When I started looking at job vacancies seven and a half years ago, I often noticed in the Ts&Cs there was a provision for counselling in case of culture shock.
Culture shock, I thought? What’s that?
So I researched online and found what I was being told extremely hard to digest. People were coming to China to teach and found themselves needing assistance because they found the difference between their previous norm and their new surroundings so intolerable that they were going into meltdown.
By the time I had decided to teach in China I had already travelled the world, navigating ships across the oceans and seeing for myself how very different the rest of the world was from my own country. I knew to expect it to be disparate regardless of where I went – even “western” countries such as Australia, the USA etc.
I did though embark on a trip to check out China. Visiting somewhere on holiday is quite different to living and working there. Quite rightly I reasoned that if I was going to sign up to a one year contract I really should know if I could handle completing it regardless of my feelings. I am not the type to breach contract and I like to stick to my word. Far better to say no at the start than half way through when people have gone to a lot of trouble.
There is no such thing.
If you wish to be a teacher there may be times in your career when you are expected to set homework. You may also expect the students to complete it. Not unreasonable?
Well, culture shock is the result of prospective teachers not doing their own homework. Finding out about where they will be going, the customs, what they can and cannot get readily. The fact the majority of toilets require you to squat etc. This last was, for me, at my age and weight, a concern. Whilst there is a scientific argument that states the squatting method is more beneficial for evacuating the bowels, equally there is scientific proof that the western achilles tendon is far shorter than the Asian one, purely because we spend most of out time sitting down. Sure, I could probably get down in the toilet with my heels digging into my buttocks but unless there were grab handles available I would need a crane or several helpers to get back up. Being somewhat proud rather precludes the notion of behaving like a seventeenth century monarch and having toilet assistants. My life in China has always been lived with a view as to where I could locate the nearest western seated toilet – not as hard as you think and to this day has never presented a problem.
No, culture shock is merely a combination of Not Doing Your Homework and Not Being Able To Adapt.
This may be an unpopular opinion but in my eyes is 100% true. So you can’t get your favourite chocolate bar? The bread tastes like cake? The mattress is like a concrete slab? It’s noisy?
Yes there is all of that and more. But it is YOU who must adapt. YOU are
the stranger, not the Chinese. To them it is normal to spit in the street, to push in front in queues, to let their infant defecate on the pavement. You are the interloper. Your tolerance level has to be adjusted. Admittedly even after seven years the pushing in front in queues thing still riles me (as do the servers who attend to the transgressors ahead of me) and I confess that in 99% of cases I am rather vocal. Believe me, when the offender sees a western face behind the complaint they normally see the error of their ways and surprisingly there is substantial backing from Chinese people behind you in the same queue who murmur assent even though they themselves would never dream of saying anything.
Certainly the food is nothing like the Chinese restaurants back home. To be frank, it can be classified in any of these ways: bland, disgusting, spicy enough to make you feel sick or on wonderful occasions, delicious. You will not wish to eat out every night even if it is free. You will yearn for western food. That I promise you.
When I first arrived I couldn’t believe the bread was even sweeter than in America. Even Chinese pizzas tasted like ham and cheese on Madeira cake. It was inedible. For 18 months where I was they never had bacon. It still doesn’t as it now has N American “streaky” which has as much meat in it as a stick of celery. They never had cheese except square burger processed stuff for three years.
I never got culture shock but I DID get hankerings.
I had to do something about it to make my life more acceptable. Chow Mien every night was not an option. Neither were duck beaks so hot they blew the top off my cranium.
I discovered Taobao. I bought an oven. Then western ingredients. Then I started cooking for myself, colleagues and students and every fortnight we held a western Wednesday at which I would make lasagne, bolognese, chilli con carne etc. I added to that a bread machine so we could have pizza – proper pizza, garlic bread and so on.
It took time. Longer perhaps because of my inexperience, but eventually as we would say at sea, I had it “boxed off”. Life is good. I make my own ham, bread, pies, indeed anything I am capable of producing. My latest feat is to make British bangers. Takes a bit of doing but my life is so much better than simply popping out for noodles every night.
Nobody should ever suffer from the fallacy that is culture shock, if they have an adverse reaction to China (or anywhere else for that matter) then they will be suffering from Lack Of Homework.
About the Author
Professor Fury is in his early sixties and has been teaching in universities in China for seven years. He has been a ships officer, salesman, manager, company director, engineer and truck driver in the past and so has a wealth of stories and experience to impart to his students.
He has been to 47 countries so far and visited more than 400 cities around the globe. Antarctica is the only continent he has yet to experience but there is still time!
He has so far volunteered at every school level in China, appeared on television several times (including taking part in a Spring Festival Gala show) and his ambition is to be allowed to retire in China when the time comes. His latest party piece is playing Santa for whoever asks!
Written and photos by Professor Fury