Even after so long, it is hard to imagine that so much time has passed, 15 years. I remember when I first arrived in China, practically a kid, and wasn’t even able to find milk and bread in the super markets. During this amazing journey, I have repeatedly pondered upon my duration in the country, and yet always found myself staying and wanting more. By doing so, I believe I have learned a lot about not only the Chinese culture, but about the world. The few lessons I will share below, I believe to be true and applicable no matter where in the world you may choose to go.
Image: Matador Network
#1. We are guests
The most important lesson that always resonates in my head, and one that I am reminded of almost every day, is one I believe that every foreigner, no matter what the country they live in, should follow and respect. That is, to be aware that as foreigners here, we are guests, just as we would be a guest in someone’s home. And just like we wouldn’t criticize or ridicule the way someone does things in their own home, we shouldn’t do so while living abroad. Everything around us might be new, unfamiliar, strange, or even shocking, but it is this way only through our eyes. The same will be true for foreigners going to our home-country. And surely, we will not be fond of foreigners in our countries constantly putting down our culture or way of life, simply because it is different than theirs.
Almost every day I meet foreigners, read comments on articles, or hear stories about individuals who are so fixated on finding all that is bad in the Chinese way of life, and constantly put down and criticize the locals. Whether the complaints are valid or not, it is simply not our place to speak them out, after all, it is we who chose to come here, and it is we who are guests. If the way of life in the place we choose to live and earn money in does not suit us, perhaps it is wiser to go elsewhere, or stay home. Otherwise, we ruin it for everybody, and give other foreigners a bad name. That is certainly not what living abroad is about.
Upon understanding this one very crucial lesson, it will quickly become apparent that this new attitude will improve your quality of life in the new place. The little things you once thought were outrageous, are now understandable. Adopting a positive attitude towards the outside, will attract positive responses in return, and you will soon find the things you used to complain about, to be minor and irrelevant.
#2. We are not teachers
Yes, many foreigners here pursue their careers of education, teaching ESL in various academies and training centers. But it is important to remember, that teaching a language to students, should be just that. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a foreigner say “in (insert country name here), we do things this way!”. Great! But we are not in that country, are we? It is not our job, whether teachers by profession or not, to teach the local community what’s right and what’s wrong based on what we know to be true back home!
Image: Essence Coaching
#3. Getting Out of Our Comfort Zone
I admit to being guilty of this myself, but it is very beneficial to your life in a foreign country to not immediately find a group of your own countrymen, and limit yourself to a circle of people that you can have back home! By living in a new country, meeting and interacting with locals, or with other foreigners from a different country, we have an opportunity that should be cherished, as it does not exist back home.
I wouldn’t have learned a fraction of the things I know now if it wasn’t for meeting and befriending people from all walks of life, from countries I never even knew existed, and certainly wouldn’t have had the chance to meet elsewhere. It is only natural, as foreigners, to look for the easy way out, and socialize with who and what we are familiar with in our own countries. And of course, it is also necessary sometimes, to get back in touch with our roots. But by choosing to limit ourselves only to these circles, or circles that are made up of only foreigners and excluding locals, we are missing out on 90% of the experience of truly living abroad. It is not easy, and many awkward and strange encounters might take place, but that’s what getting out of your comfort zone is all about, and we have already taken the first step by coming here!
I too have more than once, found myself avoiding situations or scenarios that I thought were too strange for me to handle, and have always regretted. But the times where I took the leap and jumped into the unknown, were the most memorable experiences that I keep.
#4. Language is Key
It is not impossible to survive in China without learning Chinese. It is in fact very possible. I can personally say that for the majority of my time in China, I could not speak the language very well at all, and have always tried to convince myself and others, that it’s fine.
It was only after I started really picking up the language (through actually using it with Chinese people, rather than reciting words in classes), that I discovered how many doors opened for me due to learning the language. Learning a country’s language allows you to become aware of things in the culture that would otherwise go directly over you. It also frees you of the handicap of always having to rely on a friend to help you out with simple tasks. Learning Chinese is extremely difficult, but one advice that I know is key, is to surround yourself only with speakers of that language, you will be shocked at how quickly you pick it up.
Image: We Clipart
#5. Reverse Culture Shock
Whatever we label as common sense, normal, or logical, is purely subjective. I have been visiting my home country at least once every year since I arrived in China, and from time to time it becomes increasingly clear that our mentality is shaped by where we live. Leaving our home country for a long period of time, allows us to see things very differently. It may sound very arrogant, but the more I go back to my own home country and meet people who have never been outside, the more I feel that these people are clueless about how the rest of the world functions. Every country and culture in the world is its own bubble, and by bursting out of that bubble, we become exposed to a different way of thinking and viewing the world.
I am certain, that like me, every foreigner can remember the culture shock they experienced when arriving in China. For me, while that memory is still fresh, I am much more amazed by the culture shock I experience whenever I go back home. I remember in my first years in China, thinking how weird it was for example, to allow babies to relieve themselves out in public through a small opening in their pants, rather than use diapers. As time went by, I found myself thinking of how strange it is back home, to allow a baby’s waste to sit in a contained bag attached to their body, and let them sit in it until the diaper is changed. But the point about this example is, that there is no right or wrong way to approach this. There is simply one way, and another way. One may makes more sense in one society or culture, due to years of certain habits and values, while the other one seems crazy or ridiculous, and vice versa.
The lesson here, is that it’s important to keep in mind that everything we know or believe to be true and right, is subjective to what we are used to, and is not a universal truth. Wherever in the world we may find ourselves, we must remember that our first priority is to adapt and understand, rather than to criticize and try to change. It will soon become apparent, that it is easier and better for ourselves to change our own attitudes, rather than trying to change a whole culture.