This is not a guide on how to avoid diarrhea (tip: don’t eat anything described as “sun-dried pork”) or how to survive crossing the street in China. This is simply a few life lessons I have had the privilege to learn in my time here. They are not exclusive to travelers or people in different countries; you can learn them just as easily on the plains of Texas as the bustling streets of Beijing. And that’s not to say I have learned them completely, or that I won’t have to learn them again. Just when we believe we have cracked the code to patience, for example, Life has a way of saying, “Congratulations! Now here is a spouse, some crying children and a combative coworker. Good luck!” It is certainly an unending process. But in my time here, these lessons have presented themselves in new, intriguing ways and with such forcefulness, I could ignore them no longer.
First, a bit about culture shock. During my first few months of my time here, during the honeymoon period, I remember thinking, “It’s too bad my visa will eventually run out. If it didn’t, I could just stay here forever.” But, as you might have guessed, the honeymoon period never lasts. After about three months, I began to feel increasingly frustrated, vulnerable, and lonely. This time, the thought that crossed my mind was, “How does anyone live here?”
Culture shock can be a paralyzing, isolating, self-loathing experience and it strikes with a double-edged sword because it comes when usual support systems like friends, family and comfort food are nowhere to be found. You enter a new world only to find yourself in the belly of the beast.
But there’s good news. Despite the temporary frustration of culture shock, it is a privilege to have been immersed in a culture for nearly a year now. Over time I have developed a much deeper respect for Chinese culture. I’ve learned that American culture is much more than democracy, baseball, jazz and apple pie. Culture tells us the difference between clean and dirty, tells us what our small talk should be about, and even shows us how to make our beds. It is as pervasive, yet as unnoticed, as the air we breathe. Navigating a foreign culture can be disorienting, but gradually some of those strange things become familiar, even comfortable. In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
1.) Don’t become isolated. Being in a strange place can be exhausting. Add in a language barrier and you have a recipe for isolation. The first instinct is to withdraw from those unfamiliar, uncomfortable surroundings. The problem is, when you’re in another country, that’s pretty much everywhere and everyone. I spent many hours holed up in my room finding refuge from all of China by watching TV shows on Netflix. But I’ve found the best solution is to focus on making personal connections where I can. Many times that required pushing past those feelings of discomfort I feared most. I can’t tell you how much I was cheered up just by making friends with a little grandma on our street a few months ago. She has a sewing workshop in her garage that faces the street and one day she invited me in for tea. We ate walnuts as she shared her family photo album with me and I was reminded of the joy of making personal connections with new people.
2.) Ask for help. I’ve had to ask for help so many times this year it’s not even funny. I need help finding the post office, fixing a problem with my bank account, and even telling the difference between lettuce and mustard greens at the market. At home, I could solve these problems on my own or with a little help from Google, but here I am clueless. It can be immensely frustrating to feel so dependent on others’ help, but I’ve learned that asking for help not only gives me better results, it also builds friendships and relationships. For example, my computer charger died a few months ago. My usual course of action would be to order another online. Unsure of the best place to find one, I just asked. As it turns out, our faithful driver and handyman, Tian ShuShu (Uncle Tian), is very knowledgeable about electronics and was able to fix it for me without the cost and hassle of ordering a new one. Or, instead of wandering around the city trying to find a fabric store by myself, I spent an afternoon shopping with one of my students who helped me find the right place. When you defer to people out of respect for their knowledge and expertise, they are often more than willing to help you. Especially if you’re a helpless laowai, like myself.
3.) You’re not the only one. Sometimes it’s easy to feel you’re the only one – like when you’re the only foreign resident of a Chinese city. I have found it difficult to explain the emotions of culture shock to those who had not experienced it. Fortunately, I have friends living in a city a few hours away whose experiences are remarkably similar to my own. From them I’ve gained encouragement, wisdom, some perspective, a lot of good food and a good bit of laughter. There are a lot of really funny things that happen when you are caught between two cultures, and it helps to know there are people who have come out of this experience (mostly) well-adjusted.
In an age where so much of the world is just a click away, there’s every reason to believe someone has shared your experience and that we are, in fact, anything but alone.
