Meenal Mathur is an Indian expat currently living with her family in Aarhus, Denmark. She is an experienced software engineer and truly global citizen having lived in China, Japan and now Denmark.
We are moving to China
Moving abroad, whether for a new adventure, a new love, to learn a new language or running away from problems at home, is a huge step and a complete change. It is equal parts exhilarating and scary. You never quite realise how strongly you are tied to the culture of your home country, until you move abroad and are faced with a culture and language that is markedly different than your own. In 2014, we took this step, we moved from India to China.
The decision of trading our jobs, home, family, and friends – in short, a well settled life – for something unpredictable was not a piece of cake. But the rapidly growing Chinese economy and the prospects of accelerating careers paired with the strategic destination propelled us to accept the new project that was offered. So, we packed our bags and embarked on our new venture, ready to get hit by a new culture.
When Culture Shock hits
Everyone living in a foreign culture for a period experiences culture shock, but how long it lasts depends on one’s ability to adjust. Factors that can contribute to culture shock include language differences, new manners and customs, different values, morals, dress codes, beliefs, and ideals. Culture shock was a concept very foreign to me before I moved to China. The term was coined by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg  and describes the feeling of disorientation, surprise, confusion, and uncertainty experienced by those arriving to live in a new, unfamiliar culture.
When we reached China, culture shock settled in immediately: We got off the plane and stood in a huge airport teeming with thousands of people. Navigating the airport through long customs queues, deciphering the signs, which were mostly in Chinese, and not a single person understanding English, was not something I had expected. On top of that, I was unable to contact my family, as seemingly every foreign communication channel was blocked: WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, you name it. All my apprehensions started welling up.
On our first evening, tired from our first moving experience and up for only a walk around the neighborhood, we ended up in a typical Chinese food joint. We got a colorful menu, but had no idea whether we were looking at fish, chicken, pork, or anything else. We felt little adventurous that evening, ordering something that had the least number of ingredients and looked decent. What came was a big (really big) bowl of soup with noodles and so many more things we couldn’t decipher. It was very cheap, but not something we would do again!
We stayed in Shanghai for a week, growing accustomed to many things, like using VPN and the translator, negotiating without using a single word (using calculator). Eating out however, always stayed a challenge. To cope, we stuck to what we knew: Indian restaurants. As our experiences improved, it was time to move to the city we were supposed to live in: ‘Wuxi’. Wuxi is a tier 2 city, around 150 kms from Shanghai, but it takes only 45 minutes to reach, thanks to the high-speed trains! ‘Wuxi is richly endowed by nature, littered with historical sites, beautiful lake views, imposing mountains, lush countryside scenery and ancient. We started to feel the heat of new culture here, since we were at the heart of ancient Chinese civilisation and got hit by the next wave.
The 5 stages of Culture Shock
Culture Shock is sometimes described as a five–stage educational and developmental process , with positive as well as negative consequences. The first stage is the euphoric phase, when you are fascinated by all the different aspects of your new life. The newly arrived individual experiences the curiosity and excitement of a tourist.
What follows is the negotiation stage, which is characterized by frustration and anxiety. This usually hits around the three-month mark, although it can be earlier for some individuals. As the excitement gradually disappears, you are continually faced with difficulties or uncomfortable situations that may offend or make them feel disconnected. This stage is critical, because the individual either adjusts or succumbs to going home.
Next comes the adjustment phase, where people achieve balance, and they are less anxious about the differences. Then you enter the reintegration phase and start to function better in the new culture. You now feel comfortable in your new country and better integrated – here you have successfully adapted to your new way of life.
And finally comes the stage, which is popularly known as Reverse Culture Shock. Here, some people find that after a long visit abroad, they have difficulty reacclimating when they return to their home country.
Coping with Culture Shock
After enjoying the initial days of exploring the new place, understanding the people around us, and bravely trying their cuisine, my husband got immersed in work. He would often head out to meet his clients for late dinners, leaving behind me, with nothing but my loneliness. What followed, was pretty much the textbook culture shock pattern. After the first couple of months being new and exciting, the homesickness or “shock” set in. It is a loneliness more like feeling left out, or unaccounted for.
Not being a part of an organic community– family events, friends’ get-togethers at “home.” It may manifest itself as a yearning for my home country, my familiar circle of friends or a form of culture shock.  Either way, I was left with a feeling of an outsider looking in. The entirely different language didn’t help either. There was no channel to meet new people or connect with others, as all the basic social networking were blocked. I soon realized that in order to cope, I must force myself out of hibernation and make a conscious effort to adjust to the new culture. Idealizing life back home would not help. I would have to consciously keep an open mind. And it has to start with accepting how you feel and share it with someone else.
My new life in China
I signed up for a language course and consciously tried to talk to anyone who knew English. Making local friends adds depth to your understanding of the culture and you experience things you never knew existed. I began to ignore the constant stares I used to get and started responding to the huge attention with a smiling face. I started happily posing for the photos (well, mostly) and learned how to say thank you in Chinese, when they complimented me on my big (really not so big) eyes. I navigated my way through the streets by keeping a translator handy – surprisingly people are never too tired to help – and learnt to negotiate using a calculator in the local market.
Furthermore, WeChat became an integral part of my life. In China it is used to message your friends, buy your groceries, hail a ride, and even book a doctor’s appointment. It’s basically impossible to exist in China without it. Once I connected with other expats and English-speaking locals, I began to feel more at home and lots of different avenues opened up. When I think about it today, I feel moving out to a new country was the best decision we ever made.
So, if you are moving to China, while getting ready to use your best charades skills when at restaurants or asking for directions, I strongly recommend that you should come with an open mind and be prepared for some big cultural differences. Once you get past the initial culture shock and confusion, it’s an amazing country with lots to offer. Just be sure to practice a few basic words before you arrive and don’t be afraid to ask for cutlery! Knowing what to expect can be a massive help in managing culture shock, and while I initially had a tough time adjusting, I love China for being China!
by Meenal Mathur