Tucker and I eased our way back into Western culture this summer by spending three weeks in Australia followed by almost a month back in the States, and while we happily gorged ourselves on some of our favorite food and drinks, we also noticed some distinct changes in our behavior and perspectives this time around. This phenomenon is typically called reverse culture shock (when you return to your home culture after getting used to a new one), and although we had actually experienced this a bit in the past, this time I was determined to not only experience it but also take note of what things stuck out to us as clear effects of living immersed in a different way of life. As usual, in my head I’ve grouped these things in some arbitrary way in order to more clearly share them, and the three main areas of change I’ve come up with regarded: our eating habits, our annoyance at inefficiencies, and a shift in our manners.
Eating Habits: One large area of difference between American and Chinese culture lies in the food and eating. Upon our return to the US we realized there are a few things that we found it hard to get used to again when it comes to food and drink. Ice in water, for example, is way too cold, and it feels like you get less water (ugh, waiting for the ice to melt – who has time for that?). Another thing we immediately missed upon ordering in an American restaurant was that we didn’t order and eat together. It’s sort of an every person for themselves situation, which now feels a little lonely and much more complicated when the bill comes. Tucker also realized he had picked up some Chinese habits when we were out to eat in Australia one night. In the middle of dinner, he started putting his discarded food items on the table rather than in a napkin or on the edge of his plate. I laughed, knowing his reasoning was because that’s what we do in China, but I’m sure the Aussie waitress was thinking, “what is wrong with that guy!”
Annoying Inefficiencies: Another somewhat general category I identified had to do with the speed/way some things are done in the US. Maybe we wouldn’t have ever noticed if we didn’t spend a year in China, but there were some really obvious points of frustration for us upon our return. First, having to pay with a credit card felt as bad as standing there and writing a check. It’s so much slower than the simple scan of a QR code! We were also surprised at how inconvenient it was to have to drive everywhere. Traffic became much more irritating, someone had to shoulder the responsibility of driving, and without practice, we found that we even forget to monitor the gas situation! The third inefficiency that really grated on our nerves almost as soon as we got back was the ineptitude and inefficiency of lines. Say what you will about the crowds in China, but this place knows how to move people! We waited in much shorter lines in the US for much more time than it would have taken in China. At one point, I was also reminded that Americans are not quite as independent as I had previously thought because the airport staff in multiple US cities chose to herd every single individual into the designated waiting areas (slowly and somewhat apathetically) rather than just letting the masses fill in the available spaces naturally.
Forgetting Our Manners: The last bit of reverse culture shock we noticed revolved around our manners. There were several instances where we completely missed our public duty of saying “bless you” because in China (like many other cultures) it’s a bit rude to comment on bodily functions. I was also caught a few times using language in public that perhaps I wouldn’t have used in the same situation a year ago…it’s amazing how being surrounded by people who don’t understand you can desensitize you to that sort of thing! (To the lady I startled in Target with my English swear words, I’m so sorry! And to the people I perhaps gave too much information to on the flight home – sorry again!) Finally, the last difference that completely took me by surprise was the choice of small talk topics. In China we pretty much stay on subjects like family, hometowns, vacations, etc., but immediately when surrounded by those heading back to the US, it was back to politics, the news, and lots of really direct questions that after a year of light, indirect conversation felt super personal and sometimes rude.
Of course, now that we’re back in China I suppose we’re undergoing reverse, reverse culture shock (like forgetting to carry toilet paper with me everywhere I go and ignoring the slight hand cramp I have after using chopsticks for the first time in months), but overall the more we go back and forth, the more I notice about all the cultures with which I’m familiar. It’s a huge part of why I prefer living abroad to traveling abroad – there’s so much deeper we can go when learning about ourselves and all the amazing customs in the world, and lucky me, I get to do it all again with another year immersed in the Far East!
Last month my parents visited us in China, and I think it’s safe to say everyone learned quite a bit! Tucker and I learned a little more about what it’s like to be responsible for people other than ourselves (consistently asking if everyone had what they needed, were they hungry, did they understand, etc. It was exhausting!), and my parents definitely learned a lot more about the Middle Kingdom, this time, firsthand.
When they arrived after their very long flight, we met my parents at the Airport Express station in Beijing. We then spent the following two weeks fitting in as much Chinese culture, food, and fun as we possibly could! We spent a few days each in Beijing, Shanghai, Huangshan, and Hefei: four very different cities in China. Of course, we did lot of touristy things (like walking the Great Wall, shopping on Nanjing road, and hiking Yellow Mountain), but we also went grocery shopping, met Chinese friends for dinner, and spent some time just hanging out in our campus apartment. Overall I think it was a well-rounded trip, and even though we were often on the go, we did still find some time to talk about the things that surprised my parents most about China.
