Tag Archives: Culture shock

Rediscovering Germany

Disclaimer: This is a post I wrote about my last return to Germany, almost one year ago. I finally decided to post it, despite its rather negative tone. 

Selective memory is a dangerous thing, isn’t it? Having left my native country Germany nine years ago, and not having had spent a longer amount of time there in almost three years, I had myself convinced that it would be a great idea to move back “home” in the near future.
Yes, I had read all the reports about problems with both right wing radicals and supposed migrants and soaked in the fear mongering, always telling myself it’s the media, no point in taking it seriously.
But take it seriously I probably should have. That is the conclusion I have drawn from my latest visit to the Land of Pretzels, Cars and Kebabs. The day of my arrival, fresh off the airplane, resembled a bucket of ice water being tipped over my head; and not in a “I’m helping raise awareness” kind of way.

In just a short trip that took me through three cities to my final destination, I witnessed fights, altercations or a feeling of being under threat – sometimes all three at once.

Encounters in the Public Space

First off a shouting match between what from their appearance can only be described as probable PEGIDA marchers and the poor conductor, who had pointed out that smoking was not allowed on the platform. In response, a veritable thunderstorm of foul language was unleashed with the conclusion that these specimens announced they could do “whatever the heck they want” to put it mildly. This, so I have been told by a number of old friends during my stay, has become Germany’s new normal. Returning from China in the past usually meant a relaxing and pleasurable experience, with people being rather polite and considerate of others in the public space. It seems incidents such as the above are now not uncommon as the behavior towards other people has changed for the worse.

Cologne New Years’ Aftermath

Next stop Cologne. One hardly has to repeat the events of New Years 2016 that have made the city’s main station infamous. The after effects though are as tangible as they could ever be. There was police everywhere on the premises; you could have cut the tension with a knife. After I asked one lovely policeman for directions to my following destination, he immediately warned me to be on my guard since “there are a lot of thieves especially in the station, and a bag such as yours is particularly easy to grab.”

So I found myself skulking up and down Cologne train station feeling doubly exposed not only due to the easy-to-steal handbag but with a massive and glowing red suitcase that screamed tourist at anyone in a 100m radius. The black one then, next time.

Beggars, Junkies, Alcoholics 

Upon arrival in Bonn, I was about to attempt to purchase an underground ticket, an unnecessarily complex process in the former capital, when something moved at my right elbow. Not registering what was about to happen, I turned to the young man with snake tattoos on his arm and a shaved head with a quizzical look on my face about to ask for help. Now, I cannot say for sure whether this was actually a junky, though he definitely would have fit the description. What surprised me about myself is that such people begging for money was completely normal even when I was growing up in Germany. This is also why train station toilets have blue lights, so said junkies can’t find their veins and shoot up in there; a fact of which I was painfully reminded when I set foot in the local “blue loo”.

At the sight of this stranger however, I was totally thrown. He did then very kindly help me out, but within seconds station security walked up to tell him to stop “harassing” me. He did ask for some money to buy a slice of pizza, even suggesting I can come with him to check he is truly buying food not alcohol. I gave him some change and sent him on his way, musing about how hard it is to fight stereotypical thoughts from entering your mind.

The grand finale to my disconcerting welcome in Germany was the last trip of the day on the underground, where a man in his fifties was barely able to remain slouched upon the platform seating with once again six police men and women gathered around him. Clearly drunk out of his mind, upon being told to get up and leave the station, the man stumbled around so violently he almost ended up on the tracks. After putting on a pair of gloves, one of the police men gingerly tried to lift and steer him, an attempt that desperately failed.

Alcoholism in China

Again, this is not in itself a terribly uncommon sight; especially at German cities’ main stations. But for some reason, it is rare to see a run-down alcoholic on his own in such a state in China. The inebriated might violently stumble around but there will always be friends to support them and get them home – since drinking is such a sociable activity. Generally speaking, it is rare to see an alcoholic homeless man out in the open. Beggars, yes. But these people, most Chinese I spoke to have claimed, are often part of an intricate network, trying to make money, in many cases playing emotional music as they drag themselves through underground carriages trying to look as desperate as possible (which to be honest they often truly are). Alcoholics, on the other hand, often hide in their own homes and are socially sanctioned through a traditional drinking culture closely tied to doing business.

