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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Beihai, China

Aug 16, 2020


Beibu Gulf Square in Beihai, China

Beihai is a large port city on the southwest coast of China with a population of approximately 500,000. An expat who moved to Beihai offers an in-depth view of life in this growing city.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Beihai

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

None, but I had taken a vacation here from a teaching position in Korea. It was a two-way cultural experience as the tour group was ALL Korean except for me. So, it was somewhat difficult, exciting & enlightening at the same time.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

LOL. No Chinese then & very little now. It is true what others have said. The average Chinese person, especially in the service sector, is kind & eager to help (to make a sale). I have even had a Chinese girl run down her local street shouting for anyone who spoke English to come help. Even giving directions, most of them are kind & eager to help you if they can.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

Not really. A traveler needs to be confident & optimistic. I had already traveled to more than 30 countries, lived and worked in six of them, so I kind of knew there would be interesting times ahead. After that first tour of Beijing, I interviewed online for a number of University teaching positions & choose an interesting one in Shanghai. They sent a text file with maybe 14 pages of helpful hints which helped a lot.

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How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Having lived in Korea for almost 3 years, plus with frequent trips to Japan on "Visa Runs", I was pretty confident I could handle any differences. Sure, China & the Chinese are different than the people mentioned above, but, similar enough so that I was well prepared and ready to adapt as needed. One shock was their abundance of self-confidence. On the outside, they are still humble, but, make a suggestion and they often fall back on their 5,000 years of recorded history. Its like, they politely listen but often continue to do as they have done for years, and years, and years.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I don't remember clear stages as my first trip to China was over 20 years ago. But, I do know there were times when I wished they would do things more the American or western way. There were also times when I was impressed & thought we in the west could learn a lot from the way they do things here. Dating in China was exciting. Falling in love & getting married even more so. These two steps, along with life long friendships in fellow teachers & from some of my students have helped me get settled. We now have a beautiful apartment here. I am retired & will probably stay here depending on the "new normal" as relates to the World Pandemic or Covid19 which has caused changes all over the world.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

LOL again, it has been a long, interesting process. Looking back, there were times of anger, overeating and over drinking, and for sure frustration and homesickness. The anger was often at myself for failing to adapt quickly enough or in making the same mistake twice. The overeating and over-drinking is an exciting part of their culture that was wonderful to explore. Frustration comes naturally anywhere you are to those who allow it to creep in. I am fortunate that I have learned to limit those times and to make sure they are short-lived. And finally, homesickness is a product of how much you loved your family & the life-style you had there. It also has to do with your ability to visit, with involves the cost of travel. We were able to travel to the US & visit family. This helped a lot & my US family learned from these trips. Overall, it has been very rewarding in many ways & I encourage others to travel to Asia & especially to China. You will learn a lot, about yourself & about an incredible culture.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

This new culture, these people are new in so many ways, yet ancient in so many others. One aspect I admire is their ability to formulate and carry out truly long term plans. In the US, national programs tend to be 4 years, based on elections. But, here, 20 or 30 YEAR PLANS are not uncommon, so they can accomplish amazing things. I appreciate the respect they show for older folks like me. Even their own people are shown a great deal more respect then is often the case in the west. I appreciate their work ethic, which is work, work & work until the job or the goal is reached.

I remember one old man riding a bicycle down a crowded street in Shanghai. He had six cement blocks on a metal platform on one side of his bike and a REFRIGERATOR on the other side. He was hauling that Fridge & would probably receive $3 or $4 then or maybe $10 to $15 for this dangerous job in today's market. His family needed the money, so he took the job. And their kids, often going from school to private lessons in Math, English or KungFu & sometimes, ALL THREE on a Saturday & Sunday. The Chinese kids seem smarter because their parents PUSH them harder to study & make something of their lives. And this cultural trait has made the Chinese successful worldwide because they value education.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Driving in China has been a big challenge. There are electric scooters everywhere. I mean, sometimes at a busy intersection, there are 24 cars and 300 scooters. These scooters, (if they are electric) require no driver's license. This means that the drivers have NOT been taught what is legal or safe. So, any intersection is dangerous with scooters crossing traffic lines, not obeying the lights & basically its open season. Now, add to that owning a car & modern "Big Brother" with traffic cameras everywhere. I have received so many tickets whereas in the other 30+ countries I have driven in, my record is almost perfect. Silent electric scooters, strange traffic laws, Chinese signs & those darn cameras everywhere make driving a real challenge here.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

Hmm, well, in most Chinese cultural settings, they drink a lot. I have been on many University interviews & invariably, it involves a lunch, a dinner or both with 4 or 5 professors, the dean of the English department & maybe a wife or two. Well, they begin toasting early about everything. One glass of beer & one glass of Biju, the local name for liqueur. Well, it was lunchtime, I was getting drunk & the main interview was that afternoon. After the 3rd or 4th slurred answer, my wife (well fiance then) took the cue & (we had planned before & my slurs were partly intentional) said in Chinese "Please forgive my husband as he has a kidnew condition. I will continue the toasts, but, he must begin to drink water & not Biju. They were a bit shocked, but, our plan worked & I was later offered a great position.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

To reduce culture shock, use what you have. Today, it is much easier with the internet. Hundreds of blogs, websites, news stories & even Chinese movies are available for view. Research has always been important. But, it is the key in this new world we live in, if you are going to travel to China, learn as much as you can. I hope this article will help you in some small way. China is a wonderful place, the people are kind & there are many exciting places to explore. Do your homework & then come prepared to be amazed.

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