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The Shanghai Diaries: Culture Shock

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Whenever I hear the words “culture shock” I tend to think of a person curled up in bed, buried under the covers afraid to get up, get out, and move on. I think about a person who hates everything about the culture they are in and wants nothing more than to go home.

While this would certainly be an example of culture shock, it isn’t exactly the full picture. This past week I have pretty much been in full culture shock mode. No, I am not buried under the covers, I am not afraid to go out, I do not wish I was back home (well, not most days, anyhow) but I do often feel a tightening of my stomach muscles, and a twinge of fear tickling my spine.

I find that the little things, the small annoyances, the irritations that normally would be shrugged off as part of life form a mound of offenses against this dang country, these crazy people, and this stupid culture.

For instance, we’ve had a bit of an ant problem in our kitchen. They aren’t terribly bad and they haven’t gotten into our food or anything like that. They just crawl around the sink and the dirty dishes. We’ve had to spray a couple of times and they are mostly gone.

Yet they have been a great source of irritation and wailing against this gawd-awful, messed up place. Truth is we had an ant problem at our last place in the US — one might even say a worse problem — yet there it was nothing more than an annoyance.

The difference is we are in a different place with different ideas and ways of dealing with such problems. In the States we simply complained to our apartment manager and they sent a bug guy. Here we had to go to several stores looking for some sort of spray. Neither of us read any sort of Chinese and so we had to look at the pictures on the cans.

“Is that an ant or a termite?”

“This one looks like a mosquito, do you think mosquito spray will kill ants?”

“This is just some sort of candle, do candles kill ants?”

And on it goes. Some of the simplest functions in the US become difficult here due to the differences in language and culture.

Adding to the ants was the lack of cabinet space in the kitchen, and the fact that we have very few dishes and cookware and food at the moment. Quickly all of these things pile up and form an insurmountable mountain of fear and annoyances and hatred, all geared towards China.

Likewise I have recently started tutoring a very wealthy, middle-aged Chinese woman in English. I went a few times with my brother-in-law, as he was tutoring her before, to be introduced, to learn the way to her home, and become familiar with the lesson plans.

Earlier this week I had to go solo. I was scared. No, I was petrified. My stomach was tied in knots. I was nauseated. I was dizzy. I was contemplating taking a rowboat back to the US.

Logically this was completely insane. I had a card, written in Chinese, that gave directions to any taxi driver on how to get to the tutoree's apartment, and another card with directions to my apartment.

I had already met the student and she was perfectly nice. The lessons would not be difficult so there was absolutely nothing to be scared of – and if I ran into a snag, I could always call my brother-in-law.

Still there I was sweating up little puddles onto the floor.

Here I am with culture shock in full swing.

Things are beginning to improve. I’ve been to several lessons with my student now and I’m finding the whole procedure to be much easier. I’m able to communicate in small ways with taxi drivers to ensure they take me in the same directions. I haven’t seen an ant in several days. And I feel more at ease.

I know that there will be more moments of culture shock to come, but I also know if I continue to tackle them head on I will enjoy myself more and I will come to experience the full wealth of what China has to offer.

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About Mat Brewster

  • Sir Brewster, i dunno how i missed this series kicking off, but by God i adore it. I can see myself getting very addicted to these tales…

  • Thanks Duke. I’m trying to do the series regularly and on Friday, but as you can see that doesn’t always work out.