Dealing with Culture Shock

When people relocate to an other country, preparing for, or dealing with, culture shock is not usually the first thing on their mind. But as experienced as you may feel with traveling, settling down for a daily life abroad is as huge a leap of faith as moving from dating life to married life.

This analogy may surprise you, but like with dating, when you travel, anything that doesn’t appeal to you is short term. If you do not enjoy a place, a dish, an atmosphere, you can just easily step away. In full contrast, an expatriation implies a much higher level of commitment, one that binds you, and one where routine prevails.

Colourful urban jungle in Bangkok

Experiencing culture shock is not something you have much control over. It just happens, regardless of how many books you read, how much you learn the language. It happens regardless of your country of origin or destination, your education or the comfort of your new life. It is not necessarily an issue with your host country, but will invariably be linked to you and your country of origin, the way you grew up there, as this sets your default perception and standards.

So what is culture shock exactly? To give you a simplified definition, it is a feeling of disorientation, a set of strong and unsettling emotions that one may experience when encountering or being surrounded by unfamiliar cultures, attitudes, social standards, or contrasting lifestyles. It is, therefore, possible to have a culture shock in one’s own country, by changing location, social environment, integrating a new group. Culture shock can affect you when joining a new company or a new school, when moving from a large city to the countryside or vice versa. This sense of change is, of course, greatly heightened when moving to a foreign country, even more so in a country that is fundamentally different from yours.

Who wouldn’t dream to move to Australia? What sort of culture shock could someone expect there?

In the specific cases of expatriation and immigration, people face change at multiple levels: new home, modified family life/dynamic, different environment, often different climate, change of food, work place and work patterns. You can top this with the culture difference of the country of relocation: different life style, different social standards, different behaviours.

Once the excitement of the novelty fades slowly into a routine, and the reality of your new life sinks in, comes the moments of uncertainty and the phase of culture shock. The turning point can be a specific moment in time or an accumulation of small factors which, if taken individually, may seem fairly unimportant. It could appear after an encounter, a disagreement, the difficulty to overcome a daily complication (public transport). It may translate through various sets of emotions, anger, frustration, distrust. Among other things, sociologists associate the signs of culture shock with issues such as:

  • sleep problems
  • feeling of insecurity – including for minor problems
  • a struggle to resolve problems
  • spikes of irritability
  • obsession over minor things (smells, tastes, recurring attitudes)
  • an excessive urge to clean everything
  • loss or increase of appetite

Can culture shock be averted? At best, can it be minimised? The answer is a flat yes, but just like the major cause of the shock is within us, so are the solutions.

Blocks of buildings in one of China’s industrial cities

One’s own capacity to adjust, to find solutions, to distance ourselves or seek help and advice is key to making the adjustment smoother. At first, make sure to settle into a home as rapidly as possible. Play your favourite music, buy a plant or flowers, plug in your Xbox, fill your kitchen with food you like, display a few familiar objects that you packed in yowursuitcase or your air freight. You have plenty of time to adapt to your new host country, but no one said you had to adapt or taken it all in within just a few days. Developing a little evening ritual during the first few weeks, will bring comfort and help ground you. As weeks pass, this nest will slowly open to guests, you will invite new friends, cook for colleagues or neighbours.

During the first few weeks you may want to seek the company of other expatriates, as they will often relate to your problems, your doubts, and many will have already found some solutions and be able to bring you some support. Their experience will help you overcome certain cultural complications or help you bypass the ones that you may struggle to reconciliate with. A similar culture shock can affect people from different origins, while people coming from the same country as you may not necessarily relate to your emotions or your doubts.

Making local friends goes also a long way, just like having a language teacher who can in many small cases assist you and make some of your daily complications feel a little lighter. Making friends, in and from the country you have move to, is a turning point to adapt and integrate country and culture. A neighbour, a teacher, or someone met during a common activity (gym, class, children’s school)

Ultimately, cultivating a sense of humour and taking a step back (via a little holiday, or a trip to your home country) will go a long way in helping you resettle the balance.

What you need the most to combat culture shock, is a solid sense of humour, the capacity to start most things with a smile (as it is a universal sign, understood by all), and somehow manage to distance yourself from a lot of things happening to you, no matter how odd they may seem to you. And perhaps you should take a couple hours to watch Lost in Translation.

Living Cashless In China: One Video Sums It All Up

Is China slowly going cashless? In this country like no other, everything seems possible.

If you have already traveled to China, you may have found it almost impossible to use a foreign credit-card. For the Chinese citizens or the foreign residents, the main forms of payment were either cash or, until recently, the state-backed payment giant, UnionPay. It is therefore no big surprise that the country started to look at alternative ways of payment.

