Culture shock is a funny thing. Based on my experience, it seems to be not so much about differences, but rather about expectations of similarity.
During my first three trips to China, it’s hard for me to point to many instances of culture shock. I can think of one, and that was at the end of my two-month summer stay. The thing is, I knew nothing about China – and I knew that I knew nothing about China. I had no illusions about my familiarity with the language, culture, food, or anything else that I encountered. Everything was very different from what I was used to, but I just accepted it as it was and moved on.
When I went back for the year, I felt reasonably adept at life in China, but my recent Chinese language course made me realize that my language skills were rudimentary at best. Again, with low expectations, I adjusted fairly well to my new life.
The culture shock came later.
Culture shock is a consequence of confidence. The instances that easily come to mind (shopping in Beijing after my parents left, and Easter Sunday when a woman told me I’d been sitting improperly all year, for example) both came much later in the year, when I felt like I knew everything.
The worst culture shock I’ve ever had in my life was my first day in Hong Kong. I’d already been to Taiwan, so I thought I knew what “China-not-China” was like, and was NOT prepared for the reality of Hong Kong. The aggressive English-speaking Indian men, the cost of everything, the Cantonese and traditional characters, the cars driving on the left side of the road – it all took me by surprise, going against all of my expectations, and was just too much for to take in all at once. So I retired to my room and watched youtube videos for a few hours.
In preparing to come out to California, I knew that the West Coast is different from the Midwestern/Central states that I’ve always lived in. I was prepared for political differences and higher prices and not being able to carry a gun with more than 10 rounds (not that this was going to cramp my style at all).
But it ended up being something much more mundane that got to me. A few days after I arrived, I went grocery shopping and nearly ended up in the fetal position in a corner. It wasn’t just that there wasn’t a familiar grocery store around – there weren’t any familiar products in the grocery store. The brands were all different, and everything was organic or gluten-free or free-range or whatever. Also (like Hong Kong) everything was more expensive than I was used to. When you’re stocking a brand new apartment, it’s a long shopping trip, and by the end of the produce section I was ready to quit. I was so happy when I saw something I recognized! (I feel like it was Old El Paso taco shells or something stupid like that.)
I’m not trying to be all small-town Oklahoma here or anything. (When people ask, I say I’m from Oklahoma; I figure it is at least as accurate as any other possible response.) When I tell Californians of this culture shock, I make sure to follow it up with the Hong Kong story, so that they know I’m not just freaking out because we don’t have stoplights in the town where I grew up or something stereotypically small-town like that. Like I said, culture shock isn’t as much about differences as the expectation of similarity. My Bulgarian roommate nailed it on the head when she said, “But you’re from America!”. I would never assume that Xinjiang is basically the same as Xiamen, but it’s easier to fall into that trap when you’re dealing with your own country.
The culture shock passed quickly enough (well before the dairy aisle), and now two weeks after arriving I am feeling pretty settled in. I’m still getting used to all of the proper nouns associated with my new home (cities, roads, stores, brands, etc.) – a challenge with any move – and I’m sure there will be surprises ahead . . . but I did it in China and I’m pretty sure I can handle California.
Uh oh, there’s that confidence again . . .