Re-Entry Shock

Matt | Culture Shock | Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

I must admit I’ve been very fortunate with my re-entry to Canada after living in Beijing for almost four years.  I can’t say that I have experienced much reverse culture shock.  Remembering some conversations I had with friends who have been in China for many years, I believe culture shock comes in waves: some days you’re fine, other days you’re miserable and you don’t know why. Today was one of those miserable days for me, when I was questioning why the heck had I returned to Canada. This wave will pass as I know, logically, I’m doing the right thing for now.

But the real reason of this post is to talk about a strange phenomenon that I believe is related to reverse culture shock (re-entry shock): that is my avoidance in getting in touch with old friends.

The reason I think this is part of reverse culture shock is that I remember it happening to a friend of mine in China.  He is Chinese and he had a friend return from studying overseas.  But when his friend, Lola, returned to Beijing she spent months alone with her folks.  It took months before Lola called up my friend to re-establish her old friendships. Even though I don’t know Lola I feel I can relate to how she felt.

When I first returned I didn’t feel like re-engaging my old friends.  A part of me felt like I should have done more with my four year overseas experience; traveled more; studied more; experienced more. Also that they had probably moved on with their lives while I was away so would I still fit in?  Would they still be interested in a relationship?

Fortunately, I had one good forcing strategy and that was I decided to share an apartment with an old friend of mine.  This forced me to re-engage with someone.  But other than that I haven’t done a great job.

So my task for August is to get back in touch and to truly savour my time here in Toronto.

Reading some of the tips from the links above I realize that my re-entry plan has had mixed results.  On the one hand I hadn’t planned on missing China so much.  I miss a lot about China: the excitement, language, culture, food and of course my girlfriend.  Also, I don’t have a lot of people here that I’ve been able to share my experiences with.  This lack of interest of your overseas experience is a common frustration of people re-entering a culture.  I find whenever someone asks me about China I light up and spew out as much information as they can take in and often times more than they can take in.  On the other hand, I think I did well to keep busy initially to keep boredom away.  I had signed up for adult education courses to keep busy, as well as a full-time job search, with interviews and eventually a successful outcome.

Funny too, that I was even able to find out some new things to try since returning that helped me bridge the cultural gap and that was signing up for beginners Tai Chi.  This has been a fantastic addition to my regular routine.  It’s nice to be able to get this taste of China weekly.

So remember, culture shock will hit you both coming and going.  So if possible try to plan for it to ease the discomfort.

Same old Matt

Matt | Culture Shock,Developing Habits | Sunday, July 5th, 2009

I have noticed a strange feeling since returning to Canada and that is of being afraid of returning to my old way of life.  Now I don’t know if this is a common aspect of reverse culture shock, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

Ever since I returned I’ve had a strong feeling of wanting to continue all the great habits and feelings that I had developed in China. Actually, my big fear was that I didn’t want to lose the person I had become in China; I didn’t want to revert back to the guy I was before I had left for China.  All the amazing experiences, the people I had met, the things I had done, all these things I didn’t want to lose.

Not wanting to lose the person I had become

When I first returned I was afraid of becoming the “same old Matt.”  I didn’t want to become that guy.  To be honest, I didn’t like him very much.  The person I had become in China was someone that I truly enjoyed being.  It was the person that who did things; who set and achieved goals.  The person who loved adventure and travel.  Also the guy who found his passions in reading, writing, learning and teaching.  A person who made time for things important in his life.  A person who did things that he liked, with the people he liked, when he liked.

Since returning I have been working hard at continuing the habits that made me the person I liked, but I’ve felt pressure to revert back.  It’s funny that the sources of the pressure to change back to the “same old Matt” were coming from sources I hadn’t expected: my close friends and family.  They wanted the “same old Matt” to return.  They wanted the guy they had known before.  The simple, straight forward guy.  They seemed disappointed that I had changed.

But I guess this is normal.  We are changing all the time although most of us don’t notice this.  When I think of my friends I think that I “know” them.  But in reality I still think of them being the same guy as they were four years ago.  They too have changed.

And in reality I needn’t have worried about reverting back to the “same old Matt’ as I’ve learned that it’s impossible to go back to the person you were before.  Even though I’m back in the same exact place where I had lived before, doing a similar job I am now a different Matt a more experienced Matt a better Matt (and an older Matt).  It was silly for me to worry, but also silly for me to think that I could be China Matt here in Canada.

Just as it is impossible to revert back to an older version of yourself, I also think it is impossible to remain the same person.  Everyday we experience life or life experiences itself through us.  This changes us in tiny ways.  Over time we become different people.  I cannot remain the same person that I was in China.  I will have to change.  I will have to grow.  But, I can remember the small things that I think I was doing right in China and work hard to continue to do them.

