First milestone reached: six months in China. What does that feel like? What am I supposed to feel? Acclimatised? Adapting to a new culture, apparently, is supposed to happen in stages:
Step 1: The Honeymoon Stage
When you first arrive in a new culture, differences are intriguing and you may feel excited, stimulated and curious. Like any new experience, there’s a feeling of euphoria when you first arrive and you’re in awe of the differences you see and experience. You feel excited, stimulated, enriched.
During this stage, you still feel close to everything familiar back home.
Step 2: The Distress Stage
A little later, differences create an impact. Everything you’re experiencing no longer feels new; in fact, it’s starting to get you down. You feel confused, isolated or inadequate and realise that your familiar support systems (e.g. family and friends) are not easily accessible.
Step 3: Re-integration Stage
During this stage, you start winging about your new home. You dislike the culture, the language, the food. You reject it as inferior. You may even develop some prejudices towards the new culture. You’re angry, frustrated and even feel hostile to those around you. You wonder why you made the decision to change. You start to idealise life “back home” and compare your current culture to what is familiar. Don’t worry. This is absolutely normal and a healthy reaction – it means you’re adjusting. You are reconnecting with what you value about yourself and your own culture.
Step 4: Autonomy Stage
This is the first stage in acceptance. Sometimes called the emergence stage when you start to come out of the ‘fog’ and finally begin to feel like yourself again. You start to accept the differences and feel like you can begin to live with them. You feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that may arise based on your growing experience. You no longer feel isolated and instead you’re able to look at the world around you and appreciate where you are.
Step 5: Independence Stage
You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. Things start to become enjoyable. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences and values. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You understand and appreciate both the differences and similarities of both your own and the new culture. You start to feel at home.
I asked a few fellow foreigners living around me about their own progress:
Marcus, an English teacher, came to China almost six years ago from Uzbekistan:
“My honeymoon phase lasted a couple months I would say, where everything was new and exciting. I then felt quite alone and unhappy becuase I had not integrated socially into my new area, and rarely went out or anything. So that was an unhappy period and I missed my family a lot.
“After a while I got more used to life here, and started going out and making more friends. I was finding out more and more about the places around me, the people and the culture, and I got to know the city very well. But I would say I didn’t necessarily like everything I discovered, and reacted against it. I got irritated by the impoliteness and unfriendliness and sometimes reacted aggressively against it.
“Six months on, my acquisition of the language sky-rocketed, which made life easier, and I was able to do a lot more. I would say before six months I didn’t know enough, I knew very little of the language.
“I guess now, after a lot of experience, I have learnt that I cannot change them, the things I don’t like. But I also have realised I don’t have to adopt their methods and their ways, I can still do things the way I want to do them. That means now I feel a lot less pressure, you know. Nowadays I just ignore or avoid the things that irritate me – like a avoid public transport at peak times, etc and life is like normal now.”
Tom is British, also teaching English, and has been in China coming up to a year now.
“For the first few weeks I was here I had a bit of initial shock. Things here are so very different. But after about three months or so I had gotten used to- well, not used to it, but – I wasn’t so surprised by things. Of course, so many things are still new to me, even after a year. Yeah definitely- just scratched the surface.
“After six months I did consider going home, but I think that was because alot of my friends were leaving to go back to America and various places, and I wasn’t very happy in my job. But I decided to stay and get as much travel in as possible, and have made new friends as a result. I don’t know if the 5-stage description is really true or not. I can’t say I ever rejected the culture here as inferior to my own or anything. I have tried to take a balanced approach to everything I have seen here – to take both sides into account, as fairly as I can. I’ve never really rejected anything here, I supposed you can’t – there’s no point.”
Agnes has been teaching English in China for more than three years. She is from Poland.
“My honeymoon phase lasted about 6 months. I loved my new life here. I had a lot of freedom: financial freedom and better opportunities to take vacations etc. Flights to other countries are much cheaper from China. I went to the Phillipines and Malaysia as well as other places in China in my first year. I really like the food here even though I missed some Polish food like bread. And people are really nice and really appreciate it when you speak the language.
“I think the stages I went through were connected to my job. After six months everything catches up on you- the full schedule, the responsibilities, etc. Things are not new anymore. After half a year you start thinking about what is next. You have to decide what to do after the first year. I knew that i didn’t want to go home yet, I wanted to be in China longer because it was not enough time to get to know the country. At the same time, in the first year I was excited to leave China on vacation because China was work to me.
“The hardest thing in the first year was that I had no Polish friends and I really missed speaking Polish. Skyping in Polish was such a relief but I found I was too tired after work speaking English and Chinese to even skype. People came and left a lot and that was quite hard, but I am used to that now. And now I have moved to a new city after three years in one city which was a much needed change, and there is a new sort of honeymoon phase starting again.
“Going home is really good as people often congratulate me on my ‘big adventure’, on succeeding in teaching a non-native language, and they say how brave I am to live in a different country. It is good to be reminded and to see things from a different perspective, because it can be easy to get caught up in the little things and forget the adventure that life is over here.”
Agya came over from Blacksburg, Virginia and has been studying and working in China for three years.
“The first stage for me was not a honeymoon stage. Apparently I complained a lot, although I don’t remember doing that. Overallmy first year ended up being the most fun year of my life. Initially it was hard to handle all the staring and attention. They would stop in their tracks, point and say ‘foreigner’ or ‘black person’ – and I would be like ‘I’m American!’. Now I say back to them ‘that’s right’! with a big-ass smile.
“I even got anxious about going outside at one point but once I got past that I was able to enjoy all that China has to offer.
“My six-month milestone was like my peak point. I had a great group of friends then and we would go to KTV [karaoke] together and have a lot of fun. Now I play in a band with all my best mates, I get to act like a clown and sometimes get paid to do it. It was supposed to be a one year adventure but China is my life now.”
As for my own progress, these stages are not so clear. I still feel endlessly curious about everything around me, but now my free time doesn’t always have to be filled with adventure – small routine things are more common. Making good friends takes time of course, but I fell in love with my students instantly!
There are, inevitably, things that things my western upbringing clashes against:
- Men and women hucking up and spitting on the pavement like hard-core tobacco chewers.
- Children peeing on the streets.
- Food being stored, cooked and eaten in very unsanitary conditions.
- The lack of personal space and privacy.
- The absence of manners in simple things like queuing up to get in a bus. The shamelessly-nondescript customer service.
- The crazy roads.
But for some reason those things have not deterred me in my happy state here. I feel so privileged to be doing the things I love in the place I love. Everyday is different. Adventures are prolific – planned or not. I get to witness and take part in the things I used to avidly read about in books on China:
- The tea-drinking culture: such a precious tradition of peace and community practiced by everyone, rich and poor, old and young.
- The communal living: apartments built as communal high-rises with a shared social space in the middle. As most families have only child, neighbours become family, and children grow up together like siblings.
- The warm weather is also a comforting factor and it is impossible to feel depressed here, even when it rains, as tropical rain tends to thrill rather than depress.
- But most of all the language. Many have said Chinese is the most logical language they have ever come across. It just makes sense. And the history, tradition and culture bound up in each character is just beautiful.
Whether it is because I came to China pre-disposed to like it, or because I do not understand it enough to be disillusioned by it, or maybe I’m just downright naive, but I love China, and I don’t see myself falling out of love with it in the future. But I will endeavour to monitor my progress to see if and when I get to the distress stage. All I can say is that right here, right now, I feel more alive than ever before. And more at home.