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Feb 19, 2013

Shanghai Shock: How culture shock can change, influence or even sneak up on us

Stepping out of Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China for the first time you’ll immediately notice the air. You never really thought about air much before but you notice it now, and you wonder if it’s always this gray. After you get in a taxi and it takes you a few miles away from the airport, you begin to see high rise buildings and you think, “Oh, we must already be getting to the downtown.” But then the taxi keeps rolling on and the buildings keep getting bigger and 45 minutes later you finally arrive in what is actually the downtown. And then it sinks in that this is what a city of 20 million people looks like.

You look around and you notice all the signs with unfamiliar characters, the neon lights, the hordes of people rushing past, the incredible traffic, full of of trucks, cars, scooters, bicycles, motorbike delivery carts, vehicles you wouldn’t even know what to call them. And then it hits you that you aren’t at home anymore. You’re in China, in Shanghai. For better or worse, this is your new home for the next six months, the next two years, the next decade, it depends on what you’re here to do.

Many of us may remember the standard model of culture shock or transition from our multicultural counseling classes: the honeymoon phase, full of wonder and enthusiasm; the conflict stage, full of anger and confusion at the new place; the recovery stage, in which a mixture of the previous two is experienced; and then finally the adaptation stage in which the new culture is accepted and elements from it integrated with elements from the individual’s home culture. Of course not everyone experiences all of the stages and some people experience them for different lengths of time or to varying degrees.

Here in Shanghai, any of these stages, but especially the first one can evoke extreme reactions and unusual behavior. Upon their arrival here, some people are frightened to even dip a toe into the cultural water, others jump in with both feet and happily swim around, while others still dive in without looking and crack their heads on the bottom.

It isn’t uncommon that people arriving in Shanghai, particularly if they did not elect to come here (i.e. are trailing spouses or employees of companies that didn’t make the transfer optional), might skip the Honeymoon stage altogether. If they didn’t want to be here, it’s unlikely they will find interest and curiosity in life’s everyday challenges. For example, the frustration of trying to communicate with local people in their daily lives, which would be full of what some would describe “hilarious snafus,” might just make them downright angry. Things like not being able to find the brands of food that they’re accustomed to, not being able to communicate with domestic help or neighbors, or having things break frequently in their brand new apartment (not uncommon here due to quality control issues in construction) might leave them feeling overwhelmed and even afraid for their safety. Although life can occasionally surprise us in that we end up liking something we expected to hate, more often than not, we find what we had expected to find if we have very negative expectations.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are off on a flying roller coaster ride of a Shanghai honeymoon the moment they step off the plane. They’re out every night at a different restaurant, bar or club, even though back home they may have never gone out so much or to similar places. Everything seems exciting and incredibly fun, they’re making a million new friends and seeing so many things they’d never even known existed. Gradually alcohol becomes more and more a part of their lives, they find themselves making decisions that don’t match up with the values they thought they had, and holding it altogether at work or in their relationships becomes more and more of a challenge. Sometimes this group will admit they need help and seek counseling on their own, but quite often is because of difficulties with a partner or spouse who insists on their seeking therapy.

And then there’s some that do manage to find that happy medium. Shanghai is wonderful in the sense that there are many new opportunities to learn and experience that they wouldn’t have had back home, but at the same time, they aren’t willing to give up who they are for it all.

All of this is why, as a counselor here, I can never assume anything about a person just by knowing the amount of time they’ve been in this city. No two reactions or processes of adjustment are exactly the same, although some may be similar. Sometimes honeymoons can last for years and then suddenly the conflict stage hits out of the blue and they absolutely hate it here. During my first session with a client, I have to really listen for their feelings about being in this place, or if there even are strong feelings. Sometimes a paucity of words on this topic can speak volumes about the level of an individual’s adjustment. Perhaps this can also be the case for many of the transitions in our lives, relocation or otherwise, there’s always a process of adjustment to attune to and understand.

Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here:

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