Moving abroad is amazing and life-changing, and I hope everyone gets the chance to experience it at some point in their lives! But something this life-changing, like any other extreme transition, inevitably comes with its drawbacks. The emotional phases of moving abroad to China closely mirrored my emotions when I moved to Ireland, but I have to say its a lot more extreme moving to a place where you don’t speak the language.
Click the image below to watch my video on this topic over on my YouTube channel!
Everyone Is Different
There’s lots of resources out there explaining the phases of culture shock as if its a science. Personally, I disagree with this idea. I don’t think I ever went through a honeymoon phase, and I know I’ll never be fully integrated into life in China. I can almost guarantee that no matter how long I live here, I will always get stared at and called a foreigner. If that’s integration, I need a new dictionary.
As many of you know, I deal with anxiety and depression, so my emotional phases may look different than yours, or maybe we’ll go through the exact same things! It’s hard to say. No matter your emotions or the order they hit you in, its important to expect the lows, remember the highs, and above all be patient with yourself.
I’ve lived in Nanjing, China for about two months now and have gone through five clear emotional phases. My husband and I will be here for the next eight months, so I’ll be sure to include a link here once I’ve posted an update on where this emotional rollercoaster has taken me.
Emotional Phases Of The First Two Months
When I talk about these five emotions, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t like a switch flipped in my head and I suddenly recognized I was in a new phase. The different emotions rose and fell like waves and gradually faded into one another. Some of these emotions still come back to me two months later, and some don’t.
The very first emotion I had when we first left my parent’s house was a sadness so intense its best described as grief. Grief for me came in the form of crying uncontrollably for varying lengths of time approximately once every two hours. I wasn’t even able to hold back in public, so I cried in my parent’s car, at the coffee stand, on the bus, in the airport, in the hotel lobby, etc, etc. This phase for me started when my husband and I said goodbye to our dog (who we left with my parents for the 10 months we’re gone), and it continued through probably our fourth night abroad. I literally fell asleep crying every night and woke up with puffy eyes every morning. I was simply missing my family, friends, and the ease of living in my home country.
While writing that paragraph I felt myself about to tear up a few times, but I’m able to contain it pretty easily now. I don’t think think there’s room for this type of grief anymore in my life in China. I’ve had too many awesome experiences at this point to feel intensely sad in that same way.
After the crying phase ran its course, the emotion that took over was frustration. I was ready to suck it up and learn the rhythm of my new life, but found it to be extremely difficult. It was so hard for me to do simple tasks like buying groceries and connecting to Wi-Fi because of the language barrier and cultural differences. Although I believe people across the world have more similarities than differences, this is the phase when I saw ALL the differences.
I’ll use connecting to Wi-Fi as an example. I’ve never stopped to appreciate fast, reliable internet while living in the US. The only time I really noticed was when it didn’t work, which was rare. The internet in China can be slow and spotty, and on top of that I have to use a VPN (AKA a proxy server) to jump “The Great Firewall” and access the sites I’m used to (this VPN company is the best, by the way). I had no idea how to problem solve an internet issue on my own because I don’t speak Chinese, so when there was even the smallest issue connecting to Wi-Fi or VPN, it felt like I was on a broken raft out at sea. I know that’s dramatic, but I was desperate to feel connected to familiar faces.
Frustration also came in the form of finding good drinking water, figuring out how to cook in a new kitchen with new ingredients, asking our landlord about issues in our apartment, confusing interactions while trying to buy anything, and countless other acts that would be fairly straightforward had they taken place in my home country. Luckily, when learning a new set of skills, frustration is usually followed by confidence.
Eventually I did figure out how to do all those simple life tasks that needed to be done. I was able to ride the subway with ease, I was having successful outings on my own which resulted in exploring gorgeous areas of Nanjing, and I even learned enough Chinese to tell the lady at the grocery store that I don’t need a bag. All this added up to a major confidence boost. I felt like I was succeeding and would often think “bring it on, China.” Getting on my bike and weaving through the traffic to go eat at a familiar restaurant or check out a new bookstore made me feel like Nanjing was my personal playground. It sounds like a great feeling, but confidence too extreme, like an invincibility of sorts, can’t last.
This brings us to defeat. It’s hard to talk about this one, because I never want to see myself as someone who gives up, but I’ve definitely had moments where I wanted to pack it all up and head home to familiarity. I had a solid week of feeling defeated, and our Huangshan failure was definitely the last straw. I remember saying something to Eric in the railway station like “this is why I don’t belong in China, I can’t do anything on my own.” It makes me sad to remember this, but I think it’s important to share. Weirdly enough, the act of mentally giving up and snapping out of it helped me to move out of this emotional phase.
Frustration and confidence come back to me now in small pockets, but humility and openness have been flooding my mind lately. I’m sort of in this zen state of mind where I realize I really don’t know anything about China, and that’s okay. During the Qingming Festival a few weeks ago, I saw a family standing over a pile of burning ashes, the remains of these shiny paper packets they had put on the ground earlier. I literally had NO idea why they were doing it, so I did some Googling and ended up learning something new! I’m pretty sure they were burning “ghost money”, which is basically fake, printed currency that’s intended to be burned as a way to send money to deceased ancestors. When I put that idea into my American-raised brain, it doesn’t quite compute, and that’s okay too.
The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve gotten to a stage where I have my basic daily needs fulfilled with no more effort than it took in the US, and I have time to learn, explore, and try new things. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. It’s a humbling idea, and one that weirdly calms my anxious brain, because I realize all I can do is try my best to keep learning, trying, and moving forward.
If you’re headed abroad soon, be sure to comment below! I’d love to hear about your destination 🙂
I have something really fun coming to my YouTube channel this coming Wednesday, so be sure you’re subscribed!
Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon,