Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Three months in China

This week is the 3rd month mark for how long I've been living in China.

I wasn't really going to blog about it. Nothing super significant has happened, besides our visit to Mr. Fu's hometown, which I'm going to add in a few days. However, we got an e-mail from Kirk this morning that I thought fit perfectly.

Here's the link: Culture Shock in case you want to read it in full by yourself. I'm adding it because there are parts from this website that I feel like I could have written myself. It was as though the author read my mind.

This website was perfect because it is about culture shock specific to China.

"A great deal has been written about the nature of the culture shock experienced, to varying degrees, by all foreigners in China. Essentially, just about everything is different: currency, food, available merchandise, mores and ethics, social customs and traditions, personal hygiene, medical care and family life, not to mention the physical and natural environment, to name but the major ones."

Embarrassingly, I went into my year in China with the belief that I wouldn't really feel much culture shock. This was in part because I don't feel like I've ever really experienced severe culture shock when I've traveled. That isn't to say that I didn't think there would be differences. That would be stupid. Of course I knew there would be differences. In the past, though, I've always been able to see all of the similarities between my culture and the culture of the place I'm visiting. I was naive in the sense that I figured if I could go to Uganda and not feel a huge amount of culture shock, how bad could China be?

It also didn't help that pretty much everyone I know who has visited China has only been to Beijing. Maybe Hong Kong, and a few Taiwan, if that even counts. Cool. That's like coming to visit the US, only going to New York or Los Angeles, and telling me that you know all about American culture. I wonder how your trip would be different if you were dropped in the middle of, oh, I don't know.. Mississippi?

I'm not saying this to discount the people who have spent extended amounts of time in those cities in China; of course, any amount of time spent abroad is difficult. What I'm trying to say is that their experiences didn't really prepare me for my experience in Shijiazhuang. What I wasn't ready for was thisEssentially, just about everything is different. I really didn't expect that. Everything? Come on.

No, really. Everything.

The website also talks about the four stages of culture shock in China, which I'm going to highlight parts of..

1. Excitement or Honeymoon

"When you first arrive in China, you will very likely experience an exhilarating sense of excitement and adventure. You will think to yourself "I can't believe I'm finally in China," and you will be fascinated and overwhelmingly impressed by all the "exotic" differences in culture you will encounter."

Very true. And, I think this is true of almost any place you would travel. It is for me, at least. There's a total sense of excitement and an adrenaline rush just from getting the chance to be somewhere new, somewhere different. I got such a rush just from saying, "I'm living in China." Living in China. Wow. Who does that?

2. Withdrawal or Negotiation

"Usually, within a month or so, that sense of excitement will eventually give way to new and unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as you continue to have unfavorable encounters that strike you as strange, offensive, and unacceptable. These reactions, for most Westerners, are typically centered around the formidable language barrier as well as stark differences in: public hygiene; traffic safety; the type and quality of the food; the unavailability of creature comforts; poor, grossly unreliable, or nonexistent customer service; the manner in which agreements and contracts are disregarded or continuously changed and, related; the feeling that one is constantly being cheated or lied to."

I think we can all recognize that I fully reached this stage when I had my issues with customs. I had a terrible time trying to wrap my mind around the idea that the rules could be changed seemingly on the whim of the "Chinese government" or customs agents. I understand that there are sometimes taxes on packages shipped because of weight or something similar. In talking to other Drake students who have received packages and been asked to pay taxes, however, it doesn't seem as though there is really a system to decide how much or what packages to tax. My first package? I was asked to pay taxes, then didn't have to. My second package? Weighed much more than the first, no mention of taxes. Sarah got a package that was smaller than both of mine, but had to pay a fee that was much larger than I've ever been asked to pay. No system. I also had problems because Chinese customs was trying to tell me that I had too many personal items in my personal package. What I didn't understand is that Fed Ex is an international company and a huge part of their business is international shipping. They have a list that anyone can access that states what the Chinese government has said will be allowed or not allowed to be shipped to people living there. You would think that would be the end of the discussion, if all of your items fit the bill. Not in China!! I still don't fully understand why I had to jump through all the hoops I did. Personally, I feel as though part of it was just the government wanting to mess with an American, which brings me to...

"...the feeling that one is constantly being cheated or lied to."

Yes. Oh my God, yes. If I hear someone say the word "cunning" within the first six months after I return to the US, I will have to fight extremely hard to resist the urge to punch them in the kidneys. 

