Friday, November 16, 2007

Creative Engagement

During the Maryknoll orientation in September, we discussed the stages of culture shock, or the difficulties of adjusting to life in a culture radically different from your own. During the past five months living in Tianjin and then Zhanjiang, getting over culture shock has been the most difficult part of settling in to life as an American in China.

The first stage of culture shock, which Maryknoll calls "initial contact," occurred for me in Tianjin; for about four weeks everything was exciting and fun because of the newness of it all. At this time, all aspects of life in China seem wonderfully fascinating, including the "weird" food and different standards of cleanliness. Just walking down the street in Tianjin was an adventure.

During the second stage, according to our Maryknoll handout, comparisons with life at home begin to be made. The routine of everyday life becomes a bit tiresome and boring, and more alone time and sleep are needed. Towards the end of the study abroad program, I hit the second stage. For a few weeks, I was dead tired around 9 o'clock and found myself craving solitude. I'd wander around campus trying to find something to do, but nothing ever seemed to satisfy me.

Due to the diversions of traveling through Sichuan and spending time in Hong Kong after the Tianjin program ended, I had a brief hiatus from the culture shock cycle. However, a week or so after I arrived in Zhanjiang, the third and worst stage set in with a vengeance. It lasted for about about a month or so and I hope it never comes back. Looking back on this terrible time, it's interesting how accurate some of the bullets on the Maryknoll handout were:

  • Certain aspects of the local culture are absolutely infuriating- The relentless staring, filthy facilities, and round-about way of getting things done in China certainly drove me insane for quite some time.
  • Little things begin to loom rather large- The slightest mishap in class would bother me all week; one annoying encounter with a curious bumpkin out on the street was enough to ruin my mood for the entire day.
  • Your culture is obviously superior because it works- This way of thinking was a BIG problem. Torturing yourself with wondering "Why can't they do it the way WE do it? These people are so backwards!" will get you nowhere in adjusting to a new culture.
  • Feeling tearful- (self explanatory)
  • Sleep becomes a partial escape- I was sleeping all the time: going to bed early, waking up around 11, and taking naps during the day. I viewed getting up out of bed and going out with a sense of dread.
  • Emotional roller coaster- Each day was completely exhausting because of the wide range of emotions I was subjected to, seemingly outside my control. On an daily basis, my mood could fluctuate rapidly from excited, to depressed, to energetic, to hopeless... and back again.

The fourth stage, which I believe and hope I have finally reached, is called "creative engagement" by the Maryknoll handout. This is the final step and marks at least a partial adjustment to the new culture. During this time, one begins craving certain local foods (for me, the beef and potato dish at my favorite noodle restaurant); noises and smells become commonplace (I'm only slightly bothered by the sounds of chickens being slaughtered behind my apartment); being alone in the culture is not longer threatening (I don't mind walking down the street by myself, as long as it's not during rush hour); ability to live with unanswered questions and mystery increases (I do my best to shrug off the frequent last-minute changes and hitches in the plan that occur at my school)... and the list goes on and on.

That's not to say I don't still get frustrated by my old nemeses of universal gawking at the tall foreign girl, requests for photo shoots, or being treated like a retard because I'm not Chinese; all these things still bother me quite a bit. It's just that I'm beginning to focus on the positive things, like my favorite Chinese foods, or the little group of adorable students that I talk to a lot, or the beautiful fall weather that's finally setting in. Hmm... I'd even go so far as to say I'm enjoying my life in Zhanjiang.

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