Experiencing Culture Shock and Ways to Overcome It
I never thought much about experiencing culture shock back when I was a young buck.
However, I came to realize later that my first trip abroad–a five-country travel-through in Europe–did indeed leave more of an impression on me than simply joy and the desire for more: it gave me a nice dose of culture shock.
My first excursion outside of America led me initially to Germany, where I found the awesomeness that is Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. It is still my favorite location to this day.
The funny thing is that I wasn’t actually in Europe long enough to really experience that phenomenon; it didn’t begin to hit me until after I had returned to the US. I remember basically passing out on my bed upon arrival, the long trip coupled with the even more ridiculously-long flight back having drained me utterly. I wound up sleeping for the rest of the day and all the way through till the next day! After I finally woke up, my parents said that they had become a bit worried about me since I slept for so long. However, since I was breathing and seemed to be resting, they let me blissfully saw away on those dreamland logs.
My First Culture Shock Experience
After I awoke I was obviously quite hungry, but within a 24-hour period–if I can remember correctly–I suddenly felt like my brain had become bogged down trying to piece together everything that I had seen and experienced over the previous couple of weeks. In today’s terms, I would liken it to how my computer suddenly behaves after I click “render” on my latest video in the editor. The fan cranks up, the ETA timer steadily creeps up, the hard drive chirps incessantly, and I can feel the warmth barreling out the side. I remember feeling quite similar after I returned from that trip.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until over 27 years later that I once again scooted my butt abroad, this time to Asia. The differences, however, were several.
- The first main difference was the location, as mentioned above: Asia. I took a brief stop for a week in Japan–a lifelong dream location and one I thought I’d never get to–and then a jaunt over to China. This entire trip wound up taking me well over 20 hours, with four transfers by plane and two by train before it was all said and done!
- The second difference was that this wasn’t a “trip” like my excursion over to Europe–it was a MOVE. I had gotten rid of my house, car, practically all of my stuff, and struck out to find a new path for my life.
- A third difference is that while I did travel with a friend, he was only with me for the first week in Japan before he headed back to the US, whereas I continued on to Shanghai and then Hong Kong alone, before meeting up with the brother of my former best friend who took me to Guangzhou. All in all, I had to figure out a lot of stuff by myself, though I will say that my friend’s brother really helped me out in many ways after I arrived.
- The fourth difference–which is tied to the second one–is how long I stayed. My European trip lasted only a couple of weeks and I didn’t remain in the same country the entire time. This time, I wound up staying in China for many years and even flew to several nearby countries to visit. During this time, I also lived for a few months in Japan (as well as having visited there over 10 times), a month in Thailand, have visited Vietnam, Australia, have frequented Hong Kong (it’s close to Guangzhou), all famous cities in China, and as of this writing am going to visit South Korea in about 10 days.
- The fifth difference–and it’s very important–is the relationship factor. Having lived in two different major areas in China–not to mention my time in Japan–I have met and been exposed to a variety of people, made several friends and acquaintances, dated a few ladies, and taught English to hundreds upon hundreds. All of this has exposed me to different ways of thinking, habits, ways of life, perceptions, and much more. There was just no way to get this deep, rich experience from such a short stint in Europe.
My 2nd Culture Shock Symptoms
Unlike the first time, I was still abroad when the shock began to sink in–and sink in it did.
China is already a unique-enough place as it is, but being from a country such as the US, there are other issues besides the expected ones which add to the already-pressing nature of being in another country. Before I delve more into that, I want to mention my very first, new feeling of culture shock which occurred before I arrived in my new home-for-now, which occurred in Tokyo.
My friend Nick and I boarded the train from Narita Airport, excited, wet behind the ears, and bound for the ever-famous and much-hailed Tokyo! We were so happy to be there that we were doing some silly things already, including me using my (very) basic Japanese to ask a couple of cute girls for help reading the map for our final destination–something they were very happy to help with! After their assistance, I gave them each one of my matcha (green tea) Kit-Kats–my first treasure find in Japan. They were giggly about this and returned the favor by offering me some candies in return. It truly felt like we had entered an anime show!
When we made our way into the Tokyo subway, however, things got, as they say, “real.” The train systems there are anything but easy to understand by a couple of noobs without Google Maps or even half an idea of what they’re doing. Since then, I’ve learned a great deal about them and can use them without any issues, but at that time I felt like there was absolutely zero English anywhere and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it all meant. I truly did feel clueless and helpless, which isn’t good at all for me–my friend was completely dependent upon me for guidance (he spoke two words of Japanese) and had never been on a trip like this in his life. It was a huge stress for me, as I was essentially leading my first-ever micro-travel group without any experience whatsoever.