And when I started up my positive China habits here in Canada I really felt better.  Some of these were

  • To have a positive morning routine (reading a chapter of a book, reading finance blogs, news, doing logic puzzles)
  • To have a weekly plan to schedule important things in my week and to review the lessons I’ve learned each week
  • To keep reading (this is almost an addiction at this point)
  • To keep learning (I’m looking to join Toastmasters in Canada and I joined a beginner Tai Chi class)
  • To learn new physical skills (signed up for hockey power skating)
  • To keep writing (I’ve been lazy here, but will try to change that)
  • To keep up my relationships (for scheduling time for things important in my life, my girlfriend, my family and my friends)
  • To stay active and enjoy the outdoors (by running outside in the park at least two times a week)
  • To do more things that bring happiness to my life
  • To stop wasting time on things that don’t bring me happiness (like watching TV)
  • To enjoy life every day

These are some of the great habits that I’ve learned or developed from China.

I will try to continue the good habits that I had developed and to keep growing with an open mind and open heart.

Reverse Culture Shock

Matt | Culture Shock | Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

So I have returned to Canada and am feeling a little lost after living in Beijing for almost four years.  I think I’m facing reverse culture shock. I definitely moved through all the phases of culture shock during my time in Beijing.

Honeymoon phase

My first 5 weeks were spent travelling through China and I was a little in awe of being in China.  I remember standing on the street and not being able to believe that I was living and breathing in China.  This was especially true when I was standing on top of the Great Wall near Simatai not being able to comprehend that I was standing where I was standing.  This is a good phase.

Negotiation phase

This is the anxious, unsettling, depressing phase.  This one I clearly remember.  Hotmail went down for about a month.  I was living in a hotel near Fragrant Hills.  I didn’t have any friends.  I was teaching one student Johnny.  I was lonely.  All I wanted to do was to contact my family in Canada.  And Hotmail was down.  I tried to figure out how to use the calling cards.  I bought all of them.  None worked in my hotel.  After desperately trying to use the pay phone I broke down.  I was almost in tears over not being able to call home.  That was my low point.  Slowly things got better, making friends and contacts and being able to get in touch with home.  This was the worst stage for me.

Adjustment phase

This is where you get used to or adjusted to the new place.  This happened to me after about 6 months.  At this stage I remember looking out my hotel window in Fragrant hills, looking at the trees and forgetting that I was in China.  It just felt like I was at home.  Living in a hotel I was able to watch CNN and HBO, nice perks.  Even though I’d go into the little village of Fragrant Hills to get lunch or dinner,still I’d often forget I was in China.  I remember thinking this was strange.

Reverse Culture shock

Re-entry shock is upon me.  After living in China for almost four years I knew I’d face some challenges.  Before I came back for good, I spent 6 weeks at home over Christmas and this helped me adjust.  But in returning and getting resettled, my toughest challenge has been finding my home.  Yes, I am looking for a place to live, but that isn’t what I mean.  What I mean is even though I had lived in Toronto for 5 years before I went China for 4 years both places felt like home and both places didn’t.  Also my parents are living in Ottawa, which also feels like home.  Now, instead of picking one home, I’ve come to realize that all these places are my home.  I now have at least 3 homes: Ottawa, Toronto and Beijing.  Unfortunately I don’t have a physical home in each place…yet.

Further reading the Wikipedia article is pretty interesting.  I especially liked the tips, which Wiki isn’t supposed to do, on how to adjust better such as: learn about the culture and language before you go, be open-minded, and try not to offend or be offended.

With regards to my Reverse Culture Shock, I decided to try and adjust sooner by taking action.  One thing that is helping a lot is having my brother living in Toronto which gives me a place to live.  It’s always nice to have family to help you adjust.  Also, I signed up for some adult education courses to give me some structure and something to focus on.  I’ve heard structure can help someone going through re-entry shock feel grounded.  For me it’s nice to have a few pieces of my schedule locked down (Monday and Wednesday nights) while all the other pieces of my life (job, apartment, social life, adjusting to my long-distant relationship) are moving in so many directions and different speeds that I almost feel overwhelmed.  This week I’ll also look into a Toastmasters club.  I think that could be another great think to help me develop, meet new people and also to give me some more structure.

It is odd being back in Toronto.  I feel lost at times but I think this is interesting too.  I decided to try and learn this city again.  So like when I lived in Beijing, I bought a city map and I plan on exploring.  Also, I’m using public transit more which has helped me learn more about the city.

Culture shock will happen if you live overseas for an extended period of time.  You can prepare for it and there are some things you can do to try to get through the stages faster and adjust.