Delightful Surprises: There seem to be three areas in which China excels in my parents’ eyes: restaurants, transportation, and safety. Very early on they were impressed with China’s restaurant game. A la carte menus, ordering for the table (rather than individually), food coming out as it’s ready, and the lack of tipping just to name a few of the positives. They also, as does everyone, loved paying for everything through a mobile phone app (like WeChat or Alipay) – it’s so quick and easy: no receipt, no signing, no waiting! My mom also really enjoyed the plastic tops and to-go bags for drinks on the run, another innovation that we don’t see much of in the US.
As far as transportation goes, they were most impressed with how fast, cheap, and punctual everything was. China doesn’t usually have the reputation of timeliness like, say, Japan, but every train we took left on time or a minute early. They were also amazed that with as many people as China has, the traffic wasn’t really bad and any/all lines moved pretty efficiently. Even I was doubting a few times during the peak tourist hours at the most popular destinations, but even some of the longest lines we had ever seen still moved along pretty rapidly. No dilly-dallying here!
In China my parents also mentioned safety fairly often: how safe they felt with the cameras, hotel check-ins, and security presence and how welcomed they felt as foreigners. They also noticed fewer homeless people and a great emphasis placed on family time and family connections. Perhaps not directly related to safety, but my mom was also extremely pleased that the hole in the ground that she was imagining China toilets to be was entirely exaggerated, and that they are actually pretty clean and easy to use.
Not So Delightful Surprises: Of course, leaving the familiar can always lead to a few uncomfortable surprises as well. One of the most common difficulties foreigners have in China is adjusting to some of the culinary differences, and my parents were no exception. They mentioned the lack of ice in drinks and the lack of good coffee a few times. My dad had also not expected the lack of meat in many Chinese dishes (probably because American-Chinese food is all about the meat). And of course, even after only two weeks, they also started craving Western favorites like a bacon cheeseburger or a plate of fettuccine Alfredo (imagine the cravings after nine months!).
Some other unpleasant surprises seemed related to the expectations of personal boundaries. My parents noticed pretty quickly that a person’s “personal bubble” is much smaller in China, and that bumping shoulders is a way of life here. They also weren’t so pleased with finding themselves head-to-head with a bicycle, scooter, or even the occasional car on the sidewalk (something I was already used to thanks to Poland). And finally, coming across several street-spitters and the rare, but still present, late night street-urinators were also surprises that didn’t exactly fall into the positive category.
A third area of perpetual surprises seemed to be in the lack or inferiority of paper products in China. Due to China’s vast size and population, many public restrooms and restaurants do not provide general-use paper products, instead, customers carry around their own packs of tissues to use however and whenever they’d like. Even when some restaurants do provide “napkins”, my parents correctly pointed out that they would be better off using their pants than the tiny, thinner-than-tissue-paper pieces they could get there. And while, as my parents also noticed, this does actually have a positive impact on the potential overuse of resources, it can be pretty annoying when you find yourself without a multi-purpose paper pack in hand.
It’s always interesting to see what expectations are met or broken upon first arrival to a new place! Although my parents did have a lot of advanced information from my photos, blog posts, and stories, it was still so much fun to see them experience life in China for themselves: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m so proud of my parents for seamlessly adapting to the ambiguity, and at times, insanity, that comes with immersing yourself into a very different culture, and I’m so thankful we were able to share this experience together! I truly can’t wait to do this again with another culture in a few years, and for the impending reverse culture shock I’m sure to experience when we’re back in the States at the end of the summer!
There are so many things to love about being a teacher, but one that always stands out (even to non-teachers) are the breaks we often get. For me, as a university teacher in China, I was lucky enough to have a little over six weeks off in between semesters this year! Unfortunately, that’s not the norm (it just so happened that Chinese New Year fell quite late this year), but however it happened, I’m so glad it did because Tucker and I were able to take one incredible trip last month! In fact, this was our most involved trip to date, as it linked together several professional events in addition to the typical, touristy ones and ultimately involved us being away from home for 30 days. The planning was…interesting, as neither of us had ever been to Southeast Asia before, I had to be prepared for several work events throughout the trip, and it happened to take place over the biggest holiday of the region. Basically, we had no idea how it would turn out, but we were excited to find out!
