How to Adjust to Culture Shock While Living Abroad
Twice a year in the United States, in the middle of the night, clocks across the nation change by one hour. And you all know what happens-----people lose. their. minds. Babies don't nap, adults are fatigued, meetings (or flights) are missed, and you just feel kind of "off" because of that one minor change.
Now multiply that by maybe a hundred and you might understand how it feels to move abroad. When we decided to move to China, we knew it would be an adjustment---and the twelve hour time difference would be the least of it! If you have ever considered living abroad (or maybe even if you have ever had to go through a drastic change or the trauma of Daylight Savings Time), read on for some suggestions on how to adjust!
Heading into the great unknown and leaving everything behind...
Establish a support network and build a local community. Feeling isolated is the greatest pitfall you can experience when moving abroad. Even in a city of millions, you might struggle with language or cultural barriers, feeling out of place, and missing your loved ones and the comforts of home. But with today's technology, it is easier than ever to stay connected to loved ones and meet new people!
Before leaving the States, we joined a Facebook group with other foreign teachers, so we already had an established community when we arrived. Shanghai also happens to have a thriving expat community, so we downloaded apps like WeChat (specific (and prolific) to mainland China) to help us make new friends along the way. Finally, to stay connected with friends and family at home, we downloaded our favorite (free) video messaging app Marco Polo. Staying connected will be the best way to ward off the home-sick blues, so make technology work for you and you might find that you feel even closer than before! I hear more regularly from some of my loved ones now that I am thousands of miles away! It's funny how distance can sometimes bring you together.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Mental, emotional, and logistical preparation can make you feel more in control. In any situation, fear of the unknown can make you feel helpless. Before we even stepped foot outside of the country, we made sure to do our homework. Fortunately, we know a number of people who have worked and lived abroad in China, and we tapped into their experiences. (THANK YOU to everyone who met for lunch, chatted over the phone, and answered questions over email!) If you don’t know anyone who has been to the part of the world where you are moving, then no worries! That’s why the internet was invented! There are thousands of expats who have blazed a trail before you and have shared their stories (or tales of woe) so that you know what to expect. And sometimes, just knowing somebody else has been in your shoes can make you feel better. With our preparation, I steeled myself for the throngs of crowds during rush hour, knew to buy a year's supply of antiperspirant, accepted I would fear for my life while crossing the street, and purchased the best face masks for the notorious pollution. And then in the end, when we arrived, none of it really seemed that bad.
After doing our research, we knew which pollution masks to purchase and which apps to use to check the air quality. Of course, we didn't think to check to see if our masks would ship to us in time, but the effort was there...
SEEK TO UNDERSTAND, NOT JUDGE
With any situation in life, the best tools you can possibly have are an open mind and a positive attitude. Chinese culture and western culture are as different as, well, as east from west. Since arriving, I have tried to understand the underlying cultural differences instead of judging them in relation to my own.
I don't think I ever want to try eating a (semi-live) scorpion, but apparently a lot of other cultures
feel the same way about peanut butter (I can't understand it, but I'm trying to accept it).
Living in China is the first time I have really stood out as a “foreigner”. As a westerner in China, you might be photographed, filmed, or just experience blatant staring because you look different. Some expats find this at best annoying or at worst invasive or rude. But eastern perceptions of personal space, privacy, and individualism are very different----and while the staring may feel uncomfortable, it is not meant with any ill-intent (in most cases). Actually, Andrew and I find it a little amusing and we always oblige when people ask to take their photo with us. Adjusting your mindset and finding ways to accept intercultural differences can lead to some really great exchanges and stave off cultural fatigue. Check out Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory to learn more about cultural differences.
EXPERIENCE NEW THINGS
Embrace the excitement of living in a new place! Part of the thrill of living abroad is the plethora of novel experiences. Since arriving in China, I have shed the complacency that can sometimes come from comfort and routine. Andrew and I go out more, try new things (like the Chinese opera...it was definitely different), and make a greater effort to meet new people.
We loved trying Chinese hotpot with Jennie Xu, my former colleague, current friend, and also the first Shanghai Disney Ambassador. You can read all about our dining experiences in Shanghai here.
Living in a new place can also feel like living in an alternate reality---which can sometimes be pretty cool! "American Edition" Cait and Andrew cannot afford to indulge in massages—but because of the prices (and the abundance of massage places), "China Edition" Cait and Andrew go almost every week! And that gives us something we can only enjoy in China. Find the things that are exciting and unique in your new home country and make sure to incorporate those things into your life.
