When I first came to China to teach English I went through the classic stages of culture shock. As these have been discussed ad nauseam in other sites (one of the better discussions can be found here: http://middlekingdomlife.com/guide/culture-shock-china.htm) I will not bore you with the details of the stages and how one transitions out of one and into the other. I will say, however, that Culture Shock in China was much more intense than in Singapore. This is not because I was any less overwhelmed, it was just that the stages came and went faster in China, such that it took me only about 4 months to get through all of the stages – from Honeymoon, through withdrawal/rejection, adjustment, and finally acceptance and enthusiasm. In Singapore it took the better part of 8 months to come around full circle.
In China, my first boss gave me some advice that while given long after I had passed through these stages, has been of infinite aid in trying to explain how one gets out of the withdrawal and rejection phase – when every laowai feels like the entire People’s Republic is out to get them – from their boss, to the grocery store, to the staring kids on the bus. My boss game me an excellent four line synopsis of how to live in China:
在中国生活: Living in China:
一,要等待 One, (you) must wait
二,要忍耐 Two, (you) must be patient
三,要想得开Three, (you) must open your mind
The first two may seem somewhat redundant and indeed they are. Yet they express an important point. Much of what frustrates foreigners so much in China is the waiting, the seeming inefficiency, and the seeming inability for people to address their concerns. Leaving aside the fact that foreigners are not the center of the universe and therefore are subject to the same inefficiencies and difficulties as everyone else, it is critical that we learn patience. Everything has its time and its place – and that may not be in the time or the place we desire yet if it is important, it will be completed satisfactorily. Another thing we must remember is that when things break down (such as the water pipes bursting and near city-wide blackouts in many parts of southern China during the Chinese New Year Blizzard in 2008), it is not possible to fix them immediately. The fact that you are freezing and miserable is not unique. Everyone is. Complaining about it, or thinking that it is some sort of Chinese conspiracy is not going to help.
The third point is the most seemingly obvious and yet also the deepest. In China, you must open your mind. This is not intended to be some sort of Zen or Daoist mystical concept. It is simply a call for foreigners to realize that China is China, not Canada, not Britain, not the USA, and not even Japan, Korea or Thailand. Things are done differently and we must accept this. Just because getting an approval for a visa renewal can take anywhere from 10 minutes to several weeks does not make China bad. It just means the bureaucratic procedures are different. We should let things that drive most 老外 nuts just roll off our backs. Screaming about it isn’t going to help. More importantly, however, we should try to see the world through the eyes of our Chinese co-workers and bosses. They have intense pressures placed upon them. Having whiny foreigners does not improve the situation. We should try to empathize with their situation rather than accuse them of laziness, corruption, or other such “anti-foreign” thoughts and ideas. Always remember folks, we have it REALLY REALLY good in China.
So let us wait, wait patiently, and open our minds to this world we live in. The sooner we can do that, the sooner we will find China feels like and becomes our home.