Born Expat

Here’s an interesting first-person piece about being a TCK (third-culture kid), or, as this Taiwan-raised Canadian prefers to say, being “born expat.”

Born Expat
“The value for me, then, of being Born Expat is not to perpetually live abroad, nor to only hang out with other expats. . .but to be able to locate the source of my cultural and emotional identity. It is good to know why I am different, and to be at peace with my differences. I still don’t understand what it means to be Canadian. I don’t think I ever will, but thankfully I am no longer trying so hard to fit in. I can embrace my Taiwanese half.

“I am an expat. This is my culture. This is enough.”

Traffic right-of-way: China vs. Canada

This is our second time coming back to Canada after extended time in China. This time (unlike the first time), slipping back into driving and biking has been easy. I haven’t messed up traffic patterns yet like last time, even though I’ve been biking to work and driving other places for a month now. But one aspect of Canadian — or at least suburban greater Vancouver — that has really stood out to me this time is right-of-way, particularly crosswalks.

Right of way in Tianjin, China is simple:

  1. If you are in the way, you have right of way. Lights and crosswalks are basically decorations.*
  2. Size + speed + honking = in the way, even if you’re technically just on the way.

But in Canada, if you’re in the crosswalk, you’re golden. You’re king of the road. Your apparently inviolable right of way extends as far as the crosswalk stripes. You can take your sweet time. I’ve even had drivers wanting to turn right stop and wait because they saw me approaching the crosswalk. I have to wave and smile every time; I can’t get over it. I’ve yet to get honked at, and I don’t know what it would take: maybe sit down in the middle and start texting?

Anyway, that’s probably the first big impression I’ve had this time coming back (aside from the air, trees, mountains, friendliness, cleanliness, orderliness, tastiness, safety-ness, expensiveness, and extreme-to-the-point-of-unconscious-Orwellian-levels-of-hypocrisy political correctness). And the handicapped stuff. There’s way more accommodation here. The buses lower on hydraulics so elderly and physically disabled people can step up, and if that’s not good enough a ramp folds out! Crazy.

*(P.S. – I should note that this seems to be changing. I’ve seen traffic both improve dramatically and devolve noticeably during our years in Tianjin. So when in doubt, follow the locals, if you dare.)

Related reverse-culture stress and comparative traffic stuff:

Post-China reverse culture stress: You’re Not Special Anymore

Shannon went back to America with her Chinese husband after three years in China, and she’s only just now, several months later, able to start articulating parts of her reverse culture shock experience: “I was continually asked to be an “English expert” in various ways, I was always treated like a guest and was usually the first to be approached and befriended in a new situation. My picture was all over the city – on buses, in movie theaters, on LCD screens throughout the city, even as a life-sized cut-out in my school. I was special, unique, different and rare.

“I’m just not a big deal anymore! It’s a complete and total change from the last 3.5 years of my life and, I’m afraid, it’s going to be one of the biggest adjustments for me.” Read more here: Hero to Zero

We’ve written about our own adventures in reverse culture stress here.

Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home (PART 2)

In three weeks we’ll leave for another couple years in China. Looking back over the last eight months in Vancouver, B.C. (unavoidably longer than we’d planned), I can see some things now about my re-entry adjustment (a.k.a. reverse culture stress experience) that I couldn’t see at the time.

After almost three years in Taiwan and China focusing on Chinese language and culture, we were initially out of our element when we came back to B.C., as we expected. I was a little hesitant, for example, to jump right back into city driving, among other things, but it didn’t take too long to function more or less normally again. Soon I was driving all over the place in Vancouver’s notorious traffic and it was second-nature.

But I’m realizing now that when it comes to people, like hanging out and stuff, I didn’t feel fully at home or totally relaxed or 100% not-more-awkward-than-normal until around six months in, maybe even later. I can look back now at particular social events and see how things weren’t normal for me — not that it was so bad or I couldn’t function, but that I didn’t feel totally myself and wasn’t as effortlessly engaged with people as I would have liked to be. In a few early instances I was a total dud, and I’d much rather blame reverse culture stress than my personality! ;) It feels much easier now after almost eight months, but of course we’re leaving again in a couple weeks. I guess that’s just how it goes. Hopefully when it’s time for 老二 to come along we’ll get to do it all again!

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Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home

Planning to eventually move back to your home country after an extended stay in China? Then you have a problem. I suggest you be on the lookout for this sneaky little bugger, because he will get you, and there’s no escape.

