How we end up living better every time we return to China

Maybe it sounds a little weird to think of making the most of a transition back to China. The goodbyes, 36+ hours of travel door-to-door, jet lag, and downward re-adjustment in comfort all make returning to your overseas home something to merely endure and survive, especially when young kids are involved. That’s still true for us. But we’ve also found there’s a great opportunity buried within each of our family’s sad and stressful biannual transitions back to the far side of the world.

Every second summer we spend two months visiting family and friends in Canada and the US (four states and one province). It’s great and we love it; lots of food and fun and camping and swimming with people we love and don’t get to see even close to near enough. But it’s not healthy in the sense that it’s a break from intentionally established daily routines that include sane sleep, eating, exercise, and relating. Plus, the leaving and the returning each have their own special stress.

Saying goodbye is one thing, but making your kids say goodbye to their grandparents at the international departures gate is just about the worst thing ever. It’s even worse than international travel with kids, which usually includes a long-haul flight followed by a layover followed by another flight that you barely make because your first flight was delayed (“Just hold it, OK?! Better wet pants on the plane than dry pants in the airport! Let’s move!”). Then there’s the step back down in convenience, cleanliness, and familiarity, plus all the stuff/dirt/bugs that has broken/accumulated/infested-and-died while you were away. We return to China physically and emotionally exhausted, out of shape, and relationally disoriented (for an extended period of time our kids haven’t had their usual amount of regular attention from us, and we haven’t had normal couple time, either).

It’s kind of funny: bracing for all that stress during our last two days with family in Canada is almost worse than actually going through it during the first week back in China. Sure, the first couple days of jet-lag and apartment cleaning/repair while trying to not take it out on your beyond-exhausted children aren’t awesome. But the level of discomfort I imagine each time never actually materializes, despite accurately predicting the general level of 麻烦 that awaits us. Each time, we slide back into our life here quicker and more smoothly than I expect us to.

And every return to China gives us an exciting opportunity that we plan for each time: the chance to intentionally alter our lifestyle for the better. Since our previously established routines and habits have been blown to smithereens by over two months of travel, it’s a prime chance to intentionally rearrange them as they start falling back into place, before they re-solidify. When your habits and routines have all been uprooted, it’s a chance to plant different ones.

Every time we come back to China, we end up living better than we had before. When we have about a week to go in North America we start thinking and talking about what we can improve, physically, psychologically, and relationally (I’d say “spiritually” but in my opinion it’s all spiritual one way or another), and keep adjusting it for the first few weeks we’re back.

Here’s some of the things we did this time, after returning to Qingdao a month ago on September 8:

  • Healthier eating: Mostly thanks to recommendations from my health-coach sister (not the product-pushing American-style health coach; the holistic, integrative kind), we tweaked our family’s diet, again.
  • Enhanced workout routine: I soaked up all the advice and info I could from my brother who’s a black belt in multiple martial arts and does judo and jujitsu training, and friends who do hardcore circuit training and strength training, and now my workout routine is more effective and time-saving.
  • Smarter family routines: Sometimes there really are engineering solutions to behaviour problems. Turns out you can avoid some common points of conflict just by adjusting meal/washing/clean up routines and staying on top of them. We talked it over from the vantage point of being outside our life here, and managed to identify and eliminate a couple of the kids’ daily opportunities for whining and noncompliance.
  • Smarter Chinese study routine: One way to get out of a study rut is to not study for two months. The last routine got me through the HSK5, but it didn’t feel good. I’m not going back to what I was doing, and instead have started a simple, doable, but more effective study routine that targets my weaker language areas and begins preparing me for the HSK6.
  • Long-neglected home repairs: For a very brief period of time after leaving the cleanliness and convenience of Canada, my tolerance levels are lower, and that means stuff gets fixed (gotta strike while the iron is hot, you know?), like the water barrier on our bathroom floor that keeps the shower water in the shower, the smoke fan in the kitchen, and the exhaust fan in the bathroom. I also thoroughly cleaned the DIY air purifiers, vacuumed, mopped and dusted the whole apartment and cleaned all the mold that had grown over the summer. And replaced all the dead houseplants with better ones. This would never happen in Month 2.
  • Healthier personal practices: I had personal practices before — what people usually call ‘spiritual’ practices — and those continue. But now I’ve also begun other ones. These are the kinds of things that intentionally set the direction and shape you’re going to grow in — the kind of person you’re going to become. Time will tell how far I’m able to grow into them. (Step 1 in becoming legit spiritual is Get Enough Sleep. We have an infant. I’m working on it…). But being captivated by a liberating, positive, all-encompassing vision is unlike anything else, even when Kid #3 is making you tired. (I’m happy to share details. Spoiler: Jesus.)