In 2017, almost 50% of Chinese citizens owned a smartphone. This number was largely due to the arrival, on the market, of more affordable, locally produced smartphones. And in the same way WhatsApp has changed the way we communicate, WeChat for China has become the essence of the communication in the Middle Kingdom. But very uniquely, WeChat is everything by itself: a social network, a tool to communicate, a geo-locator, a tool to meet people, a life style, a micro-blogging system, a way to pay for transport, and much much more. Now the social platform is about to make almost every payment possible. Would you like to order your breakfast on line and pay for it with your social app? How about sending money to your nanny?

Could living cashless become a reality?

If you are not intrigued yet, you may want to watch this video by Mamahuhu. This YouTube / Youku comedy show from Shanghai has now entertained expats and locals for the last few years. Their sketches put face to face the archetypes of Chinese and “Western” cultures.

In this quirky video, Mamahuhu presents their own take on a day in Shanghai, with just a phone.

If you are heading to China soon, is it time to consider using WeChat?

Expatriation: From expectations to adjustment

Moving abroad is not for the faint-hearted. And although each case of expatriation or immigration is as unique as each expatriate, most will agree on a simple fact: they were never quite ready for it.

Whatever perception you had of your home country, and of the country you were moving to, the end result is never what you had planned and prepared for.

China is one of the main destinations for expatriates

 Replacing one inconvenience with an other

If you thought you were leaving unpleasantness behind in order to walk into the light, you may be in for a big surprise.

Try and remember all those things you expected to miss, and those you were so excited to leave behind? Now think again. What truly happened to them? Heavy street traffic and sirens have replaced your neighbours’ yapping dog. You finally said good bye to a gossipy colleague, but you now work with a foreign management you do not always understand, leaving you feeling somehow isolated and confused. You now have 2 guest rooms to welcome family and friends… but you realise none of them will come and visit you, because, you know, they are not sure they will like the food. in short, you

Regardless of where we come from, the amount of things we take for granted is far greater than any of us realises. From social standards to food, climate, hygiene, or customs, culture shock leaves us speechless, facing small nothings we never thought were even a thing.

Say good bye to the old life

Generally speaking, the first few weeks abroad are a shock. Exhilarating for some, scary for others, but unsettling for most people. The sounds, the smells, the light, it all feels different. And there is little to no way around it. It is not a holiday, you are not going back home next week!

As weeks pass, you adjust to the essentials, slowly becoming aware of more subtle differences. The things that used to make your daily life no longer exist in this brand new life. You suddenly miss the less likely things, some of which you were not aware you liked in the first place. But since you moved to a place where they are rare, non existent or impossible, you suddenly miss them. Say good bye to ordering pizza at midnight, having a kids sleepover in the garden or sleeping with the windows open.

Istanbul view from the Galata tower. Embracing a new culture and a new life.

Embrace your new life

You miss small and big nothings, although you have replaced a lot of comfortable habits by others just as interesting, possibly more memorable. In my new life, I take a taxi like some light up a cigarette, easily, casually, frequently. I never had that before and I love it. But in my new life I have realised how much I like nature. My new home is an ultra urban environment and I had never experienced living with so little trees, and no bird singing in the morning. I miss the bird that used to annoy me by starting to sing at 5am on Sundays.

The surprising upside to this though, beyond the stress of adjustment, is how young one suddenly feels. Moving to a new country implies learning all codes anew, adapting to a million new ways, accepting to let go of the adult in control we once were, to allow ourselves to start again. The simple action of going to a supermarket in your “new life” will bring back memories of being 10 or 12 years old, and being sent to the shop by your parents for the first time. What if I don’t find the items on the list? Who can I ask? Do I have enough money?


City lights in China

With so many gigantic cities, most of them looking and feeling like permanent construction sites, China may leave your photographic eye a little frustrated. You do have to go a long way to find those amazing and picturesque landscapes the brochure guides made you dream about. If you are traveling, you will find your way to picturesque Guilin or Sanya. But if you are an expat, your daily life is likely to be in one of the major cities, mostly an industrial one.

China has a lot to offer to the explorer and the photographer, especially on the street side. A few minutes of walking along the streets of any Chinese city will make you feel very overwhelmed: crowd, movement, speed, smells, and a myriad of visual contrasts. Street photography is not an easy exercise, especially if, like me, and unlike the Chinese, you feel self conscious at the idea of pointing your phone or camera to people’s faces and on-going activities.

Summer night on a street of Beijing vs winter summer night in Shenyang

Summer night on a street of Beijing vs winter summer night in Shenyang

So here is a quick thought for you if you come to visit the Middle Kingdom. Step out in the city at night. I do it regularly with my favourite Hipstamatic Lenses, because the filters add to the magic of the street lights.

Both above and under ground, electric lights and LED

Both above and under ground, electric lights and LED

The bright Chinese LED lights will bring you all sorts of sights. You can follow a gritty trail, or step into scenes that will, no doubt, remind you of Blade Runner.


Street vendor in winter in North China

Street vendor in winter in North China

Late night street view in Hong Kong

Late night street view in Hong Kong


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