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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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.)