The end result is: our life is on a slightly better trajectory now than it was before we left for the summer. And it was the same deal after we returned from the summer two years ago. It makes us excited for where the next few semester will take us.

1st Corinthians 13 — CSV translation (Culture Stress Version)

You know how making and serving food is an expression of love for a lot of people? I’d like to propose that, sometimes, eating it is an act of love, too.

After last night’s donkey parts dinner I’m feeling rather pious*, though I probably won’t be by the time I finish this post. So allow me to present a somewhat famous ancient passage in a fresh translation: the Donkey Parts Version (DPV). Or, if you’re of a more squeamish constitution: the Culture Stress Version (CSV), because that’s what this is really about anyway. ;)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

donkeyseacucumberspecialIf I slurp down this gelatinous slab of donkey blood without making a face, but do not have love, I’m like two mass exercise dance groups of at least 100 grannies each, both in the same public square and each with its own impressive sound system.

If I chew and chew and chew some more and finally choke down this unnecessarily large chunk of fried donkey penis just in time for the next toast, but do not have love, then I’m like that guy at the gym who brings his portable mp3 player — even though the spinning class music, the aerobics class music, and the house speakers are all already competing for prominence in the weight room soundscape — and sticks it right in the middle of the floor where we can more easily trip over it.

If I drink more Tsingtao than I want to so the host will have face and the guests won’t feel that I think I’m too good for them because the obnoxious and juvenile male social world is just that way, and surrender my body to a night of greasy indigestion, but do not have love, then I’m like thirty high-pitched Chinese preschoolers in a cavernous classroom of hard surfaces who won’t stop yelling Wàijiào LÇŽoshÄ«!! even though you’ve said Good Mooorniing! to them five times already.

Love is patient with the snot-faced little double-fingered nose-pickers even when the English you’re employed to teach them is beyond their developmental capacity as 3-year-olds, and love is kind even when their parents send them to school sick and they cough in your face and leave their boogers on your teaching toys. It does not envy people with long-term tourist visas. It most certainly does not boast about being a wàijiào; it is not proud.

Love is not overly rude to neighbours who honk their horn for twenty solid minutes in the middle of the night because they drove back so drunk they think someone else has parked in their parking space; it is not merely self-seeking but also seeks peace and quiet for the entire apartment complex. It is not easily angered by impossibly long strings of firecrackers at 3am on Chinese New Year’s Day, and keeps no record of wrongs, but rather considers such things merely as mildly humourous blog fodder.

Love does not rejoice in or act entitled to lÇŽowài privilege, but rejoices in the truth, like when Chinese friends feel close enough to burst your deluded protective bubble about how fluent your Mandarin actually isn’t, or like when you find out you’ve been saying or doing something wrong for years.

Love always protects face, always trusts that, on average, these people aren’t really any worse than the people you came from, always hopes for deep and meaningful cross-cultural relationships, and always always always always perseveres in language study.

Love never fails.

Have a happy, more gracious and more loving New Year! ;)

*(This does not happen very often.)

Links from above:

donley_penis
What a serving of donkey penis looks like. After we’ve already eaten half of it. (Gelatinous slabs of donkey blood not pictured.)