He won’t jump up in your face and assault you outright; that’s not this saboteur’s modus operandi. Instead, he’s spent the entire time you’ve lived in China scheming against you, lurking just outside your range of perception, slowly sabotaging your much-anticipated homecoming from within the subconscious regions of your mind. His name is usually some variation of “reverse culture stress” or “re-entry shock,” and he can be a nasty piece of work, especially if you fly home with unrealistic expectations, unaware and unprepared. Fortunately, although you can’t avoid him, you can be ready for him when he comes, and that can make your re-adjustment back into your home culture a much less stressful and negative experience.

Welcome… home?

When you arrive back in whatever overdeveloped, obscenely rich nation you probably came from (no offense meant to the minority of expats from developing countries; offense to expats from the overdeveloped “first world” is entirely intentional, but when you’re in the middle of a bout of reverse culture stress you’ll happily agree with me anyway), re-adjustment might not seem like too big a deal at first. Your nominally curious friends will ask you, “So, how’s China?” And you’ll answer, “Uhhh… good?” Maybe you’ll all go out for “real Chinese food,” and they’ll give you painfully awkward looks when you eat bite-by-bite straight out of the serving dishes and hold your bowl off the table close to your mouth. Or maybe your sister will freak out when she discovers that somebody put used toilet paper in the garbage can. Or maybe you’ll do like me (I wouldn’t know anything about the aforementioned toilet paper incident) and refuse to accept the fact that your home city was built for cars, not bikes, and become a road hazard by insisting on walking and biking everywhere even though you’ve forgotten how the traffic works, violating numerous by-laws in the process and making the local motorists nervous.

There are myriad ways you can be surprised by the fact that you are no longer effortlessly at home in your own culture. Many such experiences are superficial and even funny, but the accumulation of such anecdotes can result in strong, confusing and stressful underlying emotions that leave you feeling almost as disoriented in your own culture as you were when you first arrived in China. In a way it’s even worse in your own culture: unlike in China, at home you have no excuse for not fitting in, nor do you expect to ever need one. But after a few months, the romanticizing of your home culture in which you indulged while away takes a U-turn. You become more critical and angry than ever with your home society; its flaws appear all the more damning and its benefits superficial or discounted. Reverse culture stress bleeds out through your negative attitude and actions. This is not only out of character, but seemingly without cause. Your family wants to know what your problem is, but you don’t know. Re-entry stress is a sneaky little son-of-a-turtle.

Friends’ Experiences

Bio returned to his native Brazil after years of graduate school in Texas, and he describes his cultural re-adjustment experience this way:

Take it easy on reverse cultural shock. It was awful to me. I started questioning everything as if it was totally different from before I left. It’s such a strange feeling! Till today I still react. There is a bit of American/European value in me after the experience living abroad. I guess I learned to appreciate it.

Beth, an American physiotherapist in Tianjin, likens it to the ultimate foreigner experience:

Reentry is like you’ve been abducted by aliens and had tests performed on you then you are returned back to your planet. When you go back to your home country you look about the same but you can feel completely different and feel like you don’t know how to do some normal things you used to do every day because of the alien experience you have had living overseas.

Sonja, a native of Germany who lives in Tianjin, describes it this way:

It’s part of the parcel, I think, and often hits when least expected and can be as nagging as toothache. Toothache you can figure out quite easily, but it sometimes takes some time until the realization “Oh, I’m culture-stressed!” hits home.

Who are you and what did you do with my home?

How did this happen? It’s simple, really: You left Blueland and went to Yellowland, and after a few years you’ve taken on an odd greenish tinge. You haven’t really noticed or understood this gradual change, even if you think you do. In ways deeper than you realize, Yellowland has altered your preferences, comfort zones, expectations, even the autopilot that guides you through crowds and traffic. On top of all this, while you were away Blueland faded to a slightly different shade of blue. Neither you nor “Home” are the same as when you left. This means that arriving home expecting to effortlessly slide back into the way things were is a small tragedy waiting to happen. Bethany, an American grad student in Beijing, experienced this first-hand:

When I’m in a foreign country, I don’t expect to understand anybody, and nobody expects to understand me – and since this total lack of understanding finds expression in every aspect of my daily life, my expectations are all fulfilled; and though uncomfortable, I at least find comfort in knowing what to expect. When I come back home, I expect to understand everyone and for everyone to understand me – but because living in a foreign country has indelibly left its mark on me, i just end up confusing and being confused by everyone else, and I feel even more out of place and disjointed at “home” than I did in the foreign country.

Tianjin English teacher Shannon Ingleby succinctly and unforgettably describes the experience this way:

Re-entry stress is like the direction of water when you flush a toilet in China… backwards and stinky.

It’s a rude awakening – rude because it sneaks up on you, biding its time to one day ambush your hitherto subconscious assumptions with the realization that things aren’t the way you remember them in your home country, and your home country could say the same about you.

