Crossing the Border: When Does Culture Shock Become Racism?

Experiencing different cultures is part of the reason we travel, and those of us who choose to live somewhere far from home may smugly assume that we are more open and accepting than most. Sometimes though even the most cosmopolitan of us will feel revolted by something they see, or long for familiar food from home.

In the past, our Home and Relocation Guide has included an article, usually lighthearted, about some of the aspects of Beijing life which new arrivals from other cultures often find difficult to cope with. Last year however a reprinted piece attracted some criticism from Chinese readers, even an accusation of racism. The observations made in the article will all be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in this city; however, were we wrong to suggest, even unintentionally, that the Beijing way is wrong? When does culture shock become – let’s say the word and confront the issue – racism?

Culture shock is not a trivial issue. It goes beyond the sort of day to day irritations that we all experience to a deep, visceral repulsion. It can lead to people giving up their dreams and going home, and in extreme cases even to suicide. It is a genuine phenomenon, recognized by psychologists and the subject of a growing body of research.

And it’s hard to deny that of all the places in the world, Beijing may be the toughest to adapt to for foreigners. For much of the 20th century, China resisted the so-called “coca-colonization” by Western soft powers. Even now that there is a KFC and Pizza Hut in every mall, the similarities are only superficial – as one bite of sweet, gooey pizza will reveal.

Even for Chinese people from other parts of the country Beijing can be an extreme environment: its overcrowding, pollution, and the more pugnacious habits of its citizens are notorious. There are also significant class differences. The term nóngmín 农民, literally meaning just “farmer” but with connotations closer to the English word “peasant,” is used to express the contempt of sophisticated city dwellers for those from rural districts whose behavior is seen as boorish or backward.

Many of the aspects which people find most difficult to deal with relate to bodily fluids, and their appropriate disposal. Spitting on the streets is one example: I know people for whom even the preparatory hawking is enough to provoke a strong reaction, making them feel physically ill. Yet to many Chinese people the Western habit of wiping your nose with a handkerchief which you then put back in your pocket seems disgusting.

Similarly, the practice of putting young children in “split pants,” and allowing them to urinate and defecate on the street, is often a sticking point for Westerners. But it’s not hard to see how putting children in diapers, so that they run around in their own waste, could be viewed with repugnance.

Food and table manners are another major area of difference. Until recently eating with your hands was seen as gross behavior by most Chinese people, and in the early days McDonald's gave customers plastic gloves with which to eat their food. The rapid spread of Western fast food outlets has done much to overcome this taboo. For many Westerners though even the practice of leaving the heads on chickens and ducks can be a shock, and that’s before we get to some of the more challenging culinary delights on offer in China: silkworm cocoon, donkey, even dog. Yet the Chinese might reasonably retort that Western squeamishness about the food we eat is hypocritical, making sentimental distinctions between which animals are pets and which are food, and hiding the truth about farming methods.

It’s no surprise that these issues provoke the strongest feelings: physical disgust evolved as a way of keeping us safe, so that we can learn to be repelled by things which might make us ill. However we have also evolved to be intensely social animals, and the impulse to define ourselves and our tribe by our differences to the “other,” and to consider the way we were raised to be innately superior to all other ways, runs very deep. We may consciously consider all cultures to be equal, but we can’t always control our instinctive reactions.

It makes no sense then to add guilt to the mix, and make the problem worse. We need to be kind to ourselves, to recognize that these feelings are normal and natural, and to begin to find ways to get past them.

One model describes culture shock as having four stages. My own experience is that these stages do not come in the orderly progression that the model suggests. There are days when you feel you have adapted and accepted, that you feel at home, but then can still encounter something which sets you right back. It is perhaps most important to recognize though that things do gradually get better, that you learn to cope given time.

Humor, too, is a crucial outlet. It’s important for expats to be able to vent, to swap stories about their experiences. Laughter reduces fear and tension, and sharing reassures us that we are not alone in feeling alien. However we still need to be aware that not everyone might be laughing. When we’re joking in an office we might forget, for example, that a colleague has a Chinese spouse and might feel deeply uncomfortable with the conversation.

So we at beijingkids will continue to laugh about the differences which make travel and expat life so interesting and exciting, while remaining respectful of the culture and values of our hosts. And we’ll rely on feedback from you, our readers, to make sure we find the right balance.

For expert advice on culture shock and how to deal with it, we talked to Dr Yuwen Chou, MA, PsyD, who is a psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital Psychological Health Center.

Before joining Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics, Dr Chou worked as a psychologist in private practice settings for 5 years and developed expertise treating people with anxiety, depression, adjustment difficulties, marital and relational issues in adults, as well as children with behavioral and psychological issues. As a Chinese person who has lived and worked in the United States, she is very sensitive and aware of the cross-cultural issues people may experience.

“You and your family relocate to Beijing and in the beginning, everything seems to be exciting and you are intrigued with both similarities and differences between the new culture and your home culture. After a while, the novelty of the new culture starts to wear off and you now primarily focus on the differences; even small things can make you feel frustrated, confused, or irritated like walking across the street and cars honking at you for no reason, or using the squatting toilet. It is very common that you feel this way; even well-traveled individuals or business people experience culture shock from time to time.

“Generally speaking, there are four stages of culture adjustment. The first one is the honeymoon stage, and the stage two is what we call culture shock. With time and practice of adaptive strategies, this unpleasant phase will end, then you feel you have adjusted to the new culture with a positive attitude – the third stage. Finally, you can feel comfortable in the host culture and a sense of mastery and adaptation occur.

“There is also a reverse culture shock which can take place when an individual returns to his/her own culture after growing accustomed to a new one that the same effect can happen.

Some people find it impossible or very difficult to accept or acculturate to the new culture; some people integrate fully and decide to stay and make it home while some manage to adapt to the new culture they view as positive and keep their own thereby create their unique blend.

Here are some tips for dealing with culture shock more effectively:

1. Admit frankly that the impact exists. It is not a sign of weakness.

2. Stop thinking about or idealizing home. Avoid constant comparison with home.

3. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, sleep adequately, and limit alcohol consumption to moderation.

4. Take the time to learn the language. People will appreciate your effort and it also helps you to understand more about the host culture.

5. Stay in touch. Keep contact with your friends and families.

6. Don’t be shy. Share your thoughts and feelings with colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Or you can talk to professionals to identify coping strategies.

7. Make friends and develop relationships. Getting to know local people will help you overcome cultural differences and start to understand the host culture. Make friends with a positive mindset from your own culture so that you can get the support you want instead of focusing on the negative aspects.

8. Travel. Taking the time to see new places will make you appreciate the new home country.

9. Be mindful of cultural differences. Just remember that the manners, appearance, habits, and behavior you see from people of your new home country are only the tip of the iceberg. The differences that cause culture shock are more often attitudes, beliefs, and values, and we eventually need to reach an understanding and develop empathy in order to get through the phase.

This article first appeared on our sister website beijingkids.

Photo: Harald Groven (Flickr)

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