Our first stop was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which was the location for the East Asia/Pacific Fellows Midyear Meeting. I’m actually a little ashamed to say that I had never heard of Chiang Mai before finding out that was where the midyear would be because it is a city that should definitely be on any travel-nerd’s radar! It’s located in Northern Thailand, not too far from the Myanmar border and is a fairly popular location for backpackers. Being solidly in Southeast Asia, and inland no less, it was quite warm even in January. About 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30C) when we flew in, which was quite a shock when the week before we were in Harbin, China chilling out at -15F (-25C), but the overall atmosphere of Chiang Mai was anything but stifling. I read a bit about Thailand and Thai culture before we left, and one of the things that stuck out while we were there was the peacefulness and serenity of the people. Due to a largely Buddhist population, the people of Thailand try to conduct their lives with as little conflict as possible. Surprisingly, this was something that was easily felt and observed even in our few short weeks in the country.
Honestly, there are so many things I could share about our time in Chiang Mai! Other than getting to meet up with all the EAP Fellows again, bond through the sharing of meals, drinks, and stories, and attend/present at the exceptional Thai TESOL conference, we were able to fit in some of the most incredible cultural experiences as well! We took a Thai cooking class, something that was extremely out of my comfort zone (although I think I held my own! My Pad Thai was delicious, and I didn’t catch anything on fire!), we visited two elephant sanctuaries and learned more about the history and treatment of elephants in the region, and we walked in and around countess wats picking up phrases and gestures that we’ll likely use for quite awhile (even if they’re a little out of place in China). Ultimately, it was a busy, but extraordinarily rewarding week.
After the meeting and conference were checked off our list, we headed down to Bangkok via an overnight train. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love overnight trains! This is the sixth we’ve been on, and I have yet to be disappointed! Such a great experience, very affordable, and the stories are fantastic! I should write a “Stories from Overnight Trains” post at some point, but for now, I’ll focus on Bangkok. Most people already know about this Thai city; it’s the capital and a jumping off point for many destinations in SE Asia. I’ll admit that at first, I thought it was just another big city: similar to Beijing, New York, etc. However, the longer we were there, the more I came to like it. There is truly something for everyone – in fact, almost too much of everything! We had a great time with the vast array of transportation options, took in some sights (unique skyscrapers, centuries-old wats, and even a lunar eclipse), and, of course, we also ate a lot of delicious food! That is, until Tucker had some cashew apples from a street vendor – that wasn’t a pleasant 24 hours for him!
From Bangkok, we took a 6 hour bus ride to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is the nearest city to the famous Angkor Wat complex. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Angkor Wat mentioned in English language textbooks (usually in the chapter on “travel”), and quite possibly because of this, it has long been a place on my must-see list. Now that I have finally seen the breathtaking Angkor Wat in person, I can honestly say that the pictures do not even come close to doing it justice. When we were in Europe I was always so impressed with how old things were. For Americans, 300 years old seems crazy – in Europe it’s normal, in Asia, it’s downright modern. The temples and statues in the complex were built over 900 years ago, a time that is difficult for me to fully imagine outside of the strings of dates and events I studied for university exams. Seeing it in person, and actually being allowed to walk on it, touch it, and understand the amount of effort it must have taken to build, was all truly amazing.
The city of Siem Reap was really awesome as well although very different from temples of Angkor Wat. Instead of pushy monkeys, we encountered pushy tuk-tuk drivers (touristy areas definitely have their drawbacks). However, there’s a really fun Pub Street at the center of town, where we tried local Cambodian dishes like Amok (a delicious coconut and lime curry dish) and Lok Lak (a peppery beef salad) and drank 50 cent draft beers several nights during our stay. Siem Reap is actually where we found ourselves for the Super Bowl this year, and luckily Tucker quickly sleuthed out, a nearby, American-owned bar that was hosting a party…at 6am (which is when the game began for us). So, of course, we had unlimited pizza, wings, and beer (maybe a little too much) for breakfast, and made some new American, Canadian, and German friends while watching the Eagles pull out a win. Unfortunately the owner was from Boston, so it was a bit of a hard loss for him. I’m just thankful it wasn’t as doom and gloom as last year’s gathering in Atlanta. Still hurts Tucker a bit to talk about it.
After Siem Reap, we took another bus down to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. My intention for visiting Phnom Penh was to attend and present at the Cam TESOL conference that was being held there, which was a fantastic experience, but we definitely enjoyed more than just the conference and further Fellow company. We took many breezy walks along the Mekong River, had hour long Khmer massages for $8, and again, ate some of the best food I’ve had in a long time! France actually has a long history with Cambodia, and it seems like their culinary flare has definitely rubbed off on the Cambodian population. One restaurant we stumbled upon, La Provence, was a bit off the well-beaten tourist track, but the food we had there was absolutely incredible! There were no menus (we ordered off a chalkboard) and everything was in French, but it was easily my favorite meal of the trip. It’s been a few weeks now, and we’re still regularly talking about it.
