I’m alert in the packed line four train. A 4’11 woman stands with her forehead buried in my back, as a man’s elbow stabs me in my side. Then I hear the telltale signs of impending, unpaid sick leave in the air…cough, cough. At first, the gravelly cough is so faint I hope I imagined it, but I see the culprit in a distant corner of the train. Sure enough, one by one people decide to unleash their tidal wave of influenza. I think fast and quickly hold my breath.
In my mind, this is an impregnable barrier to the epidemic. In reality, I look like a silly foreigner whose cheeks are puckered and whose face is turning blue. I try to hold out for at least 10 more seconds while those raspy cough germs enter my vicinity and pass my face. When the coughs have settled, I gasp for air. I relish in my quiet victory of surviving the outbreak. But then ol’ girl, “Ms. 4’11”, uses my shirt as her on personal tissue while she sneezes repeatedly. Oh, the wonders of Shenzhen public transit.
Although living in China is sometimes shocking at best and horrifying at worst, here are some tips you can use to make any cultural shocking situation totally doable and a little less crappy.
Lesson One: Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right…Usually
I’m a naturally petty person, so this lesson was kind of a difficult pill to swallow at first. Yes, when Ms. 4’11” sprayed her pathogens all over my backside, I wanted to turn around and return my newly acquired maladies. Why didn’t I, you ask? One, I saw a flash of future headlines: “Aggressive foreigner spits on local woman.” I saw myself as a gif circulating through various WeChat groups. Most importantly, I saw that one moment of anger could literally derail everything. Instead, I have learned it is best to avoid direct conflict at all costs.
If you are really upset about a topic or issue, I recommend that you take a less direct route to express your frustrations. For me on the crowded subway the morning, I chose the 101 express route to the corner of Passive Aggressive Avenue and Petty Lane. I eventually noticed that Ms. 4’ 11” was using me to support her body weight instead of trying to support her own. Huge Mistake. I shift ever so slightly. Oops….did I do that? Admittedly, this is not the best way for everyone to handle conflict, but like I said, I thrive off of pettiness, and China has forced me to grow and cultivate my pettiness in a different form. Other ways to deal with conflict in China include accepting the conflict (probably the most acceptable option), talking around the issue, and just being direct. The last one probably will not get you many brownie points especially if you are always direct, however, I believe it’s important to find a level of comfort in an uncomfortable place even if it means you will not be well liked.
Lesson Two: Having Western Friends is Important
When I first arrived to China, I naively believed that I needed to fully submerse and assimilate into culture to fully understand it and the language. That did not happen. I underestimated the stark contrasts in our cultures and overestimated my sense of adventure. It is okay to find some familiarity in a vastly unfamiliar experience. For me, my new assemblage of friends are nothing like the friends I’ve had before, and that’s a good thing. They are my spoonful of sugar that sometimes helps the medicine of culture shock go down. This is not to say that you shouldn’t have Chinese friends or learn the culture or language because you should absolutely do all of those things. Having western friends just allows you to be in a space where you can more readily do such.
Lesson Three: Find Comfort (and Food!)
For me, comfort is an Italian restaurant where you can get a full meal for under 30RMB. For you, it can be yoga or dancing, but essentially, you have to find an activity that can relieve stress because it’s inevitable: *%$#* will hit the fan in China at one point. Like when ol’ girl and her pathogens declare war with your health. When you have a Zen place and or mindset, it can serve as an oasis from the worst of demonic kids or situations (I’m thinking of you, “Tom”). This Zen mindset is better achieved when you have friends to vent to and let you get out your frustrations (please refer to lesson two!). One of my friends and I have a ritual. If either one of us is having a particularly horrible “China Day”, we only need to send the SOS to one another: “McDonald’s?”. Nothing is as close to comfort as an American chicken sandwich with two large-sized french fries on the side.
All in all, I believe that culture shock is unavoidable regardless of how many blogs you read or how much research you conduct. You will find your comfort being tested in some of the most unusual, confusing, and sometimes beautiful ways. To deal with this, you might find yourself coping in very unconventional ways. Embrace it. Grab the discomfort and awkwardness and hug onto it tightly. You didn’t come to China to see home. You came to China to see and be in China, and once you are better acclimated to culture shock, the view only gets better.