Is this Culture Shock (or is it just the Weather?)

The last week and a half was less than stellar. None of it was Chengdu’s fault, and I knew that. But it just wasn’t much fun–I feel like Eyore saying that :-). When you feel down shortly after arriving in a new country, you naturally suspect culture shock.

The term is used rather too loosely in popular media, but culture shock is a real phenomenon that presents a fairly stable pattern. In its classic form the new arrival experiences several days to a week of giddy exhilaration. You’re just overjoyed to be in a new place. Everything seems fascinating and exotic and thrilling! Sadly, this honeymoon is followed by roughly two to four weeks of extreme misery in which nothing feels right. Everyone does things the wrong way. You can’t accomplish anything.

The world is clearly coming to an end, or at least your part in it. In its extreme forms, culture shock  is unbelievably unpleasant, but since it always passes sooner or later, the real danger is that it might sour someone on their new home, causing a more long-term problem. That’s why it’s important to know what culture shock is so that you ascribe your misery to the correct, short-lived source. Unfortunately, many sufferers don’t want to accept that their misery is a peculiar response to sudden immersion in a new environment. They feel this downplays the reality of their discontent and insist on blaming the people around them.

Full-blown culture shock is almost never experienced by short-term travelers. Even people roughing it for two months usually have nothing worse than occasional extreme irritability. Somehow it’s the knowledge that you’re not here just for leisure, that you’re not going home in a few weeks/months produces an intensity that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

My first experience with culture shock came while spending a summer in a Mexican village as an undergrad. Oddly enough, although I was an anthropology major, no one had warned me about it. I had a classic case, and fortunately a U.S. anthropology PhD student staying in the same village correctly diagnosed me and explained what was happening.

As dramatic as it seemed at the time, that bout of culture shock was nothing compared to my first trip to China. I had never been to China, knew very little of the language and even less about how to handle daily life here, and back then you were truly immersed (read: isolated) in Chinese life when you lived in Chengdu. Apart from other foreigners you met, you had very limited connections to the rest of the world. All of that made it worse, I’m sure, but I still think the biggest factor is what one of my friends said after two months in China: “It’s on the other side of the world for a reason!” Whatever the cause, after my week-long love-fest, I went through a full month of almost unremitting misery. In hindsight, I’m somewhat surprised and proud of my own resilience–though it may have been mere stubbornness. It was horrible, but when it was over I found China growing on me more and more. In a weird sense, I’ve often felt that passing through the culture shock was a necessary part of truly arriving in China. The peculiar feeling of comfort and strangeness which life here had afterwards was the payoff.

I’ve never since experienced culture shock at that level. Of course, I’ve never tried living in a country other than China or the U.S. either. This move to China has been very calm. I had one incident in Shanghai that really got my gall up, but otherwise I’ve found adjusting to my new life quite pleasant. Until last week. It felt like a perfect storm of difficult situations. A series of unavoidable errands kept me tied up the first half of the week. They weren’t terribly unpleasant errands, but it kept me from getting out on my own and exploring–which is what I wanted to do. Then the last of the errands, getting my daughter’s school physical exam became truly painful.

Everything was easy till we got to the blood test. My daughter has had blood tests in the U.S. They scare her, but she handled them well. This time, however, the environment was totally unfamiliar. There was no private room with a soothing nurse doing everything possible to keep her calm. Instead there were five windows with about five hundred (or so it felt) people waiting in line to get their blood drawn. You go up to the window, stick out your hand, and the nurse does her thing. Meanwhile, children are crying, people are talking, and bedlam is generally running around the room with a gleeful smile.

It was more than my daughter could handle. By the time we got to the window, she was freaked out. I tried comforting her, reasoning with her, lecturing her, even yelling at her (in desperation) but nothing worked. Short of holding her down, there was no way to get the test done, and I wasn’t quite ready to go that far. In the end, we went home without completing the blood test, and both of us were more than a little traumatized. Two days later, after much discussion of the situation and planning for how we would handle it and promises on her part to be “very brave,” we went back to the hospital, back to the five windows and bedlam. She tried so hard, but we had to wait and then wait more. By the time it was our turn, her courage was exhausted and the poor thing wanted to do anything and everything but have her blood taken. Comforting and reasoning failed again, but this time I knew what I had to do. With two nurses helping, I held her down while they took her blood. Thankfully, these nurses are really good at what they do–they take blood from a gazillion people a day after all–and they found her vein on the first try. It was all over in thirty seconds (as I had told my daughter it would be), and we were done. She recovered in about five minutes, telling the story–with my support–of how brave she had been. I needed a few hours for full recovery, but I got there eventually.

Now, as I said at the outset, none of this was Chengdu’s fault. I knew that. But I couldn’t shake a vague, gloomy, asocial mood for the next five days or so. Was it culture shock? As it happens the temperature and humidity spiked at the same time, and we had to use the air-conditioner for the first time. The weekend kept me stuck at home for two days, but even when the week began again, I couldn’t drum up the motivation to do much of anything. So was it culture shock, the weather, or did I just have a really lousy week? Probably a bit of all three, but luckily for me, this morning dawned cool and clear, and a few miles of wandering revived me. But that is a story for another post!

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