“Go with the flow,” my friend told me about the twists and turns of living in China, “and you usually end up in a better place.”

Go with the Flow in China, End in a Better Place

Matt | Culture Shock,Teach English in China,Working in China | Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

My first year in China was an adventure.

First year Summary

Schools taught in = 4

Number of times moved = 5

Number of times left stranded at the airport = 1

Largest class taught = 35 (Beijing summer program)

Smallest class taught = 1 (Johnny)

Cities visited = too many to count

In China things change and they change often. And usually they change at the last minute. This is a place where the air tickets are cheaper the longer you wait and the later you decide to buy tickets.  You cannot buy your train tickets until 4 days before you want to go on holiday. Planning does not seem to be very popular here.  People seem a lot more comfortable and relaxed with simply going with the flow of things.

As a guy who likes to plan things out in advance, I was not comfortable with concept of flow. I’d stress out about the lack of planning, and couldn’t understand why they don’t plan better. I was having a tough time with things, but fortunately I got some great advice early in my adventure in China that helped me put things in perspective.

Go with the flow of things. Change happens.

Don’t worry too much and you’ll probably end up in a better place.

I think this is very true about China and probably with most things in our lives.  Here is an summary of my adventures of flowing through my first year in China. Looking back at the summary it was anything, but an ordinary year. And I guess that’s why I came to China for the adventure.

August Intro to China

Arrived a month early. Travelled around. Visited about 15 Chinese cities in 30 days. Great intro to China and realization that my Mandarin sucks.

September Left at the boarding gate with nothing but a business card…

Went to the airport ready to catch my flight to Yantai (small city on Eastern coast) to find out from recruiter, “sorry Matt, I’m not kidding, but you aren’t getting on this plane. Here is the phone number of the president. Call him. (Though it was 9pm and the number was to the office!). He’ll explain.”

Spent night figuring out options:

  1. Get on a plane return to Canada
  2. Keep travelling and teach wherever end up
  3. Send biting email to the president of the school about how unprofessional the last minute change was, have a few beers and wait to talk to him in the morning. Then decide. (Chose this option)

The president gave me some BS, but it was enough. I started teaching English at a university in China.

First day of work. Was nervous. Spoke so fast during first class, that the admin girl after asked me quietly later if I could speak slower during the next class as the students didn’t understand a word I said.

October Travel/ Chance meeting on a train/ “kept teacher”

Went on holiday finally to Yantai and Qingdao during the national holiday. Met girlfriend on the train back from Qingdao to Beijing.

After the holiday, the “Snake” president called to tell me I needed to move again to the other campus a 2 hour commute across town due to scheduling problems at the school (not enough students). I wasn’t looking forward to the move.

Then, an opportunity knocked. One of my rich students wasn’t happy about losing a teacher, so he made me an offer, an offer I couldn’t refuse. Same teaching, but one-to-one for double the money. Everything else was the same (annual flight bonus, holidays, work schedule). I went with the flow and decided to quit my job and teach Johnny full-time.

Moved to Fragrant Hills, in the western hills part of town. Was put up in a hotel which also was my classroom. Johhny had his own room next door. I was being paid 8,000 RMB per month plus a free hotel. Fortunately, I had negotiated for a salary per month and not an hourly rate, which turned out better in the end, especially when Johnny started playing hookey. Now I was my own school and was a “kept teacher” for Johnny.

Started studying Chinese through a tutor. Realized I was a lazy student and didn’t do homework.

November School of Matt

Was flowing with the girlfriend and with Johnny. Was developing my classes with Johnny, a beginner-beginner. Thinking how unprepared and unexperienced I was to be creating my own program for Johnny, but we went with it. Picture Dictionary Class (aka vocabulary building) was interesting. ‘Friends’ Class not so interesting for Johnny. Mostly used New Interchange book for 2 hrs per day. Added to this with grammar, reading, vocabulary as we could. We’d have 4 hours of class a day M-F. 9-11am, 2-4pm. Then we’d climb Fragrant Hills together and with the hope of having some deep conversation or at least any conversation in English. Instead, he’d usually bring out a new girl to walk and talk with. Or his driver would climb with us.

One day his driver brought out a taser gun during our walk. I asked why. Johnny said his brother was kidnapped, so he needed protection. I tried to adjust our programs because of this. How do you go on teaching something so insignificant like English grammar, when something horrible like that happens? I tried to be compassionate, and then moved on to learning English. I figured he was here having class as a distraction and wanted to learn English. So working hard would be our solution.

