Culture Shock and The Realities of Study Abroad

It’s been exactly four months since I flew home from Shanghai to London. At the time, I couldn’t wait to come home. Not that I didn’t love Shanghai, but I’d been living there for almost a year and felt like I’d done all that I wanted to do, and that it was time for the next adventure. Yet, now that enough time has passed for me to forget the day-to-day reality of my study abroad experience, and instead focus on the grander, more exciting moments – I’m pining terribly for Shanghai. I miss the steamed buns, the ridiculously cheap transport, the way you could go to one of the fanciest cocktail bars in town and still buy a drink for around £5. I miss the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession, speeding in and out of traffic on a scooter, having hundreds of types of tea to peruse at Tea City. I miss the people that I met, especially Bianca who became one of my closest friends. She is still in Shanghai, having the time of her life without me. Quite selfish in my opinion.

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When drinks are so cheap, it’s only right that you get the entire tasting platter
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My partner in crime and I

I’ve always had a tendency to be extremely nostalgic. I find it a challenge to be present, and would rather romanticize the past or the future as a means to escape existing in the now. This can be a problem while traveling, as before I’ve finished enjoying the trip I’m on, I’m hyper-conscious of time running out, and already on to planning the next one. While I’m sat here wishing I was back in Shanghai, and looking through rose-tinted glasses, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t perfect. While the challenges definitely helped me grow, it was not smooth sailing, and I had periods where I felt very disheartened. Some of this I’ve already talked about on this blog – managing missed flights, losing bank cards, filing insurance claims, cracking my head open and ending up in hospital.

It would seem that perhaps I’m in the re-entry phase of culture shock whereupon you crave to return to the country you were placed in. I remember being in a pre-departure talk before studying abroad, and the speaker was trying to explain the phenomenon to us. One sure fire sign, is when the things that excited you in the beginning, what is termed ‘the honeymoon period’ start to really frustrate you. Things that seemed quirky, like the food, or the way that the traffic seems to have a logic of its own, becomes aggravating. Everyday tasks that should be easy like doing your laundry, buying food or hopping in a taxi now seem insurmountable, especially for students with no previous language experience of the host country they find themselves in. I was lucky enough to have Chinese friends who could help me use Chinese apps to order a taxi, accompany me to the phone shop to help me buy a sim card, and ring the bank to cancel my lost card and order in a new one. While I’m so grateful for their kindness, this dependency can make you feel quite powerless in a way.

Culture shock
Image source: Global Graduates

I was never overtly aware of culture shock, but could feel it subconsciously permeating through a lot of what I did. I knew it was there, for example, when I was dreaming about home every night. There are so many differences between Chinese and British culture that it would be difficult to cover them all, but one thing that really bothered me in particular was the total excess of bureaucracy in China. Everything seems to be done completely by the book, with no room for manoeuvrability, even if it’s something as simple as trying to substitute an ingredient in a meal at a restaurant – which made it even more difficult being a vegetarian in Shanghai. I’ll explore differences in censorship, and educational systems in more detailed posts as they require more in-depth explanation, but just in general, the West as a whole and Asia are so different. Graphic artist Yang Liu has produced posters, which now make up her book East meets West, which illustrate some of these polar differences. Some of the images might seem slightly reductive or an oversimplification but I personally found them to be pretty accurate at explaining the differences in a succinct, simple manner (West is blue, East is red).

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SAEVW

For me, culture shock wasn’t anything debilitating, it was more the occasional onset of low moods, which could’ve been due to a multitude of things. I still don’t really know what culture shock is or how it can be measured, I suppose it’s different for every person. Even now, I find it hard to believe that I was in China for a good part of the year. Perhaps one of the reasons that culture shock was minimised in Shanghai as opposed to the rest of China is that it the most westernised city and a lot of the time you could be forgiven for thinking you were walking down a street in, say, New York. This definitely isn’t the case in other cities like Suzhou where traditional Chinese gardens and architecture mirror the idea of China that most people hold in their mind. Shanghai is the largest city in China (and the world, by population) but to tell the truth, I’ve felt more claustrophobic in Oxford Street, although perhaps my experience was different because our university and dormitory is in the French Concession, which is one of the quieter areas.

There is no cure for culture shock, although distracting yourself with a full schedule seems to help. Making friends with local people who can help to immerse you more into the culture so that it isn’t so alien to you is always helpful. Something I found to relieve the stress was to make a list of what I wanted to achieve from my year abroad, and all of the things that I loved about my host country to look back on when you’re missing home. It’s quite a good idea to keep a journal in general, to help put things into perspective during your time there and after you arrive home.

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SAJournal

While now I could write extensively about the things I miss about Shanghai, I could probably write just as much about the things I don’t miss, and looking back on journal entries helps remind me of that. It might just turn out to be the best year of your life, but expecting that adds an immense amount of pressure, especially when you’re first settling in and struggling to adjust. A semester or a year is a long time, and you probably won’t love every minute of it. It made it a lot easier that another girl on the course was also British. When we were feeling homesick, Rachel and I used to have Brit days where we’d go to Mr Harry’s (a British restaurant) and watch something like the British Bake Off. There’s not much that a roast dinner and cup of English breakfast tea can’t fix!

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Mr Harry’s

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