So, that bad China week was really and truly awful as just about everything seemed to be going wrong. This made me incredibly irritated and in turn meant I felt incapable of dealing with my Chinese surroundings. Many expats experience these types of phases long after they have survived culture shock. It was not until I read this eye-opening post by Linda Living In China that the coin dropped; I was at the time experiencing a phase of cultural exhaustion. Thanks Linda for enlightening me – you might have well saved my marriage before it even started!
Cultural fatigue is a state in which everything becomes too much and you feel so exasperated that every little thing seems to be enforcing your negative view of the situation and your surroundings. You become so angry that you start shouting at the stupid drivers that honk at you while you are crossing a green light. You want to slap the people that just push into the queue in front of you. And you want to throw something in the face of those people who stare at you and then shout “Laowai” in your face.
At some point you will become aware of how deeply unsettled you are. For me it was a situation on the bus, as I was once again trying to get out of my window seat. The guy next to me was a rather bodily man in his fifties, who as pretty much a majority of Chinese people do, only swivelled about an inch to the side to “let me pass” if you dare call it that. I pushed and nothing happened, with both of us being of the fleshier persuasion, there was just not enough room. He swivelled a tiny bit further. In the end I pressed my big bum into his face, though my Chinese friend thinks that this was probably a joy for him rather than a punishment.
However, I was also holding a pair of skates in my hand, which I almost smashed on top of his head as I was trying to drag my arm across the minor space between big man and the seat in front of him. For a moment there I seriously considered hitting him on the head with the skates. That was the second I noticed I really need to deal with my frustration; if only because I do not want to end up in Chinese jail for causing death by skate.
How to deal with cultural exhaustion
On days like these it is really important to try and get back on track emotionally.
The first step is to be aware that this is actually what you are experiencing. In both Linda and my case this cultural exhaustion appeared about 1.5 years after we had moved to China, maybe this is a common time span? The initial culture shock tends to occur approximately six months after you arrive but once you are over that, things slowly start building up again.
Luckily, just being able to put a name to what you are feeling helps. It makes you realise how much you haven’t been yourself but also that this is not just your individual issue.
Linda then suggests that you need to accept and admit that you will never fit into the society of your host country and that this is ok. This will take the pressure off for you to try so hard to do everything right, as that is simply not realistic. This I think is a very important factor why I even got thrown into this cultural exhaustion mode in the first place. Trying to organise a wedding, I was suddenly dealing with businesses in Hohhot, which is still a third tier city. Standards are simply different. Trickery and unprofessional behaviour are more common. It is a reality I just need to learn to accept.
I have also come up with a number of my own coping mechanisms, which in combination and over a bit of time will hopefully help restore your love and passion for China.
Number one is to remind yourself of why you love your host country by doing all the things that make you happy. For me that entailed getting amazing Chinese food from my favourite restaurant, strapping on my skates to whizz along the newly constructed, luxuriously big roads at the Olympic Stadium and going for a relaxing climb at the rock-climbing gym; something I have taken up since moving to Nanjing.
Number two is to surround yourself with the right people. Do not go to tourist hotspots where you will find a lot of people exhibiting the type of behaviour you might find hard to accept such as spitting, peeing in public or staring at you and commenting on the fact that you are a foreigner. Instead, spend time with the Chinese people you have positive associations with, Chinese friends on the one hand but even more so the shop owner who gives you money off for your loyal custom and has a chat with you about your daily life, that security guard who knows your routine and laughs when he see you marching off with your skates in one hand (hopefully not to murder anyone) or the guys at the rock climbing gym who comment on your absence and include you in their delicious group lunch. These are the people who make my day, because in this huge city, they are still so friendly and personal.
DO NOT under any circumstance try and hide away from people in your flat. This will just make you brood and stew in your own depression, a mistake I often make. I know it is difficult to find the motivation to go out there when you are so vulnerable. But you must do it. Or you will end up going home.
Finally, your option is to go the other way and just give yourself a good blast of home by eating at your favourite Western restaurants, binge-watching your favourite TV series from home and talking to all the people back in Europe or whichever part of the world you are from, parents and friends, who love and support you.
Most importantly, always remember that it is likely just a phase and that it will pass and then you will once again be able to marvel at the wonders and the craziness of China.