In the end, this was not at all the welcome back I had expected. And it was just the beginning of a row of discussions and revelations in relation to safety, society and employment in Germany, that have given me a lot to think about.

Cultural Differences in AMWF Dating – A Deal Breaker?

 

Cultural differences; they’re such a big deal that we devote entire blogs to them. And often they are responsible for some of those “bang my head against a wall” experiences; but are they truly impossible to overcome?

Recently, when Mr Li was complaining about how I’m a lazy slob, whose idea of cleaning up is gathering all my clothes in a large pile and chucking them into my walk-in wardrobe, I couldn’t help but feel amused at how banal this little spat seemed. In fact, it was very similar to ones I had had with German ex-boyfriends in the past. And that’s when it hit me; Mr Li and I have somehow managed to pass that initial culture shock and have entered the phase where most of our irritations about each other involve our daily routine on the one hand and political disagreements on the other; things that most mono-cultural couples argue about.

A Rocky Start

This wasn’t always the case. In fact, in retrospect I feel like the first year of our relationship we mostly spent arguing due to cultural differences. Whether it was about the fact that I would tell my girlfriends about our fights and thereby “air our dirty laundry in front of everyone”, or that he would say some things that were highly insensitive in my own culture; for the better part of two years there was no shortage of things to fight about.

Then, around the two-year mark we hit a low point and almost broke up. What saved us? Well, as fate would have it, China did. By coming here, I finally learned how utterly clueless I had been in terms of understanding Chinese culture. Here I was, having studied the language for years, having been surrounded by Chinese friends, and still I realised very quickly that in terms of cultural understanding, I had only scratched the surface. And while right in the beginning of our return I really struggled with some of the changes in behaviour Mr Li exhibited, brought on by a Chinese surrounding, after a while we both managed to settle in and become more comfortable.

Then, Mr Li had the glorious idea of getting involved in Couch Surfing, where he met a few “real Germans” for want of a better word, and our relationship once again progressed to a whole new comfort level.

The reason, I would say, is that both of us started to realise that certain behaviours of our partner were actually culturally influenced, and this realisation meant that, if this was not a deal breaker, we could stop fretting about it and accept that if we wanted to date someone from that culture, this was just part of the package deal.

The other reason however was that in the face of people from our partners’ background we actually noticed how much the other had adapted to our own culture and how accepting and culturally sensitive they had become compared to other, less experienced people from their cultural background.

Most importantly as time went on, we figured out how uniquely fitted we were for each other, and that our relationship worked mainly because we were both stuck somewhere in the middle.

So, yes, cultural differences are something that can put a lot of strain on a relationship, if they are not dealt with; but ultimately if you are willing to put in the effort to understand your partners’ culture (and of course they yours!), and meet them half way, then there will come a day when the worst of your fights is who forgot to turn on the washing machine in the morning,…again. (Yeah, it was me.)

That being said, this is coming from the perspective of a childless woman who is not living with her Chinese in-laws; that, my dears, is a whole other story.

 

 

 

What I’ve Learned About Cross-Cultural Weddings 

So, ever since my own wedding last year, I have been so lucky to attend a constantly growing number of international weddings in China. It didn’t take long until I realized certain similarities and themes emerging at these events. So in case you are getting ready for your own cross-cultural wedding in China or with a Chinese groom/bride, here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. Be Prepared for A Culture Clash

I find that we tend to not take the effect of two cultures meeting seriously enough. After observing both myself and Mr Li when we are together, when we are with his family and friends and when we are with my family and friends, I have come to realize one thing. Both of us have very different personas depending on which people we are with and which cultural environment that creates. I behave a lot more brash around foreign friends and Mr Li worries much more about what people think as soon as he is around his Chinese entourage. For a cross-cultural wedding this means there is bound to be conflict as you not only struggle to communicate with and keep both sides entertained; you are also trying to be two people at the same time, while your partner might not be happy about you exhibiting certain behaviour in front of their own culture. It is a stressful time, and it is good to be aware of this fact, as it will creep up on you quite unexpectedly.