“Bad China Days” [or] How I will eventually LOSE IT and end up on the Chinese evening news

Foreigners in China sometimes experience what’s called a “Bad China Day.” Bad China Days can come in any zillion varieties. These are the days when you especially feel the culture stress; you’re irritated and short-tempered, and everything is dirty and loud and inconvenient and irrational and obnoxious.

Now it’s important to note that Bad China Days aren’t necessarily China’s fault — whoever or whatever ‘China’ is. For example, there’s a big difference between:

  • “I’m having a bad day, and I just happen to be in China.”
  • “‘China’ is being bad to me today.”

And both of those are different still from “Living in a culture not your own inevitably causes stress and today I’m really feeling it. I should go take a nap, and definitely should not write a blog post about my host country.”

Not that it matters; Bad China Days are irrational. They’re when you’re tempted to exhibit your worst cross-cultural behaviour. Hopefully I’ll keep it together. But I can imagine, on a very Bad China Day, in the hotter corners of the culture stress crucible, on the lowest swing of a culture stress cycle, that an untimely encounter with one of several situations could cause me to do things that will end up on the Chinese evening news. Here are five, in no particular order…

1. Public-Surface-Area-Violating Biohazards

Observe closely this surreptitiously-taken and mercifully-angled cell phone photo from last weekend at the beach:

On the right: a nice public restroom. Directly opposite on the left: Grandma suspends Junior in mid-air so he can make something on the ground that looks a bit like but definitely is not a sandcastle. Grandpa prepares the newspapers.

I used to be pretty live-and-let-live when it comes to diapers vs. split-pants — at least in theory. After all, who cares what other people do, right, so long as it doesn’t impact your life? But now we have kids who play in crowded public spaces, and it turns out that letting kids pee and poo on the ground in the middle of parks and neighbourhood play areas (and on subway platforms, restaurant garbage cans, subway platform garbage cans inches from me sitting on a bench) does impact my life: “Don’t step in that puddle!” “I know he is, sweetie, but it’s not nice to watch.” “Oh for the love…”

It’s kind of like camping in a secluded forest and peeing on a tree. Except it’s over-populated and everything’s concrete. But bonus points to our district government for tackling this issue head-on with bilingual (though unintentionally profane) signage:


2. Public-Air-Space-Violating Biohazards

These are the notes of a culture-stressed foreign English teacher in a Chinese preschool:

No matter what country you’re in, preschools are essentially contagion exchange centres. Every morning Monday-Friday I teach over 200 2-to-6-yr-old Chinese kids English. I’m their only English teacher. I’m also their only cover-your-mouth-when-you-cough-and-sneeze teacher; none of the local teachers give attention to it. It’s flu season all year long in there. Literally every class (20-30 kids each) I remind kids to cover their mouths, because there are always a few coughers. I’ve worked covering your mouth into two different action songs. But when our daughter gets a cold: “That’s because you don’t make her wear enough clothing.” When you’re a sick and tired one-man public health crusader who’s been staring down hacking kids all morning and your daughter’s preschool teacher tells you her cold is due to your bad parenting, being able to speak Chinese is suddenly a liability.

3. Car-Horn-Honking Noise Polluters

There’s already been one time where I actually looked in the fridge for eggs to throw on my way out the door in the dead of night. Not that it mattered; other neighbours threw heavier objects.

In Canada honking your horn can only mean one of two things: “DANGER!” or “—- YOU!” In Chinese traffic honking means, “Here I come!” “Hey, I’m here!” “Excuse me, coming through!” or “Hurry up!” But in a Chinese neighbourhood — all of which have too few yet cruelly overpriced parking spaces — it means, “We’re waaaaaaaaaiiiting….!” or “Someone’s-in-my-parking-spot-and-I-don’t-have-their-phone-number!” The idea is that if you just sit there and lay on the horn for minutes on end, people will get so irritated that someone who knows the owner of the mis-parked car will be annoyed into action and contact the owner. I guess. (Pro Tip: They know guests have to park in other people’s empty spots. Just leave your phone number on the dash where they can see it so they can call you if they get back before you leave.)

