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!

Related posts:

Living in China Q&A with a California Intercultural Studies class

One of our professors beamed us into her Intercultural Communication class this week for a little Q&A session with the students. They had great questions, and it was tons of fun… thought I’m not sure how much we’ll remember, seeing as how we were tanked up on coffee and didn’t sign off ’til 3am.

They e-mailed some questions beforehand, and we’ve posted brief answers to some of them below (in no particular order). Lots of these are great questions, and they tease out different aspects of the cross-cultural living experience. The links go to examples from the blog.

[1a] What was the biggest challenge when it came to learning the new culture & language?
Joel: The people.
Jessica: It is possible (but sad) to live in China with a minimal amount of interaction with Chinese people. That said, when you make choices to try and interact with the people around you, it pushes you out of your comfort zone and it is inevitable that some of that interaction will not necessarily be easy as the bumps and edges of your two cultures grind against each other.
When the culture differences feel like getting ambushed by a firehose

[1b] What has been the easiest part?
Joel: The people.
Jessica: For the most part, Chinese people are very warm, welcoming, and extremely encouraging of our poor attempts to learn Mandarin.
Hospitality… with Chinese characteristics
Sharing Chinese New Year’s with the neighbours
Lao Zhao on Beijing accents

[2] What customs in China do you find interesting?
Jessica: There are so many interesting customs here that it is difficult to choose…also, I’m sure that there are still many, many more that we have not yet learned about. I love how Chinese play with the sounds and meanings of words, which sometime causes seemingly unassociated items to become connected to another word. For example, what do a flower vase, bottle of beverage, and an apple have to do with peace? If you are a foreigner, not much. But the words in Chinese for flower vase (华瓶), a bottle of beverage (瓶), and an apple (苹果) all contain characters that are pronounced “píng,” which sounds the same as å¹³, which is used in words for peace and well-being. In this case, you might bring all three of these seemingly random gifts to a friend who has recently moved into a new home, so as to wish peace on him or her and their new home.

Joel: I like how the neighbourhood has much more of a community feel than the Canadian suburbs I grew up in. After dinner, families go out walking in the parks; people don’t like to stay in when they don’t have to. And the whole approach to food is more fun (if less sanitary), I think. Instead of each person with an individual plate, everyone eats directly out of the serving dishes, one bite at a time. It sounds gross when I write it, but in practice it makes a meal out with friends a lot of fun. And Chinese New Year is a blast – literally.
A little taste of Chinese New Year in our neighbourhood

[3] What is a common misconception we have toward one another?
That Chinese are meek and quiet. That Americans are all Christians. That Chinese don’t have much diversity of opinion. That popular Hollywood movies depict realistic American lives and relationships. And that fortune cookies come from China.

[4] What is something Americans need to know about China in order for us to better understand them?
The Chinese version of modern history has a huge impact on attitudes and understandings of the present, especially their perceived relationship with “Westerners.” It affects how people interpret and react emotionally to events, like the Olympic Torch relay. Americans (and most other major Western nations) have a lot of baggage and bad history with China that they may not be aware of. The Chinese have not forgotten; it’s reinforced in their education system.
January’s propaganda: museum style
The Tianjin “Incident”
Why Mainlanders are taking it personally
What Do the Olympics Mean to “Their China”?

[5] Do you have any funny stories with the language and cultural differences?
Comfort Zone Violation #379 – Naked English Practice?
Please Stop Paying Attention to My…
Too fat! Too thin! Everyone’s got an opinion
Becoming morning people
Killing Mosquitoes with Curry
And those experiences don’t include the random stuff we see everyday: people walking backwards for exercise, yelling at the river, taking their birds for walks, biking down the road singing to themselves at the top of their lungs…

[6] Besides the language (verbal and nonverbal) how does the Chinese way of communicating compare to communication here in America?
They’re blunt where we’re sensitive and indirect (body image, personal business), and we’re blunt where they’re sensitive and indirect (“face” concerns, personal opinions, missing nonverbals). Also, Americans are much more comfortable airing their national dirty laundry in public for the whole world to see, and mercilessly and publicly vetting their leaders with little concern for how it might look to people from other nations. But in China the desire to protect China’s ‘face’ (nationally, racially and culturally) is too intense and doesn’t allow for that. So when we talk or write about China (in a local magazine), we have to take that sensitivity into account.

[7] Have you ever offended a Chinese person accidentally?
Jessica: Considering the number of times it’s gone in the reverse direction (I’ve been accidentally offended by a Chinese person) I’m sure that I’ve also done my share of being unknowingly offensive. With our current level of language, it’s even more difficult to not cause offense, because we sometimes don’t have the “right/polite language” (or know-how) to talk about some subjects (death, relationships, etc.) and could easily come off as being crass or crude.