FIND SOMETHING FAMILIAR
Conversely, it is also important to find creature comforts that remind you of your native country. For us, that meant finding a western style apartment with access to an expat neighborhood. After spending every day in a country where we don't speak the language, there is a huge amount of comfort eating in a restaurant where we know what food we are ordering and can order in English! If you want to be fully immersed in local culture, you might choose to live in a traditional neighborhood (or maybe you are moving to a country that doesn’t have an expat community or you are in a rural area), so you can still achieve a sense of comfort by bringing along special items that remind you of home. At some point while living abroad, you will experience moments of cultural fatigue or homesickness and something to ground you in the familiar is exceedingly comforting.
(Above: Not far from our apartment is a store with every western movie and television show on DVD for just a few US dollars! I don't know if I would have survived living in China if I couldn't watch Game of Thrones or Stranger Things 2!)
In the wise words of Elsa, sometimes you just gotta let it go. Obviously, moving to a new country is going to require a certain amount of flexibility. There are going to be some things you will never understand or get used to, and it’s best to try to not let these things bother you.
(Left: Even in "nice" "Westernized" restaurants, the sanitation scores leave a little to be desired by our standards. But hey, a girl's gotta eat---especially when it's BOGO Burger night!)
For me, it’s little things, like never being able to understand the ingredients on food labels—something I constantly checked while living in the states. Or maybe it's the fact we don't have an oven in our apartment or the relative inexistence of clothes dryers. Or the fact that when I cross the street, I feel like I am in a live action version of Frogger...Oh, sorry---let me bring it back. While these things might be annoying or inexplicable, this is where you get to flex your adaptability muscle! Adaptability is a valuable life skill, but because of the relative convenience of our lives today (come on, we all know it's true), sometimes we avoid any situation that may be different than what we are used to or that might gasp! make us feel uncomfortable. So I say, when in China, do as the Chinese do! Meaning I just accept the fact that I am in a foreign country and some things are going to be different. So I let it go when I can't get onto Facebook because my VPN keeps dropping, or when the connection is just verrrrryyyyyy slowwwww. Or when I have to remember to bring my own roll of TP to work because most bathrooms don't provide paper products. Or soap. At the end of the day, these are all circumstances to which I can adjust. Plus, I've heard it builds character.
Y'all, rush hour on the metro is NO JOKE. But you just have to take it in stride.
KEEP IT IN PERSPECTIVE
And, sometimes, things are just going to go a little sideways and your final course of action is a good old fashioned dose of perspective.
Just two days after arriving in Shanghai, during a busy morning rush hour on the subway, I realized that my wallet and phone were both missing. Naively, I hadn't thought it was particularly important to close my purse and I was pickpocketed. As I raced back to my hotel room to cancel all my cards, I felt frustrated and angry—not only with myself, but with the whole city of Shanghai. But after some time collecting myself in the room (and by collecting myself, I mean punching some pillows and throwing my comforter on the floor), I calmed down and talked myself through my next steps.
When life sends challenges your way, sometimes you have to just think about taking things one step at a time.
There are some things in life you cannot control (like being pickpocketed), so focus on the things you can do. I could cancel all my credit cards. I could freeze my new Chinese bank account. I could replace my phone (yes, it would cost me a couple hundred dollars, but if you spread that out over a lifetime, it’s really not all that much). Don't get me wrong, the whole fiasco was still grossly inconvenient, but when I broke it down like this, it didn't seem all that bad. Plus, considering the amount of travel I have done, it’s really amazing I haven’t been pickpocketed before. Was it annoying that it happened while I was in the midst of moving to a new country? Yes. But was it anything I couldn’t navigate? No. And look—here I am with a new phone (second hand iPhone for just about $100 USD!), my bank account is unfrozen, and life has moved on. Most unfortunate (ok, fine, I'll say it, sucky) situations in life are manageable when we step away from our emotional reaction and practice putting it into perspective.
Moving abroad is an eye-opening, life-enriching experience that will undoubtedly come with a side of bewilderment and culture shock. But with the proper preparation and attitude, you will be amazed at the curve balls you can handle! Plus, adventure was never meant to be easy---and I think that is true whether you are a traveler or just want to live a fulfilling life. The most rewarding experiences take work and some degree of discomfort, but hey, that just means you are growing. Staying in the same place is easy, it's moving forward that takes courage.
So next time you go through a change, or a hardship, or you move abroad, remember...we were meant to be resilient and navigating change is just part of that practice. And don't worry about us too much. At least over here in China, we never have to worry about Daylight Savings Time.
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