I’ve been living in the middle of China for almost a month now.
It’s my second expat posting, so while I’m not a newbie to “expat life”, having bandied about the term ‘culture shock’ on this column many times, I’ve got to say, in all honesty I had rather naively forgotten how confronting moving to a new country could be.
Arriving in Xi’an, North West China last month, I knew no one – not a single soul, bar my husband and 3 year old daughter. We arrived at the Westin Hotel – our new home, in the middle of a grey, wet night.A short flight from Hong Kong, but I went from living next door to the world’s 7th tallest skyscraper on the 43rd floor to a five story hotel that stands opposite a 1300 year old wild goose pagoda. Chalk and cheese to say the least!
It’s fair to say, my first week had me lost in a blur of speechlessness, afraid to breathe for fear of being overwhelmed by the rawness of such a contrasting culture.
China is a place where road rules seem non existent – cars, busses, bikes and pedestrians all competing for the same spot with the same vigor, their hands heavy on the horn but not the break. Someone once said, “In China, whatever’s bigger, gets right of way!” As a pedestrian, crossing the road is taking your life in your own hands. Undecipherable Chinese characters flash vibrantly on neon-lit signs from the side of buildings, strange looking three-wheeler motorbikes rattle on by, loaded up with precariously balanced goods. Cars mount footpaths for faster access….most toilets are holes in the ground and spoken English is minimal.
There is a distinct lump in my throat and that sinking feeling lingers in the pit of my stomach as I desperately try to keep my head above water and tear free, reminding myself this is all part of the ‘journey’.
Driving to look at my three year old’s potential new school, I spot a western lady through four lanes of congested traffic, walking her little girl dressed in a ‘princess’ dress. I can barely contain my broad grin. I have to stop myself from winding the window down and frantically throwing her my business card.
As the days roll by, sometimes rolling into each other, I find myself forgetting what day it is, all the while desperately try to navigate my way around my new ‘hood. A seven eleven (kind of) here, a Starbucks there! My husband is (naturally) engulfed in a mountain of work as he attempts to understand a new business, a new hotel…. without him it can be lonely and scary and the days long. But almost a month in, I can convincingly say, the old adage, ‘time is a great healer’ is not too far from the truth.
Two and a half weeks in I could feel the old me reemerging from underneath the relocation rubble….I didn’t realize it, but I’d been struggling to crack a smile. Suddenly I was laughing and feeling more at ease, as each day I slowly but surely ticked off the boxes towards building a new life.
A decent coffee shop to work in, a hairdresser to give me a reasonable blow dry (at a third of the price I might add), parks and playgrounds for Ava…. restaurants and bars to pop down to….shopping centres with my favorite shops (hello Zara, hello H & M). Even a westernized supermarket.
Having a portable career also makes a move like this more bearable, knowing you haven’t left everything behind.
About three weeks in, my husband gingerly asks me if I feel more settled but immediately backtracks, realizing ‘settled’ is not the right word. We both know it’s not something that happens overnight. But what does happen is a gradual shift in your mindset. The lump in my throat has eased …..the knot in the pit of my stomach has softened – for the most part anyway.
So as I re-live the new kid on the block in a very different city all over again, here are my top ten tips for survival.
1. Get Out!
Yes! Even if you’re on your own and your spouse is at work, you can do it. I know your new world outside can seem mildly terrifying, especially if it’s a vastly different culture from the one you know – but do yourself a favour and take the plunge, even if it’s just a brief visit to the coffee shop across the road. I promise you’ll feel a million times better once you’ve made the effort and are safely back in your cocoon!
Staying inside feeling like you may as well be on Mars is only going to make you feel more isolated. Each day you’ll gain the courage to explore that little bit further.