Joel: Ha, all the time! It’s so annoyingly easy. Not that they usually tell us. But they tell us about other foreigners, and I assume they tell the other foreigners about us. Many people’s patriotic feelings were rubbed raw by the Olympic Torch relay, and during the ‘Olympic season’ accidentally saying something deemed offensive was really easy.
National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 2): One hour of criticism
National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 1): Not fit to print in Tianjin
No-go zones: what we avoid talking (and writing) about in Tianjin

[8] Are the Chinese people helpful in teaching you how to use their language better?
Joel: Yes and no. Here in Tianjin it’s super easy to find people willing to chat, but regular people (in any country) don’t speak text-book language or limit their vocabulary for new language learners.

Jessica: Also, younger Chinese people (college age, especially) tend not to want to speak Chinese with us, but to practice English. While we will occasionally be part of one of these practice sessions, our goal here is to learn Chinese…so we try to spend at least an equal amount of time with that person speaking Mandarin.
When speaking practice is fun it can be really fun

[9] Have you gotten over the stages of culture shock? What was it like?
Jessica: When you’ve studied culture stress, you can get the mistaken impression that knowing about it might somehow make you immune from experiencing it. I see people (foreigners) here all the time who are going through culture stress or culture shock but don’t realize it because they think they’re immune from it. Also, the “stages of culture shock” aren’t something that is really just “gotten over” like a cold, or the flu. Culture shock and readjustment is a process, which takes time…and the stages are often recurrent and cyclical.

Joel: Like when I yell Chinglish at vehicles when biking through rush hour traffic? Not my best moments. Culture stress affects your perception; it causes you to see everything with a negative slant. You complain more, get more suspicious of people, get more judgmental and have feelings of cultural superiority… it’s not pretty. The key is to recognize what’s happening to you, why you feel these ways, and to realize that your feelings aren’t based on reality.

[10] Were you completely sure about your decision to move to China or still apprehensive? Are you supposed to be completely sure?
Joel: We always planned to live internationally, and felt we had the whole world to choose from. But since we want to really “live into” our adopted country and culture (“culturally immigrate”), we can’t get by with just a superficial grasp of culture and language. For us, choosing China also means we’ve made a big commitment to learning the language and culture.

Jessica: We felt at that time, that we were as sure as it was possible to be that we were doing what we needed to be doing. We felt a great deal of peace about coming here. Apprehension is still a part of it though, as you consider the vast life changes and the “unknown” that must be faced.

[11] What is the weirdest experience you have had?
Joel: In some ways, every day brings weird experiences. But you’d be surprised what you can get used to, so that you stop noticing it or thinking that’s it’s weird. When people come to visit and you see them react strongly to things you don’t notice any more, then you suddenly realize how much your view of things has changed.

[12] Do you feel rejected in any way?
Jessica: One of the times I felt most rejected occurred with one of the people that I feel like usually accepts me the most. One day in class, I was talking with my teacher (who is also a friend) and she started saying how different we are, and that no matter how well I know Chinese language and culture, there will always be a huge and unbridgeable gap between us. As one who understands that the differences between us are vast, but is studying very hard in hopes that that gap can at least be narrowed a little bit, this conversation was a little disheartening. It felt like a rejection of me and of my goals in learning this language. However, time has proved (as our relationship has continued to grow closer) that it was probably not rejection, but possibly more of a practical observation.

Joel: the insider/outsider distinction is generally much stronger in China. If you’re “outside,” it’s sometimes like you’re barely even human. Foreigners here are sometimes shocked at the way locals can seem so callous to the suffering of others, at the apparent lack of a “Good Samaritan” ethos (like crowding to watch a serious accident but doing little to help). But how this distinction plays out all depends on the context, most often family (and closest friends) vs. the public, or China (nationally/racially/culturally) vs. the ‘West.’ There’s also locals vs. out-of-towners… the merchants will up the price on out-of-towners. “Foreigner” in Chinese is literally “old outer” or “out-country-person.”

[13] What things did you do that allowed the Chinese people to accept you?
Jessica: Showing interest and desire to learn the language and the culture is really important. That said, there is a balance that need to be found on where we stop asking “why? why? why?” all the time. Chinese friends have said that the continuous “whys” from foreigners are not only annoying, but can feel condescending. The interest and desire to learn needs to be coupled with a willingness to just accept and experience.

Joel: To the limited degree that we are accepted, and based on direct and second-hand feedback from locals, it seems that choosing to live in an average Chinese neighbourhood (rather than living somewhere better-than-average like most foreigners), and spending time with people seems to have scored us a few points.

[14] What aspect of the Chinese language has been the most difficult to learn?
Joel: Tough choice, because some days it seems all the aspects are competing for that honour! But often how I feel about my progress or lack thereof has less to do with the language or my actual progress and more to do with culture stress-related factors.

Jessica: Oh Chinese! It’s not for no reason that it is often listed as one of the most difficult languages to learn. It depends on the day which thing I may find most difficult.:D The aspect of Chinese that I find most “unfair” (haha) are the 多音字 (characters that pronounced differently depending on context and meaning). So it’s the SAME character, but there are multiple different pronunciations. It is often really difficult for us to know which pronunciation to use, and there are MANY of these 多音字 in Chinese.
Learning Chinese and Culture Stress: the importance of mind games
Learning Mandarin: Realistic Expectations

[15] How has the different communication process in China affected how you communicate with people back here in the states?
Jessica: I sometimes feel like I need to be more indirect about saying something. I usually end up saying it the normal way, but at the feeling level… I now sometimes hesitate, and wonder if I’m being “too direct” about something.

