Culture Shock in Forward and Reverse

Upon arrival in Beijing, I was terrified to cross the street. Mopeds, taxis, three-wheeled vehicles, cars and buses all vied jealously and chaotically for a place in the flow of traffic, and there seemed absolutely no rhyme or reason to the process. I did not want to lose my life in a traffic accident on the first few days in China, so I made sure to stick close to a local, moving when he moved, and stopping when she stopped. Each street-crossing was exhilarating. Everything was new, foreign, and picture-worthy, from the ubiquitous red-lanterns hanging outside buildings to the colorful reds, blues and greens of temples.

Now I cross the street with ease, not even thinking twice about it. I hardly even look twice when I see the donkey pulling a cart of walnuts amidst the metropolitan traffic. The street-vendors, lion statues, sharply-dressed security guards standing in their glass boxes, and even the fried-duck heads piled up in a cart for sale hardly cause me to bat an eye. I feel at home here, or at least accustomed to daily life in Beijing.

I think that culture shock inevitably occurs when thrown into a completely new situation, especially when one does not speak the local language. However, there are varying degrees of shock depending on the country, the nature of the program, and the individual. Studying abroad in Beijing allows one to choose to what extent he or she wants to be immersed in the culture. Because it is a huge metropolitan city and the capital of China, there are plenty of areas, bars, and restaurants to go to that feel more American or “Western”. I have tried to stay away from those places as much as possible, and to instead seek out the more typical Beijing. Although I am taking nearly three hours of Chinese class four days a week, in addition to time spent with my Chinese tutor, my program is still predominantly based in speaking English. I think that this was a good way to first experience China, but has definitely created a cushion for the level of cultural shock I have had to face. If living with a host family or taking courses all in Mandarin, the shock would have been far greater.

Nonetheless, I’ve definitely had my fair share of the phases of cultural shock, purely due to the inevitable fact of living in a foreign country. Being away from family and friends has been challenging, especially when facing personal challenges that call for someone you are close with to talk to. The most acute shock I have felt, shared by many of my colleagues, is tied to food. I find it amusing that for someone with little relative interest in food, it could become such a central part of my homesickness. Never before have I realized how much bread, cheese, tacos, and a good juicy burger and fries mean to me. Comfort food is definitely real. But everyone finds ways to cope, whether it be indulging in that overpriced burger at a western-style joint, or buying produce at the local market to make a yummy batch of guacamole with your friends.

What I worry about is reverse culture shock. Now that I am finally starting to feel at home here, what will it be like to go back? Parting from all of the great people I’ve met here will be sad. Seeing family and friends again will be great, but it will be so hard to encapsulate and communicate what life here in China was like, and all of the incredible experiences that I’ve had.

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