December – Culture shock depression/ went postal

First Christmas in China. All the pretty lights, no religion or meaning to the holiday. Dreadfully homesick. Fought with the post office as they didn’t want to allow me to send a fake calligraphy writing through the mail as they thought it was a Chinese valuable masterpiece. I just stayed persistent and they sent it. Hit the depths of my culture shock depression. Almost burst into tears when I couldn’t call home from my hotel. Eventually, relaxed, opened my eyes and found a Net Bar in Fragrant Hills that I could use to email home.

Jan & Feb Travelling during Chinese New Year

Travelling again. Got a month off for the Chinese New year. Visited my aunty down in Bali for 2 weeks. Met up with friends in Thailand for 3 weeks. Much needed holiday.

March – Johnny skipped class/ No progress/ Might as well travel

Start studying Chinese in a school. Great progress. Great school.

Still teaching Johnny, but his schedule was very busy. He studied English with me all day, then went off to work all night. He usually had business meetings over dinner. Often he went out for drinks and karoeke at night. Also missed a lot of classes due to business trips. Then once a month he’d have take a 4 day weekend to study his Executive MBA at a leading Chinese university. So my 5 days of work often was much less, but the pay was the same. His progress also had it’s ups and downs: 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. It was quite frustrating teaching one (busy) student. We flowed and did our best.

Went on mini holiday to visit the Shaolin temple on one week when Johnny went last minute to Europe or to America.

AprilMore travel, if you can afford it.

Work teach and travel again. Planned trip to Yunnan and Sichuan for May holiday. Negotiated with Johnny to have an extra week on in April. Johnny was travelling again, got it. Spent loads of money and time travelling during my first year. All my extra salary, and some of my Canadian savings, went out for travelling.

MayUnemployed in the Middle Kingdom

Travel during May holiday with my girlfriend. Johnny’s assistant called to talk about Johnny’s future studies. Our contract was to run until the end of June, but Johnny had a lot of travelling to do in June. He wanted to end the teaching contract early as he was going to be busy the next two months. I decided to go with the flow and agreed (foolishly). Was now unemployed in China. I was moved into another hotel for a month and looked for work.

Ran into “the Snake” again and he needed someone to teach for him in Qingdao for a summer program. I decided to go with the flow. I knew Qingdao was a beautiful city. Thought it’d be a nice place to work for a month.

June – A (one) teacher in Qingdao

Teaching for a month in Qingdao. When “the Snake” mentioned that I’d have to do a demo class with 3 other teachers the month started, I thought this would be the crew I would be teaching with. I was wrong. The other teachers came up only to do the demo class and were returning to a neighbouring city (Yantai) that afternoon. I was to be alone for the first month of operation of this school.

I was quite upset. Called “the Snake”. We talked about it. He gave me some BS. I had to decide my options: would I stay or would I go? How would I like being the only teacher in a small new school for their first month of operation?

I stayed and it worked out great. I had freedom. My students were great people. Being the only teacher I was able to bond more with the students and staff. Drank lots of Qingdao beer. Unfortunately, had split shifts (9-11am and 7-9pm) which made it tough to travel and enjoy my time off. Had to be forceful and tell the school that I would NOT stay at the school during my off time, even though they really wanted a foreign face to help sell the program. Had a friend from Canada come and visit. Visited the Qingdao brewery. Great times. But, one day I got food poisoning and thought I was going to die. I survived with a lot of help from the school staff who went with me to the hospital. At the school, I was forceful in what I would do and not do, but I really enjoyed being the only teacher in this school. It worked out well.

July – Back in Beijing

Back to Beijing for another one month summer program with “the Snake”. This month was pretty good. I knew what to expect and there were 3 other teachers this time. It was M-F about 4 hours a day of teaching, but lesson prep time was extra. We taught a total of 20 hours teaching per week. This was a heavy teaching work load for China as the Fall program was 16 hours per week. The American teachers who came just for the summer program with the plan to teach and travel around China were a bit disappointed. They didn’t expect to work so hard and I don’t blame them. Also, the location of the school, way out in the East end, didn’t make it any easier.

The American teachers figured out ways to make it worthwhile. We covered off classes for one another, so they could take long weekend trips. They did a lot of travelling when they could. The seemed to go with the flow and it worked out well for them.

The hot and sweaty month ended up well. I survived my first year teaching in China. But I was ready to go home to Canada for a rest.

My first year in China was an unforgettable one. I’m glad that I decided to stay in China and teach instead of getting back on the plane and returning to Canada when I was first stranded at the airport. This year was a crazy one, but I had some truly amazing experiences and met some unbelievable students. In China, things change and they often do it at the last minute. As a Canadian, initially, I wasn’t used to all these last minute changes. Now, it’s no problem. I’ve learned that in China if you go with the flow of things you’ll usually end up in a better place.

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