Dealing with 'culture shock'

One way to mitigate the effects of "culture shock" is to approach the situation from a mindful perspective.

Being in a foreign country and navigating local cultures and customs can be quite a challenge. For some it’s a puzzle, for many others it is an adventure. One way to mitigate the effects of “culture shock” is to approach the situation from a mindful perspective. As Rudyard Kipling said, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  

Dealing with 'culture shock'

Learning phrases of local language can help

Finding yourself in a new country and navigating a foreign culture is certainly a challenge. Yet “culture shock” seems to be an extreme term. For me it has been a puzzle to solve, a sense of bewilderment.

It was the year 2001. I was embarking on my first visit to China with a friend. I’d assured him I would be the “Chinese speaker.”

And by “Chinese speaker,” I meant I had learned 10 phrases.

We arrived in Shanghai in the afternoon and soon after chose a restaurant for dinner. It was time to deploy one of my carefully rehearsed phrases. I began to say “Wo yao …” (I want) to the waitress only to realize I couldn’t read the menu.

Dealing with 'culture shock'

Robb Ross is an English teacher at the SSIS Senior School.

Worse, there were no pictures of the food. After repeating “Wo yao” five times, I looked up to see a waitress as puzzled as I was.

It seemed as if we were going to starve to death in a restaurant. I considered walking to different tables, pointing at customer’s dishes and repeating “Wo yao.”

Just then a voice from behind asked in English, “Can I help you?” And there was our savior: an 8 year-old Chinese girl. While her mother beamed with pride, she patiently helped us order our food. We didn’t starve.

From this experience (and others) I gained some valuable insights. Learn about local and national culture, customs, and history — it will make your stay less mystifying and more meaningful.

Don’t hesitate to seek help and advice from Chinese people. Compared to even 10 years ago, many more Chinese speak English. In my experience they are more than willing to assist when asked. Or volunteer to, as the girl in the restaurant did.

And, it might be a good idea to learn more than 10 phrases of their language.

(The article is contributed by Robb Ross, an English teacher at the SSIS Senior School.)

Building identity in a multicultural world

Who are you? Where are you from? You are just like my ABC (American-born Chinese) friends.

I have been asked these questions often. After working at an international school in Shanghai for nearly six years and having lived in the US for two years, my biggest culture shock is how opposite the East and the West are in seeking their identity.

As part of Asian culture, getting the approval from the public or meeting the satisfaction of mainstream culture take an important role in valuing who we are.

However, the Western culture does value the individual. It is okay to be different and it is even more awesome to be unique.

Dealing with 'culture shock'

Angela Wang is a Grade 2 Homeroom teacher at WISS.

Honestly speaking, I have been struggling to choose whether to live in an Asian culture, which I am more familiar with, or the Western culture, which I think is more about myself. Then I decided that I would like to live in both cultures. I would like to accept and embrace who I am and what I believe. Working in the international school offers me the chance to see and experience the multicultures.

I have been sharing the following beliefs with my students: be open-minded, inclusive, and embrace the differences of each other. Because when you accept more, you will get more and you will find who you truly are and who you want to be.

It is difficult to go back and forth and live in two different cultures. I am trying to find the balance, but I love being multicultural and keen to understand more about the east and the west.

Who are you? Where are you from? I am Chinese but I do understand the East and the West. No matter where you are, you are what you believe and no one will make your identity except yourself.

(The article is contributed by Angela Wang, a Grade 2 Homeroom teacher at WISS.)

Experiences can be framed positively

If you’ve ever traveled, you can probably relate to the excitement one feels when stepping off a plane into a new cultural landscape. Looking around, senses on high alert, adrenaline rising, we feel alive in the moment as we face the unknown.

Some of my most unusual and beautiful experiences have come from my travels. Whether it was spending the night in a mud hut in the bush in Zimbabwe; watching the sun set as cowboys round up cattle on a ranch in Cuba; or bedding down in a Mongolian yurt, sipping warm yak milk; I’ve learned and grown from every place I’ve lived and every location I’ve visited. But even after more than 30 years of expat life and extensive travel, I still experience a certain level of culture shock when traveling. It’s normal. And it’s to be expected.

Dealing with 'culture shock'

Amanda Abel is a Middle School counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai.

When traveling with students on long educational trips, one way I have found to mitigate the ill effects of culture shock is to encourage them to approach the situation from a mindful perspective. I remind them that new experiences can be framed positively or negatively — either with wonder and delight or with fear and disgust — and it’s up to them how they choose to look at it. Throughout the trip, I intentionally look for opportunities to frame and reframe our shared experiences toward the positive.

Educational travel at Concordia often involves service-oriented activities, which come with some discomfort and hardship that many students are not accustomed to.

In these situations, I strive to make the experience a lesson in empathy (compassion in action). It is important to inspire students to seek out opportunities to serve or be kind to the people they encounter on these types of trips. 

(The article is contributed by Amanda Abel, a Middle School counselor at Concordia International School Shanghai.)

Benefitting from research, discussion

I have been teaching the “Chinese B” course within the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at YCIS for more than eight years. We have a truly international educational environment at YCIS, and my students and I have had many deep discussions related to the topic of “East Meets West.”

We have done case studies focusing on “stereotypes,” “media bias,” and “the Cultural Iceberg,” among others, and we have benefited from each other’s thoughts through that research and discussion.

I don’t recall witnessing much “culture shock” during these years, although my students of the “Chinese B” course have experienced many “aha” moments when we discussed the deeper reasons behind the surface of cultural differences.

Dealing with 'culture shock'

Amy Yang is head of Secondary Chinese Department and Chinese Professional Development coordinator at YCIS Pudong Secondary.

I would say that the younger generations have progressed so much in this regard. They ask me about my self-identity as a Chinese teacher working in an international school, and they use their knowledge about Chinese economics and history that they have learned in other subjects to ask excellent questions on a daily basis.

One of the most memorable moments was about three years ago, when I was teaching the topic, “Social Relationships.” One student asked about “guanxi” — something that some people may view in a negative light. This opened up a discussion on aspects of culture that can be perceived as positive and negative around the world, and I encouraged them to research this, and I did some research of my own.

Finally, we came across the notion that Eastern people emphasize context and the connection between objects, while Western people focus on an individual object and its own characteristics.

These thoughts stem from different social structures in ancient times, yet still profoundly affect people’s thoughts and the ways they seek to solve problems. 

(The article is contributed by Amy Yang, head of Secondary Chinese Department and Chinese Professional Development coordinator at YCIS Pudong Secondary.)

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