My first couple of weeks trying to manage what I will call my new and transformational “Chinese life” definitely presented some difficulties. Months before I even thought about how everything was going to work out abroad, I heard the term “culture shock” at my university’s study abroad orientation. It seems that in many people’s minds culture shock is some mystical, fairytale-esque concept, or that it’s your immediate reaction to a new place when you first arrive. This term was briefly discussed during the orientation for my program, and I overheard several students sort of laugh away the significance of it. To put it simply, culture shock develops this way: once you enter your new surroundings, you’re in a “honeymoon” state, everything is wonderful and unfamiliar, for a while it feels like you’re the star of some kind of movie.
As time goes on it fades and gradually you start to feel uncomfortable and extremely out of place (in China, where everyone save a small percentage are ethnically Chinese, this feeling comes extremely quickly), and you start to miss the little things your home has that your new home doesn’t. I’m here to tell you that during my first “transitional” few weeks, I was a prime example of this stage of culture shock. I’ve never been in a city as large as Kunming, and my biggest distress was that I felt like a grain of sand on this huge beach I didn’t understand. Slowly but surely this started to fade away as my relationship with my classmates and my roommate improved. So far the person that I appreciate the most is my roommate. Here’s a short breakdown of how I got my roommate: CET Academic Programs, the organization that is in charge of my program, gives each one of us a Chinese roommate in order to foster our language abilities, as well as give us a chance to intimately know a Chinese person and how they live their lives day by day. My roommate had to apply and be interviewed, and is given strict instructions to not speak English at all with me. That being said, even though at times I fear our communication is poor due to the language barrier, he’s become one of my best friends so far. The most interesting thing about our friendship to me is the fact that we’re constantly exchanging cultural information about our homes, while all of my other friends back home center around our common interests (my roommate and my interests almost mirror each other, so that aspect is there as well).
A couple of weeks ago we got to talking and somehow I brought up Fifty Shades of Grey, which was risky because I really didn’t want to explain what the plot line was (is there even one?), and after a while my roommate eluded to the promiscuity of Americans by saying he didn’t know why we liked being intimate so much. At the time I played it cool but was surprised that that kind of misconception of Americans exists. I tried my hardest to clear that up for him and tell him that many Americans (myself included) aren’t like that using my child-like Chinese, and I don’t regret it one bit. Although we’ve never had a talk about misconceptions and stereotypes about Chinese people, many of them have been cleared up from subtle nuances I caught just being around him so much. My favorite cultural insight is Chinese hospitality. When he and I would go out to eat, countless times he would pay for me without a second thought (we started going dutch after I finally figured out how to say there was no need), and let’s not forget all of the times I had no idea what I was doing and he would help me understand something, or simply take me to put minutes on my phone.
All in all, I’m going to make sure once I arrive home to not forget his kindness, and to pay it forward by taking that piece of Chinese culture to the States. Going back to what I said about culture shock, there’s also a stage where you begin to feel comfortable with how things work where you are. I can proudly report that I’m tiptoeing my way into a rut, but not in the cliché way this word is often used. In a place where little children (and very often the elderly) look at you like you come from outer space, having a routine that includes friends you never thought you’d have is a blessing that is hard to take for granted.