Now that my professional duties were officially over and the holidays (Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year) were upon us, we headed to our next location: Hong Kong. We flew into Hong Kong and immediately felt the Britishness of it. Not only were we back on the left side of the road (Thailand also drives on the left), but we took a double-decker bus from the airport to our hostel. I’d like to say that I refrained from speaking in a British accent, but that would totally be a lie – I immediately went into Harry Potter mode when I saw the buses…Tucker looked a little ashamed. But in addition to the British influence, we also felt like we were getting closer to home as we listened to any and all announcements in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. HK was one of the places Tucker was looking forward to the most, so he lead the way as we wound our way around the hilly island. Hong Kong Park with its jungle-y feel, beautiful water features, and unexpected aviary was a highlight for us. As was the double-decker tram that ran the length of the city. We had lots of plans for our time in Hong Kong. Many of them were successful (like eating and drinking all the HK specialties, taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, and visiting Hong Kong Disneyland), but as to be expected, some things didn’t quite go as planned.
Chinese New Year
We really didn’t give much thought to Chinese New Year as we were planning our trip because, honestly, we didn’t really know what it would be like either way, so we figured we’d just wing it. However, perhaps we should have thought a little more about it…something about hindsight, right? Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday in China (including Hong Kong), and unlike our New Year, it’s not really a one day event. Rather, the whole country prepares for days (by shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.) and then takes several days off – all together, all 1.3 billion of them (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), but really, a lot of people were “on vacation” just like we were. Because of the larger-than-usual number of people on holiday in Hong Kong, there were a few things on our list that we opted to forego (rather than spending way too much time or money). This included riding the tram up to Victoria Peak and taking a trip over to the island of Macau for some Portuguese architecture and maybe a casino or two. I guess we’ll just have to take another trip down to Hong Kong soon!
Other than the crowds of happy, holiday-enjoying people, we saw many Chinese New Year markets pop-up. These markets sold all sorts of festival treats like candied Hawthorne, roasted corn, and cotton candy. They also had booths set up where students (presumably for an economics class) sold different New Year novelty items (stuffed animals, pinwheels, t-shirts, etc,). We were surprised to see that about a fourth of each market was filled with various plants and flowers, which we now know are common gifts to bring to a New Year’s Eve dinner/reunion. Not only the markets, but the entire city was decorated for the New Year – red lanterns were everywhere along with traditional paper cuttings, dog statues (we’ve transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog, by the way), and many signs wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year. It was very much like the lead up to Christmas, including a parade! On New Year’s Eve we were lucky enough to catch a parade on the Kowloon side of HK. There were some differences to be sure, but more similarities, I think: large balloon animals, floats with glitter and bright lights, marching bands, etc. We even saw the dancing Chinese dragons! It was really awesome to be so immersed in the festivities – I had thought it would be a little boring for us, as the holiday is said to be very family-oriented (and mostly celebrated at home), but being in Hong Kong and hearing all the “Gong Xi Fa Cai”s, I felt like we were in the middle of everything!
The last stop on our itinerary was a little further up the Pearl River Delta, in the city of Guangzhou. Guangzhou used to be called Canton and is China’s third largest city. It’s known for it delicious food, including dim sum (a plethora of bite-sized foods like dumplings and steamed buns often served with all you can drink tea). Now that the holiday was over, we naively thought things would return to normal. We were quickly proven wrong when we arrived at our pre-booked hostel and were told that they didn’t have a room for us because they oversold our room for the holiday. Fortunately, we had something similar happen in Ukraine and totally didn’t panic. We used their WiFi (they were really kind and happily celebrating the New Year, giving us cherry tomatoes and candies to snack on while we figured this out), and we were able to secure a hotel room not too far away. Although many stores and restaurants were closed for the holiday (it’s actually still pretty unclear what sorts of things remained open and when the others would do so – we’re now a week into the New Year and still many things are closed by us!), we were able visit a beautiful orchid garden, treat ourselves to some amazing dim sum, and watch the light show on the skyscrapers from a bridge over the Pearl River. We had a lovely, albeit short, time in Guangzhou, but luckily it’s only a train ride away!
So after 30 days, almost 5000 miles traversed, and innumerable memories made, we made it back to Hefei in one piece. I truly can’t say it enough: I am so grateful for the opportunities Tucker and I have been afforded these past few years. I’m so appreciative of the time we’ve been able to spend together, the people we’ve been able to meet, and the information and perspective we are continually gaining through these experiences. Now it’s time to start the next semester, and I can’t wait to hear what all my students did during their six week break!