4.) What’s in a smile? In my culture, when you pass a stranger on the street, it’s polite to make eye contact, smile and perhaps even mumble a “good morning” or “how are you?” But my courtesy smiles were met with blank stares from my neighbors in Huize. Imagine that. So I ditched my luke-warm grin and started smiling with real joy – actual “make-a-withdrawal-from-my-soul” joy and I found that people responded. Of course, in some cultures even eye contact between men and women can be suggestive, so it is important to be aware of how your message will be perceived.
5.) Be careful where you draw lines in the sand. I actually never thought I had a problem with this one. I always thought I was a reasonable person who could see the error of my ways if someone pointed it out to me. All I know is, I have discovered a different side of myself—the contrarian. Living in a different culture brings out, or at least exposes, any and all stubbornness. Here is a simple example: When I heard my students say, “Rock, scissors, paper,” I said explained the way I played this game growing up in America we said, “Rock, paper, scissors.” And of course, if only because I have been around so long, I must be right. Eventually someone demonstrated that physically, it really is easier to progress from rock (closed fist) to scissors (just two fingers extended) to paper (all fingers extended flat). Even with this new evidence, I still felt my way was the correct way (You could argue that in English it’s easier to say “rock, paper, scissors,” but that’s not the point). Was it important? No. Did it even make a meaningful difference? Nope. If something so simple can stir up such stubbornness, you can imagine the kind of damage a serious disagreement could bring.
If I find I’m stuck in stubbornness, I think, “What would it take to convince me I am wrong?” What kind of evidence would I need? Many times, even if it was proven, I would still be reluctant to admit I am wrong. There’s just something about picking a side that makes you not want to lose. More importantly, I found my insistence on being right did not allow me to understand the other person better. I was more interested in finding faults in their arguments than understanding their point of view. And, as it turns out, “rock, paper, scissors” originated hundreds of years ago in – you guessed it – China!
6.) You’re Beautiful. Have you ever wondered what it would be like for strangers to tell you that you’re beautiful all the time? One of the most common things I hear from strangers in my town is, “you are beautiful” (remember, I live in area where people see few foreigners, so I am somewhat of a novelty). And why am I beautiful? Because I have light hair, pale skin, blue eyes, and a tall nose, they say. Far from being flattered, I often feel unsettled when people say this. Why should one hair color be more beautiful than another? What kind of society would hold women up to a standard of beauty they can never achieve?
Oh, wait. My culture says that to be beautiful you have spent hours at the gym sculpting your arms, legs and abs. You should use special shampoo that gives each strand of hair an armadillo-like coat of protection. You need special creams to keep away wrinkles and others to get rid of dark circles; all of this in a mission to measure up to images that have been edited far beyond reality. There is an entire industry kept alive by the belief that beauty must be earned.
My horror in being called beautiful is not entirely righteous indignation. There is a part of me that wonders, “Why would you think I’m beautiful when my hair is dirty and I don’t have any makeup on?” But both of us are wrong. I’m wrong for believing the twisted idea that beauty comes from enormous effort and piles of money. The people who give a higher value to my God-given physical traits than their own are also wrong. Is one worse than the other? All I know is that nothing can ever compare to inner beauty and the confidence that comes from being happy and healthy. And that is worth complimenting.
7.) Going on the defensive. As I prepared lessons for my new role as an American culture teacher, I knew it was important to give my students a balanced understanding of America and the struggles it has faced and still faces today. I may have succeeded in my lessons, but as the months passed, I began to defend America in conversations where I either didn’t know very much about the subject, or even disagreed with my own arguments. Remind me again, why am I defending America’s medical system? The expensive, inefficient one? But here’s what was happening: because I was often identified only as an American, or The American, I began to internalize that identity in a way that had never been possible when I was actually living in America.
We all serve as ambassadors to foreign places. No, it might not be China, but companies and schools have their own cultures as well. And it’s helpful to step back and take stock of our homes. Those outside eyes should be opportunities to see a new perspective instead of fight criticism.
8.) The grass is always greener on the other side. This one is a classic. Everybody knows you always want what you can’t have. And the fact that the other side of the fence is actually the other side of the world doesn’t make it any easier. If only there were some way to move the Pacific Ocean and just slide China right next to California. The flight would be so much shorter and cost-efficient. Problem solved. One can dream, right?
