How to get past the culture shock and survive a foreign society

April 26, 2018

On my first year working in China, I lived in Alcatraz. Not the prison Alcatraz, it was just a nickname I gave our company dormitory but it was pretty much the same. On my first attempt to escape, I had to wait more than three hours and multiple failed efforts to get to ride the bus.

Being in a foreign country will always be an exhilarating experience; our usual reaction to new faces, new sights, and new environment is almost always a mixture of awe and marvel. But the minute we mingle with the people and let ourselves be immersed in the culture, what started with wonder and fascination become immediately eclipsed by loathing and detest as we struggle to deal with an unfamiliar style and way of living. We experience that thing we so passionately call a Culture Shock. We start cursing the land, head towards the exit, and swear to never visit that goddamn place ever again.

Culture shock is defined as the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, a way of life, or set of attitudes. It can be overwhelming, especially when we’re not prepared. As Lauren wrote about her “being a whining weirdo in China,” she wasn’t prepared and it wasn’t China’s fault.

The unwritten airport elevator culture

Once when I was at the Pudong International Airport, a family of five Caucasians was waiting in front of the elevator with their luggage. I was already aware that the elevator was going down by the light indicators but, seeing one of them repeatedly pressing the UP button, I asked whether they were also going down. There was no response and the moment the door of the elevator opened, they all rushed in and pressed the control buttons which changed the pilot lamps to indicate it was going up. We exchanged blank stares as the doors closed and I was left outside, furious.

I ranted about the experience online and, while I got several responses in agreement, one comment stood out from the rest. In the response, the person explained that it is a common practice among Europeans that when at the airport, whoever gets in the elevator first will decide whether it should go down or up. Which is actually logical and I agreed. Airport elevators are usually just parked at either the bottom or top floor and it will only move either up or down depending on the location of the person who presses the button. Naturally, the one who called for the elevator will have to be the one to use it first.

Thing is, sometimes we ourselves are oblivious to the rules and then we will throw a fit if we didn’t get what we wanted.

China killed the chivalry

On my first year working in China, I lived in Alcatraz. Not the prison Alcatraz, it was just a nickname I gave our company dormitory but it was pretty much the same. On my first attempt to escape, I had to wait more than three hours and multiple failed efforts to get to ride the bus.

Alcatraz was a four-building compound situated on a large piece of land at the far end of an industrial zone. The compound was separated from the industrial area by a wide creek and, to get to the other side, you have to cross a long spiraling bridge with an average incline of 45 degrees. Going up on a manual bike was a pain, but the freewheeling afterward was dangerous but a thrilling fast ride.

Crossing the bridge on foot would take five to ten minutes which is why the more impatient ones would scramble to use the spiral staircase connecting the highest peak to the bottom of the bridge. The footsteps of the staircase can barely fit two persons at a time, so others would climb from the handrails. The most exciting part was when someone would even carry their bikes while climbing. Have you seen a colony of disturbed ants rushing to climb a stick impaled near their nest? That’s exactly how the scenario looked like every workday morning, only a million times larger.

The Chinese Alcatraz

The Chinese Alcatraz

One weekend, I decided to go out and explore the city. Since I don’t have a bike yet, my only option was to take the bus from the dormitory to the bus stop outside the industrial zone or to walk towards the same route for thirty to forty minutes. I chose to take the bus. When I arrived at the waiting area outside the dormitory, there already was a throng of people waiting for the bus — two males and about two busloads of females.

The first bus arrived and before it could even come to a full stop, people started the mad dash to get to through the door. It was hilarious and, at the same time, disturbing. I thought I was seeing it straight out of a movie scene. Half of the crowd was gone but while waiting for the next bus, more people were coming in. I knew it was never going to end but I still can’t get to put myself on the front line. “Ladies first,” I kept thinking. When the third bus came, I tried going with the pandemonium but still unfortunate to get a ride. They were fast, I was furious.

I realized there was just one bus plying to and from the dormitory and on the fourth time, the driver must have recognized me from the crowd. He stopped the bus without opening the doors and beckoned for me to go towards the door. He was probably yelling at the other passengers to let me in before he allows everyone else too. I thanked the driver with my very limited Chinese vocabulary, “Xiexie ni!” I positioned myself near a steel pole at the center of the bus and watch in awe as the bus got filled like a can of sardines in less than a minute.

The following Monday, I narrated to my colleague friends about my bus ride exploits and they told me I couldn’t always give way to the girls, otherwise, I will never be able to get on the bus. The female to male ratio at the dormitory was insanely high.