How many times have I fantasized about neutralizing drunk honkers’ cars in creative ways… oh, sweet justice. If I can just get them to pop the hood, I already have a spot picked out to throw their car battery.

4. Jack-Hammering Noise Polluters

Hey here’s an idea. Let’s make it so every time someone moves into an apartment, they strip the walls and floor down to the concrete — with jack-freaking-hammers. Right on the other side of your ceiling. During your kids’ nap time. Let me explain how that works: Kids don’t nap. Mommy and Daddy don’t get a break. Kids are not only awake when they’re not supposed to be, they’re emotionally disturbed little mutants due to lack of sleep and being terrorized awake by jackhammers. That’s why we banged on the upstairs neighbours’ door so much the workers just started pretending no one was there. They knew it was safer to keep the door locked.

5. Early-Rising Noise Polluters

I don’t care if it’s grandmas rubbing their eyeballs in time to music that sounds like it was illegally downloaded from a kindergarten website or slapping their thighs in unison while counting out loud or migrant worker trucks unloading renovation materials at 5:45am. In my dreams none of them have been spared a merciless paintballing, and they’d be easy targets so close to our windows. You might think: How could a decent person harbour such horrible thoughts toward senior citizens leading active lives of musical healthiness? You might have never lived in China.

P.S. – Understanding Culture Stress

This post doesn’t just talk about culture stress; it conveys the negative, sarcastic feelings of culture stress in the way it’s written. Everything written is true, but it’s presented in a slanted, culture-stressed frame of mind. Culture stress skews your perception by magnifying annoyances while blinding you to positives. Living in China is usually not as bad as this post makes it sound, and there are still truly wonderful things about China that only those who really live here will ever get to experience. In the midst of culture stress, though, it’s easy to forget.

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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Learning “以人为本” (“people first”) through experience

Mary Ann at Shenzhen Noted has an illuminating cross-cultural “a-hah moment” while interacting with her students about personal space, time, and putting people first: “sudden insight into 以人为本”

About sharing the uglier sides of our China experience (a heads-up)

I don’t enjoy posting negative/embarrassing stuff about China or Chinese culture. Sure, when ‘China’ gets under my skin it can feel good to vent a little (this is true for anyone living in any foreign culture, not just China!), but we are guests in this country after all, and there are plenty of positive experiences to share (like in our Weekend of Chinese Hospitality post). Often I wish foreigners would just keep it to themselves; when foreigners in China whine about China, it isn’t pretty.

But we do live here, and we try to understand here, and you can’t do that by refusing to paint anything aside from the rosiest possible pictures. Husbands and wives don’t learn to love each other by avoiding problems or trying to imagine-away the things they can’t stand about their spouse. Some parts of our China experience — unavoidable, shocking, and recurring parts — aren’t that pretty, but we still have to deal with them.

There’s a couple posts I’ve had drafted for over a year called, “The Good Samaritan with Chinese Characteristics,” which I haven’t posted because they’re about a really ugly aspect of Chinese culture. I’ve been sitting on them, hoping they get nicer with age, or that I’ll learn more while I’m waiting and can then be more understanding and gracious about why, as one Chinese scholar says, there is no “Good Samaritan” equivalent in the Chinese cultural ethos. Around that same time I drafted another whole series called, “Living in the Eyes of the Beholders,” about the somewhat uniquely Chinese way foreigners are viewed and treated in public; sort of a “social exclusion with Chinese characteristics.”

When you’re with other foreigners it’s often easy to belittle China for certain things, and culture stress is always playing into that to some degree. So there’s a negotiation to make between trying to be gracious and appreciative of your host culture, but also wanting to accurately convey your honest experience of living elsewhere, and wanting to actually work through and understand your host culture better. It’s not easy to do all three at once, but we’re working on it.

I didn’t want to write and share this kind of stuff while feeling culture-stressed, and figured that a little time and distance would give some needed perspective. So now that we’ve been out of China for almost two months, I suppose it’s time for these things to get their final edits and finally see the light of day. I’ll start posting them soon, along with more stuff on Chinese medicine.

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