Even so, no one can be in two places at once. One of the things I often miss is food. I’ve made lists of favorite restaurants, favorite family dishes – even everyday food that I promise never again to take for granted. Here’s an actual list I made on August 29th, entitled, “Food I want to eat in America: fried pickles with spicy ranch dressing, Chick-fil-a chicken biscuit, Varsity onion rings, Mexican dip, a triple cheeseburger, guacamole, Mellow Mushroom pizza, spinach and artichoke dip, and fries with feta dressing at The Grill” (The theme of this list seems to be junk food/Mexican). Somehow, my daily rice porridge dinners didn’t make my food cravings any easier.
And then I had this dream. I was back in America, going about my day, and all I could think about was that I couldn’t see my students in China anymore. As their faces popped into my mind, I had a truly miserable feeling. In the dream I thought, “I guess I can go pick up a Little Caesar’s pizza?” Great.
It is so important to be present in what we are doing because those moments – like my precious time with my students – will never come back. When I am in China, there will always be things I miss about America. And when I’m in America, there will always be things I miss about China. I can either focus on what I cannot have, or appreciate what I do have. Even with the vivid memory of this dream, it is a lesson I have to remind myself of quite often.
9.) The Blue Whale Test. When you first arrive in a new country, everything is new and interesting. You find yourself eating foods you would have never tried before. It’s like your curiosity gets a shot of adrenaline. But as the months pass, this enthusiasm passes and is replaced by skepticism. There are just so many ideas – and some of them are really strange – that it’s easier to just shut the whole thing down. “I don’t like that.” “That cannot be true.” “I don’t want to try it.” Those new things that were so exciting become as annoying as knocks from door-to-door salesmen. Or even something to hide from.
The area I struggle the most with this resistance is traditional Chinese medicine. It’s an important part of everyday life in my school: TCM is a regular class for my students and many want to become TCM doctors someday. I struggle with concepts of meridians controlling the flow of chi throughout the body. I am skeptical about my students’ claims that drinking cold water will cause immediate stomach pain. Acupuncture, coining, — all of these things are foreign to me. At these times, when my natural curiosity is fatigued, I have developed a test that allows me to keep the doors of my mind at least cracked.
The Blue Whale Test is this: I ask myself, “Is this new idea any more outrageous than the fact that a creature longer than an NBA basketball court, whose tongue weighs more than an elephant and can make sounds louder than a jet engine, is swimming in the ocean right now?” It is a way to remind myself that the world is a magnificent, mysterious place and I can’t presume to know all of its secrets. Not yet anyway.
Does everything pass the Blue Whale Test? No. Recently I was part of a conversation about a group of people who claimed to go without food for long periods of time – perhaps three months to a year – and instead absorbed energy from the sun. Human photosynthesis? I’m going to pass on that one (keeping in mind No. 5, of course). And that is not the strangest thing I’ve come across, by far.
In the end, this mental exercise helps me set some boundaries while challenging me to understand what I have not encountered before.
10.) Flexibility is key. I consider myself a generally easy-going, flexible person. But somehow, here I often feel like an obsessive planner by comparison. There are times when my class is rescheduled at the last minute or a power outage necessitates a change in my lesson plan. Sometimes it’s frustratingly difficult to find out dates for simple events, like, “What day does school start after winter break?” Then there was the time when the entire school moved to a different town in two days. To be fair, that was because the local government was trying to shut the school down, but that’s another story for another time.
Although I don’t always appreciate this stretching of my concept of flexibility, I do recognize that it has made many wonderful opportunities possible. I was able to attend a wedding after being invited the day before the event (What time? In the afternoon. What time in the afternoon? After nap time and before dinner). One time my friend Lisa came to my door and said, “Do you want to have lunch in a village to celebrate a special holiday?” “Yeah! Sounds good. When?” “Right now. We’re waiting in the car downstairs.” I simply don’t think I could have made it through this year without a certain level of flexibility.
Even as I put the finishing touches on this list, I can think of a half-dozen more points I could write about. But the most important lesson I could ever take away, and the one that ties all of these together, is the importance of having the time and patience to understand people. Many times I have allowed my own failings to get in the way of connecting with people, which is a shame. Whether they come from across the street or the other side of the globe, people make all of this worthwhile.