I get that Americans have the stereotype of being more direct in negotiations and conversations than the Chinese. Or, I thought I did. I really don't think you can prepare yourself for the kind of talking in circles, and sometimes outright lies, that you have to deal with when you get to China. This happened with our diplomas. We were told before coming here that "saving face" is a big deal in China. People would rather lie (be "cunning") than admit that they were wrong, even if everyone involved in the conversation knows they're wrong. The other three foreign teachers here had brought Mr. Dong colored copies of their diploma, so he was under the impression that these were their original copies. The three of us had only brought black and white copies. No one else in the program had any issue with getting their foreign expert permit with their black and white copy, including the other people in Shijiazhuang. Mr. Dong, however, apparently didn't want to "lose face" with the government office by bringing in three "original" diplomas and three photocopies. He decided he wanted all six to be original, and told us that we would have to have our parents ship us our original diplomas. There was no way that was going to happen, and we knew he was lying pretty much from the beginning. 

Our first tactic was the direct route: "Well, Mr. Dong, there are ten other people from Drake in Shijiazhuang and all of them were able to get their permit with their photocopy. Why is it that our school is the only school that can't?"

This was met with, "I will struggle with them. I will ask them why they are being unfair to us." Basically, he tried to make himself out to be the hero. I would just like to point out that, by this time, he actually was already in possession of our foreign expert permits. Like, he was actually holding them in his hand while he was telling us that he still needed our original diplomas. Magically, he was able to get them in time for us to take them to the office where we got our residency permits.

Even after he gave us our residency permits, he still continued to pester us. He told us that we needed our original diplomas sent because he needed to show them to the government so they could "check" that they were real.

Our next tactic was just to ignore him. Every time he would bring it up, we would all just stop talking and stare. That's another thing about China...people really hate feeling awkward. I mean, that's true of people everywhere, but it's especially true here. They will giggle, walk away, try by any means to avoid feeling awkward. The thing about being an American in China, though, is that you feel awkward roughly 99.9% of the time. Trust me, if there's a skill I will have learned by the time I get home, it will be that I can out-awkward pretty much anyone. You can't make me feel more uncomfortable than you; my existence is uncomfortable. I've come to terms with it. Try me.

This worked pretty well. If we stopped talking about it and just kind of nodded and looked away, he would just trail off and stop asking for our diplomas.

We figured we were successful, because we hadn't heard from him in a while. Until a few weeks ago, when some sort of inspectors came to our school. I'm pretty sure that their job is just to come, make sure the school has permits for us, and then they give the school this paper certificate that says they're an "International School". Mr. Dong had us give him our foreign expert permits to show the inspectors. No big deal. Then, he asked for our original diplomas to be shipped again. 

We were prepared. If he was going to lie to us, I was going to lie right back. "Oh, Mr. Dong, I'm so sorry. Our parents cannot send the original diploma. You see, our university only gives each person one original diploma, and our parents have already framed it so it cannot be taken out and sent. In order to get another original diploma with the school's seal on it, they would need a letter from the middle school and $50 per diploma to be able to send it."


We haven't heard about the diplomas since.

The downside, of course, is that I feel terrible about it. I mean, it's been drilled into me since I was a kid that this kind of outright lie is bad. You don't do it. I don't think I'll ever like the kind of verbal dancing that occurs here just to get something simple done. We've all known since roughly September 1st that we didn't need to have original diplomas. Mr. Dong knew it, we knew it, and he knew that we knew it. So why did we waste so much time talking about it?

"You will find that you severely dislike the culture and will experience intermittent feelings of anxiety and depression characterized by a demonstration of animosity, a short-temper, a strong sense of "being stuck," and a frequent tendency to criticize and mock the people and their culture."

Also very true. I already have a very short-temper (what up, being Irish and Italian?), but I can definitely see times in China where it's been worse. For example, the time I lost it on the customs agent. Was it really necessary for me to tell him that his government was, "the most inefficient system I could possibly think of"? No, not at all. In fact, my entire conversation with him was the definition of being culturally insensitive. I think it served a purpose, though. I got all of my rage out. While I still experience moments of anger and annoyance at similar situations, I also realize that I successfully got through it. I received my package. Was it timely? Hell no. Was it the way it would have happened in America? No, not at all. But did it turn out alright? Yes. That's the most important part.

For the last part of stage two,

"In fact, the psychosocial adjustment required of Westerners is so enormous, it is estimated that up to 50 percent of all new expats eventually leave China earlier than planned."