2. Watch & Listen
Turn on the TV! If you’re in a foreign country where the language is not your own, it’s nice to have some home comforts. Hopefully, if you’re staying in a hotel or serviced apartment in those early days, you’ll have those familiar faces from global channels like CNN, Bloomberg or Sky News beaming into your lounge room to keep you company. (As a former News Reader I’m extra comforted when I’m a world away and see a good friend is reading the news! How lucky is that!) Otherwise, whack on a DVD series that makes you feel like you’re back in your own living room; or alternatively, download the local radio station app on your phone, or play some comforting CDs.
3. Familiarise Yourself
This means getting to know what you’re working with, aka as the city’s geography. Exploring the entire city could take months (unless you’ve just landed on a tropical island) (lucky you if you have)! But seriously, if it’s your first time in this part of the world, grab a map and figure out which way is up. At least you’ll have an idea in your head of where you are, when you do get to venture out. Grab brochures, google the city and all it has to offer and read the local paper, provided it’s in a language you understand, of course.
4. Prepare before you Pack
Make sure your internet is set up or you have access to someone who can help you do this along with those other pesky but essential things like new bank accounts and work visas. Some credit cards need to be activated to work overseas and often banks will block your card if they see transactions taking place in unusual cities. Make sure you have all your paperwork in order for your visas. (Don’t do what we did and leave important forms with the packers!)
Do your research and stock up on those all essential supplies that may not be available in your new country – from medications to cosmetics and food (of course, checking if you’re allowed to bring it in to that particular country).
If you normally get your hair colored at a salon, get instructions from your hair stylist. Finding a hairdresser in a new city that can do your locks is no easy task. Trust me!!
5. Understand the Culture and Customs
If you haven’t been to the region you’re relocating to, make sure you know what customs and traditions are followed. For example if you’re in the Middle East, it’s frowned upon to show bare shoulders in public. In Asia, it’s not polite to put your bag on the floor; culturally it’s quite normal for Chinese people to spit in public and most public toilets are of the squat variety and require your own tissues.
The list is endless, but it pays to have a general idea of how to behave appropriately in public and what to expect to ease the culture shock. This is especially important if you are working in your new country and will be doing business with the locals.
6. Routine Rules
If you’re the spouse at home, maybe the primary carer of your child or children or even in a new country alone, it might seem next to impossible but the smallest routine can make it feel more like home. Just getting up and having breakfast at the same time each day can help establish a familiar routine. If you have children at school age, this will make that much easier, as will starting your new job. Of course, getting into your new home will also make a big difference in speeding up the settling in period.
7. Step Outside the Box
Push yourself to join expat groups, mums groups, business groups, social groups….whatever floats your boat! Do things you wouldn’t normally do in an effort to take the first step towards joining a community. For example as a writer, I’ve offered my services for free to a local expat magazine, in the hope of learning more about the city and meeting new people.
8. Technology Talks
Thank goodness for technology these days. It means you are never too far from your loved ones. There are many ways to communicate whether it be online using forums like Facebook and Twitter; What’s App to message; and Viber and FaceTime to call and chat. Keeping in touch has never been easier and I’m incredibly thankful for the support of my online community.
9. Learn the Language
It can seem like the impossible (and believe me learning Mandarin currently does) but if English is limited you really have little choice but to bite the bullet. Imagine the sense of achievement at the end of it and what you can do with that language under your belt. It will also make getting around a hell of a lot easier!
10. It's all about Attitude!
Keep reminding yourself why you chose to do this. Maybe it was your love of adventure or perhaps it was for a better future – keep on chanting your mantra what ever it may be. It can all too easily get lost amongst those feelings of dread and the ‘what have we done!’ Remember it takes time. It might feel like you’re drowning in a sea of the unknown, but just know “this too shall pass.” Wait it out and be prepared for those ill feelings for the first month at least. Eventually it will become home…and if it doesn’t, it’s not forever.
Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before stepping outside the box (literally) and making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband. Four years into the mad but momentous journey of chopsticks and chicken's feet, she is mum to hyped up blondie, Ava and has just embarked on the next expat posting in Xi'an, China.
When she's not juggling play dough and princess outfits, Nicole works as a freelance journalist, copywriter, presenter, media trainer and Master of Ceremonies across Asia.