How to Deal

To anticipate and respond to your inevitable experience of reverse culture stress, it helps to go in with both eyes open and informed, expecting, recognizing and understanding these inevitable feelings for what they are when they hit you.

Reverse culture stress doesn’t engulf everyone with the same force. Your particular experience will likely be shaped by several related factors. Here are three of the big ones:

  • the amount of time you spent abroad,
  • your degree of cultural adaptation while abroad,
  • your personality and personal flexibility.

The longer you’re away, the more opportunity both you and your home each have to change. How much you change, of course, depends on how you spent that time abroad, how meaningfully you engaged and adapted to your host culture. If you lived, worked, and played in one of Tianjin’s lǎowài ghettos (aka 洋人街), living the life of a long-term tourist, chances are you got a smaller dose of Chinese culture; you’re still mostly blue with maybe the slightest whiff of green around the edges. But if you lived in an average Chinese neighbourhood for several years and spent most of your free time with local friends doing local things in Mandarin, you might be bright green in a few spots. The people who changed less while abroad have less adjusting to do when they return. Hard core, KTV-loving, Mandarin-speaking, culture-snob lǎowàis (p.s. – more power to ya) will probably be in for a harder time when they try to re-adjust back home. The upshot is that if you were flexible enough to adjust to China, then you are flexible enough to re-adjust back home whether you feel like it or not.

There are several things you can do to ease the stress of re-adjustment:

  • Find others to talk to who’ve also returned home after extended time abroad.
  • Recognize your feelings for what they are: the totally normal result of re-entering your home society after extended time away. It doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you, or that you’re a failure, or that you’re inflexible or can’t handle change.
  • Expect to experience the culture stress cycle again: honeymoon (initial euphoria of returning home), disillusionment (negative reaction to home not feeling like home), adjustment (correcting unrealistic expectations and accepting the new situation).
  • Realize that your perception of your home culture, while possibly enhanced and enriched due to your time away, is also heavily coloured by your culture stress feelings. When you’re in the second stage of the culture stress cycle, resist the urge to romanticize your host culture while demonizing your home culture. This urge arises from your reverse culture stress, not reality. If you feel like moving off to a monastery or a hippie farm, give it a few months first.
  • Re-engage the relationships you left behind when you went to China. You can’t simply pick up where you left off because everyone has changed over the years, but you can catch up and move forward.

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How China changed me forever

We’ve been back in Canada for a few months now after three years in East Asia (one in Taiwan, two on the Mainland). Three years is not very long when you’re talking about cross-cultural adaptation, especially between vastly different cultural and linguistic contexts like China and North America. But it’s long enough to get your feet wet in a new language and culture, and to make you feel weird when you go back “home.”

We’ve pretty much re-acclimatized to North American life, meaning that we feel naturally, effortlessly comfortable in this cultural context again (though we didn’t feel this way at first) — except for one thing, for which I suspect China has ruined me forever.

Every time I open the fridge to get a drink, or even some fruit, I instinctively want to leave it on the counter for a while to warm up. I cringe inside at the thought of how cold the juice is in the pitcher. Really cold drinks hurt my throat now, and I can’t drink them as fast when I’m really thirsty. I never cared before. Now I can’t help it. China has ruined my relationship with refrigerators, probably forever.

Ok, China. I admit it. You were right on this one. Cold drinks are bad. Warm drinks are better. I’ve tried it both ways, and I’ve been converted. I’m scared to think what might be next: Beijing Opera? Walking backwards through the park? Rolling my undershirt up to my armpits in the summer? You never can tell what too much time overseas will do to a guy.

(P.S. – I hope you weren’t expecting something profound here. We’re busy with the new baby and getting our lives in order to move back to Tianjin!)

How to: Confuse the traffic in your hometown

It’s rush hour, and I’m crossing the road with my bike, standing there looking at the cars looking at me, all of us wondering why the other isn’t going. I’d stopped in the middle of the crosswalk to wait for the line of cars turning right to finish. I’d assumed they weren’t going to wait for me to finish crossing.

I try to wave the first car through, but he doesn’t go until I look away. But the next car tries to wait for me, too. I look away and wave him through, wondering what the chances are of getting two overly-polite drivers in a row.

They were waiting for me, of course, because I was in the crosswalk and pedestrians have right-of-way. Right of way? For pedestrians? Traffic rules? I thought being in the way gave you right of way. It was so weird to see cars actually voluntarily stop to make way for anything that for a moment I didn’t know what to do. But that’s how it works; I asked my dad when I got home.

In Tianjin if we want the cars to stop for us we just step in front of them and force them to stop, or at least swerve, or adjust their trajectory. But in Surrey, crosswalks are magic!

My autopilot needs to be reprogrammed, apparently.

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