When we finally did manage to get onto the subway train, it was during a workday and we immediately found ourselves surrounded by a crowd of Japanese folk, all in black suits, all wearing black ties, and all having black hair. To add to that, they weren’t making so much as a peep of noise, and weren’t bothering anyone else with eye contact or small talk of any sort.
In short, it was super-duper creepy.
I suddenly felt like everyone was going to get us–I seriously felt alone, or as if I had somehow entered an alternate reality. I still remember this feeling to this day! The funny thing is that while I am still very much aware that I am a foreigner, I no longer experience this type of feeling anywhere (even though I am literally reminded many times a day by the local Chinese that I am a foreigner, as they pass me on the street saying “laowai” or “waiguoren”). I even still get these comments sometimes in the big, “modern” cities like Shanghai! Sheesh…
(For our top tips about moving to Japan, check out 10 Things to Know Before Moving to Japan)
Anyway, I digress.
There we were, in the middle of a busy Tokyo work week, right in the middle of a sea of seriousness. The extreme quiet only made things worse, and at one point I was SO hoping that some people would make eye contact with me and smile, nod, or say hello (a ‘konnichiwa’ would’ve been awesome) that I began to feel odd in a way that I never had before. Later, I realized that this was a unique form of culture shock that is only experienced when you are sticking out like a sore thumb in new surroundings. Eventually, I got over it of course, but I will always remember that experience and sometimes I think about it when I find myself again on the Japan Rail system–and laugh quietly to myself (just quietly enough not to bother anyone…it is Japan, after all).
The differences about being on the subway in China aren’t just a few but the main ones are immediately apparent as soon as you enter a station.
- First of all, almost every station within the city proper will be busy and have many people constantly coming and going. Many of them, if not all (it depends on location) won’t be giving much attention to their rights and lefts and essentially wear blinders when it comes to where they’re going or what they’re doing. In other words, they will go as directly as possible to where they want to be or to what they want to get, and if you are in their way, then well…let’s just say that it’s a constant, daily test of your patience. In Japan, people typically go very far to ensure that they are most certainly not taking your spot, cutting in line, or getting in your way. As a foreigner who isn’t yet used to this high-level of thought for others (and I was ingrained with Southern hospitality), even if I misstep and am clearly in the wrong, they will often bow, say “Excuse me/I’m sorry,” and quickly move out of my way. Of course, I will then feel embarrassed and bow multiple times and apologize in Japanese. I don’t want to look like a complete doofus, just a partial one is fine.
- Second, I’ve noticed that during work days in Japan, the people are dressed in suits, ties, business skirts or slacks, and so on. There actually aren’t very many people wearing casual clothing. Even on the weekend, people seemed to be dressed nicely or somewhat stylishly, if not unique (and there are quite a number of those in places like Tokyo). However, my experience in the Guangzhou and even Shanghai subway is that business dress isn’t the predominant style at any time of the week or day. Mostly it’s casual–and sometimes even too casual for me. T-shirts are more common than ties, sandals more common that dress shoes, and bags filled with products I can’t identify are more common than briefcases. Furthermore, even though there are people looking at their phones in Japan, I do see that the majority are not and some are even reading books, which is something I have witnessed often. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen a person reading a book on a Chinese subway, and I’ve spent over five years here! Not only that, I’m starting to think that it may be wise to invest in neck treatments here because there will no doubt be a long, continuing problem with these issues!
- The third main difference is the noise level. For a reason that I believe is “face,” most people in China talk much louder than we are accustomed to or feel comfortable with and, at times, it can feel downright disturbing if not annoying. I don’t normally listen to my headphones while on the train in Japan but if I am traveling alone in China, I always bring my in-ear headphones–they are a must at times. Regardless of how long I travel around the country, I feel that I will never be able to accept the level at which some people raise their chat volumes–especially the typical group of dancing aunties!
