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.”

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