In the case of China and a Western culture, I have found that there are two aspects in play that make it even more difficult: culture shock and communication style (peppered of course with a nice dose of jet lag).

No matter which country you are holding your wedding in, inevitably the “other side”, if they chose to come, will experience culture shock. A wedding, an event loaded with new people and full of local traditions, is just extra stress. So chances are some of those relatives and friends might get upset or grumpy at things they usually wouldn’t, and often they don’t even know why. It’s just the stress of being thrown into the deep end of the pool in a new country and a bunch of strangers who do things you might find offensive.

In relation to Western-Chinese weddings in particular, I find another challenge are different communication styles. The Western side will simply express their displeasure at certain things, and while it’s not necessarily pleasant to have to deal with complaints and grumpy-faced Westerners, it isn’t a big deal in itself. However, on the Chinese side, where it is common to swallow your complaints and hide you displeasure in front of strangers in particular, such displays of discontent are incredibly upsetting and serious. And so, I found at the wedding, when Mr Li went into China mode and I went into Western mode, there were all of a sudden plenty of things that he felt offended about where I couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

2. Try to be informed and keep informed

I have found in particular the Western side, but also the Chinese if they come to a Western wedding, really struggle with not knowing what’s going on. Very few of us are able to just “go with the flow”, especially the parents of the Western partner. Therefore, it’s a good idea to try and make the whole wedding process as clear to your Western family as possible by doing two things:

1. Get a good interpreter, not just for the wedding ceremony but also to take care of the “foreign” side throughout the day.

You should make sure that the person conducting the wedding (an MC in China and a priest or officiate in the West) has met the interpreter and maybe even practiced the ceremony with them. Since few officiates are used to bilingual ceremonies, they don’t know when to pause so the interpreter can catch up. We didn’t have an interpreter for either of our weddings, and luckily both of our families were fairly relaxed about it, but I do know that to some parents this is a very big deal and not being able to understand can drive them crazy.

2. Try to discuss in advance with your family what exactly is going to happen and when; in the case of Chinese weddings that is next to impossible, but still it is good to give them a run down of the day. In the morning, the groom will pick the bride up, there will be door blocking, and shouting and red envelopes and games, once she is taken to his house, her parents can rest until the ceremony and so on and so forth. Try and get as many details from the family members as possible and let your family know, as it can be really stressful and upsetting for them to not know what’s going on.

3. Accept that it will be chaos anyway

Despite all your best planning and efforts, the fact of the matter is weddings, and especially Chinese ones, are utter chaos. There isn’t one person who knows what’s going exactly but rather each family member knows one or two customs that need to be upheld and rather than telling you before hand you will often get a message on the day saying a group of Chinese people will show up in twenty minutes to hang stuff up in your room. So prepare your family members from abroad for the fact that it will inevitably descend into chaos and pray that they will be able to cope.

4. If you have two weddings, make them local

A small regret I have, though I loved my Chinese wedding, which was terribly grand, is that I kept it in a Western style. We recently visited a traditional Chinese wedding with some Western elements and I really, really enjoyed it and felt that this is a really good idea, especially if you have another wedding in your home country. This way you get to experience two very different ceremonies, so thumbs up!

5. If you have one, make it cross-cultural

If you are having one wedding, then make sure to incorporate elements of both cultures. For example, the same traditional Chinese wedding featured a Scottish dance class for the guests and the bride and groom drinking a mix of Baijiu and Scottish whisky from a Scottish chalice. It’s not only fun to be creative and innovative with your wedding it also ensures that you feel like its yours; and it certainly gives the guests something to talk about.

Most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy yourself on your exciting, tiring and crazy day of cross-cultural union!

What have your experiences been? Do you have any tips for future cross-cultural brides and grooms?

Getting Over Bad China Week – Dealing with Cultural Exhaustion

Skating in Nanjing

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.