FIFTY percent? Holy cow. I was truly surprised by this number, but then again, I'm facing less than a full year here. Maybe if I had signed on for a two or five year contract, I'd be one of those 50% as well. I guess I'll never know. It really does speak volumes about the Drake program, though, that it's been successful for so many years. Yes, people have gone home early in past years, people will go home early this year, and people will go home early in the future. But so many more people stay. I'll get to that in a little bit, but I personally believe that most of the credit here goes not to us, but to Kirk. Not only do we all know that we can turn to him if there is truly a problem at our schools that we can't solve, but he tries his best to place us together or close to others so we don't feel alienated.

3. Adjustment stage

"For those who have managed to develop a sufficient social support system, stage 2 will eventually segue into an adjustment period during which time the individual begins to feel more settled-in and confident as life becomes considerably more routine and predictable, which often tends to coincide with the acquisition of some Chinese language skills and the ability to minimally communicate around basic needs without assistance. The individual will feel far less isolated, and will regain his or her sense of humor. I still remember the enormous sense of satisfaction and comfort I derived the very first time I was able to verbally instruct the taxi driver where I wanted to be taken in Chinese."

I feel like I'm straddling the line between stages two and three. In the time I'm in China, I'll never feel fully adjusted or comfortable. I didn't really expect to. I'm an American down to my bones, for better or worse. I'll also never be fluent in Chinese. At best, I'll know enough to get myself around. I love learning languages. I'm definitely not a whiz at learning new languages, but I'm pretty good. That doesn't seem to be the case with Chinese. I know a few words and phrases, and can tell taxi drivers how to get me to my school or some of the places I go often..but no matter how hard I try, the words still sound like disconnected noises instead of words.

What has gotten me to feel as though I'm straddling the line between stages two and three is that Lauren, Emily, and I are able to find so much humor in all the crap we have to deal with daily. We complain to each other, sure, but in the end, we try to find the humor in most of it. That makes it so much easier to cope with Mr. Dong or Fed Ex or whatnot; instead of releasing our anger on them, we come home and make it funny.

4. Assimilation

"After a period of time of living in the country, one begins to realize that he or she now feels "at home" in China. What used to drive you crazy in the beginning now seems mundane or insignificant (or will simply be unattended to), and you will actually start identifying several characteristics or features of the culture that you genuinely prefer to your own. In addition, you will notice that you have gradually incorporated (assimilated) several traits or behaviors from the new culture, such that if you were to return to your native country, you would in fact experience something of a reverse culture shock."

Okay, I'll probably never be assimilated into Chinese culture. That's fine. I do feel as though my apartment is "home", but more in the sense of this is my place of residence for the time being, not my true home.

To wrap up, I'm going to talk about what I thought was the most important part of the article: coping strategies. 

"You can increase the likelihood of adjusting more quickly and easily by trying to establish a social support system as soon as possible (preferably during the honeymoon period). Seek out other foreign teachers you have something in common with and use them as a "sounding board" during the rough periods. In addition, and this is especially important, try to establish at least one friendship with an English-speaking Chinese colleague. Having an "insider" on your side who can be there for you to interpret, explain, and even negotiate some of the more frustrating differences you are struggling with will go a very long way in easing your transition. In short, you need a support group. The very last thing you should do is withdraw and isolate yourself from other people, even though this is most likely what you will feel like doing."

My experience in China would be so different if I didn't have Emily and Lauren to be able to spend time with and vent to. The boys and Iraise are also a big help in just having people here that I can relate to and who experience the same feelings and problems as I do. 

It also helps a lot to be able to talk to people back home, pretty much whenever I want - save for the few times that the internet has been out. (And I felt as though my life was crashing down, haha...) I don't know what I would do if I had to rely on snail mail only; I probably wouldn't make it.

The last piece of the support system puzzle is knowing that we have Kirk there if we have any problems. I think this helps me sort out what issues are real and what are just me being spoiled. I ask myself, "Is this a real issue that I need to ask Kirk to take care of because I can't myself, or am I just annoyed because this isn't the level of western comfort I'm used to?" See: internet issues.

All in all, it's been three months! Some days it feels as though I just got here; some days it feels as though I can't believe I still have until the end of June. I think having countdowns to certain events help me greatly, though. Blondie's here in one month (yay!) and my parents are here in two! Surprisingly, that helps the time go even faster. 

This article really helped me, because it showed me that I'm kind of on-track. At least, my feelings are normal.

1 comment:

  1. Really appreciate your extensive consideration of your experience so far, Meredith. And not just because of the kind words about the program! Means a lot for me to read this...thanks!