Updated: Jan 26
Be it for work, study, or any other reason, living in China is incredible. In many respects, it is often a once in a lifetime opportunity to indulge in a historic and beautiful culture and expose oneself to alternative ways of living and viewing the world. Differences between cultures, however, regardless of how interesting and amazing one may find them, can be difficult to reconcile and as a result, living in China brings about challenges. Thus, both can be true. That is, cultural differences in China compared to much of Europe are wonderful and exciting but are also daunting and challenging to accept.
While many articles you may read will undoubtedly focus on why you should study or live in China, I will take a slightly different approach. While there are obvious reasons why living or studying in China might be beneficial to you, I just advise that you be prepared for the challenges that you will inevitably face. Being prepared to face these challenges ahead of time will reduce your stress and maximise your enjoyment of all the amazing things life in China has to offer.
Culture shock is a major challenge that is associated with any meaningful long-term travel arrangements. While for a certain length of time, it is certainly possible to attempt to avoid the cleavages caused by differences in your values and norms vis-à-vis the host culture, it is impossible to escape these differences. They are very real, and they matter. The initial period where facing these differences can be avoided is known as the honeymoon period. True culture shock enters the fray as anxiety caused by the clash of two vastly different realities and conceptualisations. Once you fall from the dizzying heights of the honeymoon phase, generally you will face the first obstacle of achieving a shared understanding with people who think and behave differently to you such that you adjust to your new environment and can properly function. This requires active and passive learning. Passive learning can and should be carried out prior to leaving for China. This includes second-hand research and background reading on Chinese culture such that you have a surface-level understanding prior to your journey. Once you have gained this theoretical understanding, you can engage in ‘culture learning’. This involves learning and understanding a range of behaviours and where they are appropriate given certain contexts. Learning the language and introducing yourself to neighbours can be a good first step in addressing culture shock.
Culture shock generally breeds homesickness. For me personally, homesickness and being so far away from my family was the main challenge. In fact, my homesickness caused me to seclude and isolate myself. This is referred to as belonging nowhere and is a common coping mechanism for homesickness which involves marginalising oneself. However, as it may seem, it is not a healthy mechanism. It is rather important to seek social interaction rather than isolation. Eventually, I managed to create a friendship network and slowly alleviated my isolation. Preferably this would involve fully embracing multiculturalism which allows one to maintain their own cultural identity, while also providing tools to combat culture shock and loneliness through the development of friendships with those in the host culture and creation of new experiences.
However, following on from social integration theory, most of the friendships I made were with those I could easily relate to. That is, those who spoke English well, had similar values and norms, or were students in the same classes as me who had similar interests and assignments. It is an inescapable fact that we are predisposed to creating friendships with those who are similar to us. Once I became self-aware of this fact, however, I was able to make a conscious effort to engage with those who were different to me and create meaningful friendships that transcended our cultural differences. These friendships also helped me learn and appreciate the differences between us and create a better sense of self and what I value. It is important to open yourself up to differences and attempt to reconcile them.
Conflicting Values and Norms
We have a tendency to take our own values for granted or assume they are universal, which can be forgiven given how deeply they are held. It is only when we are confronted with another culture and our values seem out of place that we are forced to reflect. Studying and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds catapults you in many respects out of a homogenous comfort zone to listen and reflect on why you think a certain way. It also allows you to realise that there may be more than one way of perceiving and approaching an issue. For example, in Ireland, many people treat the symptoms of an issue. We often fail to look at the bigger picture and think pragmatically. Chinese people on the other hand are often more pragmatic.
These two generalised (I say generalised as there are of course people within both cultures that deviate from this statement) mindsets are on the surface contradictory but at a deeper level, they point to a potential for cooperation. It is as important to treat symptoms and think short-term as it is important to treat the more central issue at hand over the longer term. It is possible that you might view certain actions or statements by Chinese people with confusion due to your underlying beliefs. This is normal but it is important to be aware of this and open to these behaviours and actions that deviate from what we would associate with ‘normal’ behaviours by our standards. For example, while at our home universities or workplaces, we might invite and accept open criticism, in China, this is not the case. Such expressions of public critique would be viewed as ignorant and harmful to one’s ‘face’ (mianzi - 面子): that is, how they are viewed by peers.
Fostering Mutual Respect for Cultural Differences
Different cultural values do not by default make someone strange or an outsider. We must understand our own values, how they form, and why people act and think differently. This reminds of a quote from Hofstede: “Culture is learned, not inherited”. I was not born believing what I believe, and neither are those around us. Our environment has socialised us. By ten years of age, our basic inherent values and belief system is tightly embedded at the back of our conscious.
The environments that we grow up in and the people who we grow up around shape and teach us the “proper” ways of thinking and processing information which subsequently impacts underlying beliefs and values. Allocating significant time to analyse deeper factors that drive the actions of others in a non-judgemental fashion develops self-awareness of values which others may find alienating. We must refrain from projecting our values onto others who do not share our ways of thinking. If we fail to do so, we may slip into a colonialist way of thinking or a harmful “us vs. them” divide. It fosters a belief that our mode of thinking is superior, and they should think like us. This kind of thinking erects a barrier to communication. Unfortunately, it is a mode of thinking that is easily slipped into, typically unconsciously, and this is why we need to be aware of and learn how to appreciate our differences.
So then, it is fair to say that travelling, living, and studying in China can bring about a difficult process marked by a cultural disconnect or homesickness, among other issues that may profoundly impact our adaptation to a novel and foreign environment. This can be overcome with proper preparation, a positive attitude, and self-awareness. We can embrace each other and our differences. We can create lasting friendships and unforgettable experiences if we stay the course when faced with obstacles associated with culture shock. Thus, I conclude with this: Go to China and create incredible experiences. Immerse yourself in a beautiful and historic culture. Be open-minded and remember, there will be challenges but you can and will overcome them.
Conor Nolan is the Vice-Secretary of European Guanxi, He holds a degree in International Commerce and Chinese and is currently pursuing a Masters in International Relations. He has studied at University College Dublin, Renmin University (Beijing) and Jiaotong University (Shanghai). You can find him on LinkedIn here.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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