taught me a saying prevalent throughout Communist-ruled Central Europe: “He who does not steal from others steals from his family.” As a foreigner you will inevitably be charged more than locals. Many Chinese assume that different color skin, a higher nose and bigger eyes equals a bigger wallet. Many Chinese therefore see foreigners as an opportunity to put some extra bread on the table, or just take advantage of the otherwise unaware.
How to Cope with Culture Shock
Following are three steps that can be taken to ease the transition into your new home.
1. Awareness is key. Those who have read this far have already showed a willingness to learn. By knowing what to expect you are arming yourself with the know-how to combat any frustration you may encounter. When feeling frustrated, some find it helpful to take a deep breath and say, “This is culture shock.”
2. Learn the language. If you never learn the language than to many locals you are just a tourist, and tourists are not taken as seriously as established expats. Not only will you gain respect from the locals, but learning the language will help foster a sense of independence that you could otherwise never have.
3. Make local friends. Sure, having other foreign friends is necessary. We need like-minded people with whom to vent our frustrations and share our experiences. However, other foreigners cannot always give you the culture insights that locals can. Locals have a deeper and more intimate knowledge of the culture, obviously because it’s their own. For this reason, locals become an invaluable source of information about the culture and friendship.
Teach, Study, Get Paid
Will-Excel In-China TESOL Course