Joel: My mother will be appalled at my table manners when we visit Canada this February (it will be our first time back in 2.5 years).

[16] How long did it take you to learn the non-verbal aspects of the Chinese culture? Any examples?
Joel: We’re only just starting to catch on to this stuff. Understanding how it’s supposed to work in your head, and being able to naturally behave that way in a conversation — to really “feel it” yourself — are two very different things.

Jessica: I’m not sure there ever really comes a point where you can consider this “learned.” It’s definitely a process, and a lot of it is unconscious…where you slowly begin to absorb the non-verbals and consider them when figuring out the meaning of a particular conversation.
Free Advice — for you and your Chinese friends
To “lie” or not to “lie”

[17] What was the extent of your language education before going to China?
Very little. A handful of informal tutoring sessions from an encouraging biology prof who’d immigrated to the States from Beijing.

[18] What do you do for leisure activity?
Biking around exploring the city, going to parks, hanging out with the neighbours (but that’s not always as relaxing due to our lack of language and culture), playing with other foreigners (probably too much).
How to: Hang with the homies and not get totally hammered
Tianjin’s Forsaken Places
– Exploring Tianjin on a bike (here, here, and here)

[19] Have you had any altercations with the government?
Not really, unless you count this: When the Police Knock On Your Door, It’s Best to Have Your Clothes On. The Public Security Bureau “has tea” with leaders from our N.G.O. every month, just to check in and let them know they’re paying attention.

[20] What about the extra restrictions over there?
The restrictions tempt us to have bad attitudes, and bad attitudes make a difference. Often they seem ridiculous and paranoid, make us want to roll our eyes, or even get offended (as in, it’s my life and none of your business!). Jessica’s not comfortable writing examples on the blog, so we won’t put any here. But we knew it’d be this way coming in, and we try to remember that we’re guests here.

[21] Do you think you will spend the rest of your life in China?
Right now we plan to live, work, and raise our family here. When our (future, theoretical) kids are ready for college, who knows. But this is such a major investment for us (time, money, youth, career, etc.) that it’s hard to imagine a future that isn’t connected to China in some way.

[22] Do you miss the US?
Jessica: I sometimes miss good customer service. It will be nice to go shopping and not have to mentally psyche myself up for the experience or worry about the salesladies fighting over whether a certain garment will fit me or not and whether or not I should be allowed to even try it on.

Joel: She’s not exaggerating, and she’s not any more sensitive than the average North American woman either. The Western girls here have to learn the hard to way to become really thick-skinned when it comes to personal comments in public about body size. Especially when they come from America, where customers are pretty much worshiped. But really, we miss family and friends more than anything else.
The Things We Miss….

[23] Have you been able to have family come and visit?
Not yet. We plan is to hold their grandkids hostage. And we told them to wait until we have better Chinese.

[24] What part of American culture are you most happy not to be a part of anymore?
Media bombardment isn’t as all-consuming here (though there is plenty). Plus, we tune out a lot of it anyway because we can’t read it, or the images don’t effortlessly connect with us like American ads do.

[25] Did you start teaching immediately or did you take time for language learning?
We’re going to take as much language school as we can possibly afford. When we do start working/having kids, we’ll be working towards jobs that let us use Chinese (English teaching is a last resort).

[26] Do you enjoy the cuisine?
Joel: Yes and no. there’s tons of good food, but there’s also lots that isn’t that appealing at all (chunks of congealed pig’s blood in soup, for example, which we had to eat this week when friends took us out). Everyone loves going to Chinese restaurants, but our foreign friends order different dishes than our Chinese friends do.

Jessica: While I like foods that fall in the “家常菜” (down home cookin’) category, I really don’t like many of the foods that Chinese consider “fancy.” If we have to attend a banquet, or are invited to a nice dinner with Chinese friends, chances are I’ll be eating more for the sake of politeness than because I’m actually enjoying it. On the other hand, some of that down home cookin’ and many of the street foods are just awesome!

[27] How long were you in the “rejection phase”? [note: refers to culture stress cycle]
It’s hard to say, because there aren’t real clean lines between the phases, and you repeat the cycle many times (hopefully less and less dramatically each time).

[28] How have you seen your goals being accomplished?
Jessica: On days when I feel like I’ve really been able to connect with a Chinese friend and talk, especially when we can talk on a deeper level about our lives, I come home feeling both that my goals are beginning to be realized in some small ways and more inspired and motivated to keep working hard and pressing deeper into the language.

Joel: Some days more than others. Some days you feel good about what you can do in the language, some days you feel bad about how limited you are — and those feelings often have a lot to do with your current levels of culture stress. But our goals are very long-term, so for now we just look at progress.

(If you’re still reading, you so totally deserve an A.)