Experiencing situational culture shock
What impacts us when we first go into a new cultural setting? Sometimes just the situation itself is challenging! Any relocation can mean changes in climate, food, or other factors. The early adjustments presented here might help you prepare.
In this article, the lead educator looks back on his initial challenges to adjusting to life in Asia. Obviously situations have changed since his first move to Asia in 1979, but many of these types of external or change-of-context factors may still face sojourners in their moves in and out of cultures around the world. This historical reflection might help you to consider how you would have or might respond to similar changes of location and situation.
External Intercultural Adjustments –My First “Culture Shocks” in Chinese contexts
Because I’ve lived in China for a long time, locals often smile and give me the honorable title of being “an Old China-hand” (Zhongguo Tong). Though flattered by that, I know that no matter how long I live here I’ll still be a “lao-wai” - an “old outsider.” But Chinese people are incredibly hospitable, and in many situations I feel very much at home!
But it wasn’t always that way. My students often ask me what some of my difficult adjustments were. I must admit, after over 35 years, it is not easy to remember my first, unfamiliar days in China. But some of them are still vivid in my mind. Perhaps by sharing my difficulties in adjusting, learners will gain some insight into adjustments that they may face in the future.
Climate and Conditions
One of my first impressions came just from a climate change. I grew up in Kansas, a very dry high plains climate much like Gansu or Qinghai provinces. The summer before coming, we had many days over 40 degrees Celsius! But most places in Kansas were air-conditioned in 1979 – our houses, our cars, even our farm tractors. Not so in Taichung or in Xiamen at that time. And I was not at all accustomed to the South China humidity. It seemed that no matter where I went, I perspired. And trying to cool off in front of my small circular fan, I still felt hot and sweaty, even if I sat still.
This is a common problem for transitions anywhere. People from dry climates find a new moist area uncomfortable. People from humid climates go to arid places and find their fingers and lips cracking and their nose bleeding. Climate partly defines the differences between China’s northern and southern cultures (or sub-cultures). Any climate change can be uncomfortable. But our bodies are wonderfully adaptable – and usually after one seasonal cycle, we feel fairly adapted. Now I find it difficult going back to Kansas – I’m no longer accustomed to the dry summer heat.
One of my most difficult adjustments came from the dense population of Asian cities. The day before coming to China I was farming for my father. I rode on a tractor all day by myself across a large Midwestern field. I only saw one or two cars go by. It was a wonderfully familiar solitary feeling for me. I sensed an identity with the single hawk I saw fly by, or the isolated rabbit I watched cross the field. This was a part of my individualistic heritage – being alone in nature and scanning the earth from one flat horizon to the other.
And then, after less than 24-hours of flight travel, I was in Taichung, later in Singapore, then in Xiamen and finally in Shanghai. No matter where I went, there were people. I went to the Post Office at noon to mail my letter hoping to miss the crowds – it was still full of people (and in those days they did not stand in a line!). I went to the jogging track to get away, and even it was full of students jogging, talking, and walking. Because foreigners were a novelty, I couldn’t even run one round before some students ran up to meet me. Though I’m very grateful for Chinese hospitality, I felt I had no privacy or alone time.
Further, in Asia’s cities, I could no longer see the horizons. Everywhere I looked there were buildings obstructing my view and noises of people from those buildings disturbing my sense of peace. This was not peculiar to China – this was the “urban shock” that any country kid will feel in a metropolis. China of course has quiet rural areas that are tranquil and untainted. But I am a teacher and there are few universities out on lonely plains. As an instructor in Kansas, I could still walk or bike to the edge of almost any college town to enjoy a sunrise or sunset. But in Asia, I seldom found the end of the cities I lived in. This continues to be tiring for me. So I’ve learned that my family and I have to find time to travel to quieter, natural spots to stay refreshed. The problem is that urban schedules also run at a faster pace, so it is hard to schedule such get-away times.
Food and Hygiene
Naturally, the food was also different. I had tasted Chinese food at home, but did not realize how Americanized those Chinese restaurants were. Adjusting to new tastes and smells is always a challenge for the traveler. I was very willing to try anything set in front of me, but I must admit, the consistency and style of some dishes were difficult to enjoy at first. Soft, squishy dishes like tofu or taro root were strange to my tongue; oily, spicy dishes upset my stomach; and I found it very hard to swallow meat dishes that still had pieces of fat on them like Chinese sausage or local bacon.
On our Kansas farm I grew up eating much meat. But our meat was usually prepared as large pieces like steaks, which were lean and usually boneless. Getting a chicken that had been chopped with a cleaver, bones and all, was a shock for me. As a Midwestern rural American, I thought savoring the flavor of the meat was most important. But here, moving one’s mouth to savor the bone flavor, the marrow, the fat and the sauce seemed more important. That was very hard to adjust to, both in taste and eating style (“good manners” are also culturally defined!).
My main dining location as a teacher was in the campus cafeteria. Students and teachers around the world seem to complain about the lower quality of university cafeterias (you’re smiling!) Some of the dishes we were served may not have been of the highest quality or the best taste, but if you came late, somehow it all started to look like some sloppy stew. And I was often frustrated that neither the dishes nor the rice were piping hot.
But the bigger shock for me was the hygiene standards or daily practices. The tables had no tablecloths. At that time, students often spat out their bones or even dumped over their leftover rice and food on the table. If you came late to dinner you faced a pile of messy food. Or even if it had been wiped off, it was often just swept into a bucket and the table was still streaked with moisture [Thankfully, this practice has changed in major ways over the last decades!]. For US Americans like me, “clean” meant “dry.” Even today, hand me a freshly washed wet cup, and I have trouble drinking from it (our childhood socialization habits are hard to change). So a wet table seemed like a “dirty” table, which sometimes caused me to loose my appetite. Though eating conditions have improved much, the style is still different from “back home.” Whenever you go overseas, you need to be prepared that both food and eating styles will require you to make adjustments.
Even the fine dining opportunities were not easy. I found that banquets in China serve unique, but unusual dishes. Here, the onus of being a good host at an official dinner means to serve special, expensive foods. But for a foreigner, many of these seemed strange and hard to imagine. Cold dishes like sea slugs or spicy chicken feet (so beautifully called phoenix claws) and hot dishes like fatty pork loin (ti-pang) or turtle soup didn’t seem bearable to me at first. My advice in any culture is that if you ever host someone from abroad, start out by going simple. You may think such choices are not fancy or unique enough, but your foreign guest will be grateful to have dishes he or she can recognize at the beginning, then slowly adjust
Naturally, beyond these areas, there were a hundred other adjustments. But these were the ones I found most difficult at first. Other sojourners would no doubt have their different list of initial challenges.
The good news is that I survived, got used to each one and am still here, enjoying my life in China. Getting used to new things is a normal part of any transition. But that process of adapting is sometimes a stressful one that makes us confront our limitations, background, expectations, and sometime even biases or prejudices. So facing them with an open attitude helps us in each future adjustment.
Kulich, S. J. (2015). External Intercultural adjustments - My first “culture shocks” in Chinese contexts. Retrieved from the Shanghai International Studies University online Course. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/intercultural-communication
© Steve J. Kulich, Shanghai International Studies University