- The fourth difference was mentioned briefly above, and that is all about me being a foreigner–and reminded of it. As I said already, Japanese typically go out of their way to keep from bothering others, and that includes foreigners as well. Because they take it so far, it leads to stronger feelings of isolation in me, therefore if I hope to make any type of contact or interaction with the people around me in Japan, then I’ll most likely have to initiate it myself. Again, as in many things, there exists quite the contrast in China, where the only way you can get any genuine privacy is to isolate yourself in your apartment or hotel room. In the subway, you will hear the regular mumblings (and sometimes even outright pointing and loud declarations) of “laowai” and “waiguoren,” and possibly even references to your supposed nationality. Recently, I was referred to by a child who grabbed her mother and pointed at me, saying “English foreigner/person!” I turned and said to her, in Chinese, that I’m not English, I’m American. Her mother was impressed but the girl was shocked that I understood her–which is something that many Chinese take for granted and may even mutter things that are considered offensive or rude in other cultures. This has happened to me more than a few times.
So, as you can see, though Japan and China are quite different in the way they respond–or don’t respond–to you as an apparent foreigner, both can do do still cause you to “feel” foreign or out of place, even though you may have done all of the best practices to assimilate and belong. This alone is a constant, ever-present reminder that is hard for some people to ever get past, and has led more than a few to ultimately leave both of these countries and others for that matter.
(For our top tips about moving to China, check out 10 Things to Know Before Moving to China)
My Japan-Withdrawal, Depression, & Welcome-to-China Initiation
When I was growing up, although I was interested in several cultures and taken by different time periods, one of the main ones that I became more and more interested in was Japan.
Ultimately I studied Japanese by myself for about two years in preparation for moving there permanently, which is still on my agenda for my main home. However, due to the job market and some other reasons I’ll save for now, I have found myself spending most of my business-building time living in China while commuting to Japan for rest and exploration at every given opportunity. To-date, I have lived in Japan for over three months and have traveled there over ten times, which may include a total of three just in 2018 alone.
Setting my foot down onto the ground in the Land of the Rising Sun as my first stop in Asia was another dream-come-true for me, and words cannot express how happy I was to see that “Welcome to Japan” sign at the airport. From there, my friend Nick and I were welcomed by a few awesome, snowy days, and set about exploring various parts of the city–some of which were led by my sweet friend and great song artist Tomiya. The week was a great experience but flew by super-fast. Before I knew it, Nick was headed back to America and I was on my way to Guangzhou, China to start the next major phase of my life.
And that was the beginning of my withdrawal.
Ideals are nice and all, but when you have images firmly planted in your head or expectations of what a country is or will be like, then when you actually arrive the reality may be quite a shock. When you combine this with just how different it is from what you’re used to, then it can be quite the bittersweet, delicious, or even unsatisfactory recipe.
By and large, my expectations of Tokyo were more or less spot-on, but as I had not yet become acclimated to being abroad (Jet lag, anyone? Culture shock, anyone?), I wasn’t able to appreciate it until much later and, as of today, I have grown to appreciate it much more than before. It truly is a society that continues to preserve the past and appreciate various aspects of “the old,” including historical things or even retro items, while at the same time innovating for the future and exploring modernized ways of doing things or being efficient. In Japan, you really can see the ancient and modern side-by-side.
This was the initial issue I had with my arrival in China because I expected to see a TON of historical things but it just wasn’t in the cards (or should I say Mahjong?). For particular reasons I won’t discuss here, there was a time in history where China’s leadership essentially gutted and encouraged the people to gut much of their historically-valuable buildings or architecture. Today, it is simply not possible to see the goodly number of such places that exist in regular locations as can be seen to the aforementioned East. This was highly saddening to me as I took the train trip from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, and although I have now become accustomed to the overly-strong, obnoxious neon lights that seem to riddle the country (HK’s lights shocked me–but it wasn’t life-threatening), I am still unhappy about the amount of destruction that took place and the places I will never get to see.
So, when I arrived in Guangzhou, I immediately made unconscious comparisons between it and Tokyo. I saw cutting in line, spitting, public trees and rubbish bins used as toilets, constant littering, dirty streets, dangerous and law-breaking drivers, queue-cutters–and all right in view of some very modern-style buildings, such as the Canton Tower. It’s a very strange thing, I must say, to be standing in front of such a large, modern building and have a grown man point at me with his finger and tell his girlfriend to “look at the foreigner,” yet at the same time it is difficult to find a truly old, respected, and well-cared-for historical site.
The fact is that China is a country that has been going through a super-fast rate of growth and change, therefore seeing such things as above are to be expected and I can’t complain much about it. It’s truly just the way it is for now and there are many other countries which have gone through similar changes.
However, the reason it affected me so much is threefold:
- It’s vastly different than what I am used to
- It in no way met my expectations of a historical or ideal China
- I had just left a lifelong dream destination that had met my expectations
It was at this point that I began to feel exceptionally saddened and, ultimately, depressed. From that point, it took me more than six months to get over that culture shock depression and ultimately more than a year to feel like I was fully “present.” I can’t speak for everyone but my experience moving abroad caused me to feel that a part of me was lagging or not quite here yet, as if part of my spirit was on some sort of delay or something. Even after my bout with a deep depression had passed for the most part, I was still bothered by that feeling of not quite being whole again for several more months. Perhaps this is the most unique or odd thing that I have experienced after moving abroad, which I have yet to hear anyone else mention to me. I would be interested to hear someone else’s story about this phenomena!
Ways to Overcome Culture Shock, Depression, Loneliness, Etc
First off, I am no expert — I’m just a guy who moved abroad back in 2013.
However, I can honestly say without a doubt that if I could go back and do this all again, I would decrease the influence of culture shock drastically and find my feet much faster. Hopefully, with these little tidbits I can help you or someone you know today or in the future.
- Refuse to Be Alone! Remember that this doesn’t mean “Go to the local foreign-style bar & grill to make friends who speak your language.” I never found happiness in that and I believe the main reasons are because it’s not only like building a small, isolated fort of denial in the middle of another country, it also keeps you disconnected with the local culture. You absolutely NEED to contact and make friends with locals and this is a lot easier than you realize. Each country can differ a bit, but I know for a fact that in Japan it’s as easy as attending a local English cafe or getting involved by volunteering some time for people looking for English study (or any language you may speak!). These types of people are normally much more open to chatting with foreigners, less shy, and can make great friends over time. In China, people will often come up to say “Hi” to you, and while this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will exchange WeChat QR codes and become bestest buddies, it is still an environment conducive to meeting people. If you are working while living in China, then chances are you have Chinese colleagues (and students if you’re teaching) so all you have to do is ask people to go out–and they will! Remember what Brian Regan said: you never know until you try! (although don’t do that with firecrackers, as he did).
- Learn the Language! You may or may not have a working or basic knowledge of the language in your new host country, but in a relatively short amount of time it is definitely possible to do so. I used Pimsleur audio lessons for several years to give me a foundational speaking and vocabulary knowledge of Japanese, and since I’ve been in China I’ve had both private lessons and Rosetta Stone software lessons. There is no main, perfect way that I would recommend, but I have noticed this: consistency and regularity are key! Studying once a week for a few hours is not very effective, but studying a little bit every single day yields good results. Many of the English students I know in China are using software in combination with English training school lessons which offer in-class interactions with the teachers, both Chinese and foreign. Some friends of mine even started their own language school last year (Longwell International English) and have already grown to several hundred students! To this day, I still wonder why we never get to see training centers like this in America, but I guess we just don’t care as much about learning foreign languages as I believe we should. I may have been annoyed with it when I was a kid, but now as I look back I realize that I would’ve loved my parents for forcing this on me! Regardless, learning a bit of the language will help you connect with new friends and strangers alike, causing you to feel more a part of your new home and less like an outsider. Do study the language!
- Get Out & Explore! From the time I arrived in Guangzhou, I began to walk around and essentially “get lost” in the city. The good thing is that it’s impossible to truly get lost in places like Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, etc. Why, you ask? Well that’s easy: the subway system is practically everywhere and if you don’t immediately know where it is, it’s a simple matter of walking until you find it or, if you are able to speak a bit of the language like I mentioned, you can simply ask! This really helped me in Japan because even though my Japanese was basic, I knew the key words and my pronunciation was quite clear, so they assumed that my language level was good and gave me instant directions. During the times when I had no idea what they were saying, they were kind enough to take the time and trouble of leading me to the desired location personally! This is another great thing about Japan, but even many people in China will help you if you can get across to them what you need. This is where it is so important to know some of the language, because if you can’t make it clear enough what you’re looking for or what you need, then you’ll make it really difficult on the person you are asking for assistance. Eventually, I was referred to by my colleagues in Guangzhou as “The Local,” because I knew all of the main places in the city better than they did. The new foreigners were always referred to me because I typically knew the answers to the location questions they asked, and this was especially true for points of interest or tourist locations. The bottom line is that the more you familiarize yourself with your city, area, and neighborhood, the more comfortable and at-home you will begin to feel.
That’s about all I have for now, and I hope that this is of some use to you or someone you know, now or in the future! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Best of luck in your travels!