Let’s do the math. The dormitory compound had four buildings; one for the males, the other three for females. The male dormitory had seven floors but only six were living quarters. The ground floor was completely reserved for parking the bikes, except for a small room housing a paid laundry services at one corner. Each floor had fourteen rooms. The corner rooms housed two-queen sized mattresses reserved for supervisors and managers, the rest were arranged for six to eight persons.

One of the other buildings for females was constructed just like that for the males but the ground floor housed a computer shop and a mini-grocery instead of bikes. I have not seen the insides of the other two female dormitories but both were three floors higher and twice bigger than the men’s and, from what I was told, the rooms can be cramped with up to twelve persons. My best assumption was that there was one male for every ten females.

China is one of the most densely populated countries in the world; and to make the situation worse, there is a higher population of females than males. I was raised in a culture where the males would not dare squeeze themselves with the females in a pandemonium so the following weekend, I asked a friend to accompany me to buy a bike. Problem solved.

The Japanese are skeptic of stark honest responses

I was once on a business trip in Japan, and one time during lunch, I was eating ramen with my Japanese colleagues at the company cafeteria. One of the locals asked me how the food was. I replied, “It’s good but I like udon better.” Suddenly, there was dead silence and I knew exactly why. At that very moment, I wanted to evaporate. Me and my big mouth.

In Japanese culture, stark honest responses are very much considered impolite. When the host asked how the food was, the only proper response is an enthusiastic yes. On the other hand, one must disagree when complimented; parents would compliment the other kids while belittling their own in front of people. The Japanese are skeptic about people who tell the truth. It rooted from their need to avoid confrontations, the Japanese tend to avoid giving their honest opinions.

I believe it is a known fact that in Japanese culture, maintaining harmony with the society bears more weight than the individual right and self-respect; think about harakiri and kamikaze. This kind of reservation makes it more difficult for foreigners to understand what a Japanese person’s stand on things as they tend to be difficult to read. However, if one will be sensitive enough, certain gestures and subtle facial expressions are enough to actually decode and understand their true feelings.

Unsurprisingly, this is the very reason why Japan ranks high when it comes to customer service.

On the contrary, things can be completely different when it comes to the workplace; the response and remarks you will get can be pretty straightforward and you must be as equally prepared. But one good thing about the Japanese superiors is that they would never directly confront you unless you’re a direct subordinate. For instance, a Japanese manager will not confront an entry-level staff but will discuss the mistake in details with the supervisor. On the other hand, the supervisor must be prepared to receive direct jabs from the manager, figuratively.

In 2004, the Japanese company I was working at in the Philippines closed and outsourced the business to three ODM companies in China. An Original Design Manufacturer (ODM) is a company that designs and manufactures a product based on a set specification from another company that will eventually sell the product under their own brand. One of the Japanese expats I was closely working with was put in charge to oversee the product quality from the three Chinese manufacturing companies. At the same time, the Japanese Vice President for Philippine operations rose to take charge of the operations worldwide.

Two years after the company closed operations in the Philippines, I was recommended for a position in the Customer Service Division of one of the ODM companies in Jiangsu Province. A few months of negotiations and I accepted the job and boarded a plane to China. Here’s the scenario — the former Japanese colleague was representing the main company while I was his window to the ODM. Our relationship was no longer between colleagues but more of a customer-manufacturer correspondence.

One time, a huge quality issue arose in the manufacturing plant and the Vice President came to visit. Upon recognizing me, the VP greeted me with a big smile and a very tight hug which I found odd because, while the Japanese are known for strong handshakes, they frown upon other physical contacts. Also, it was kind of awkward as the whole scenario was giving my boss the impression that I was working for the other side.

My boss and I took charge in discussing the issue and explaining our proposed countermeasures. It was a very long and intense meeting. I was in the middle of a presentation when all of a sudden, the Vice President, in front of his subordinates and my boss, asked me how much was my salary. There was a mixture of responses from both camps. “Straightforward,” one of his guys exclaimed while my boss fell silently surprised. I just smiled not knowing what to make of that scenario.

Saudi Arabian guys talk like they’re always in for a fight

If there is one thing about the locals of Saudi Arabia that foreigners can’t miss noticing, it would be the way they talk. If you’re not used to street brawls where you came from, an encounter with a group of Saudi Arabian guys in the middle of a conversation will surely make you flee for your safety. Saudi Arabian guys may always sound like they were always fighting but they’re not. The Arabic language has a distinct rough and guttural sound like phlegm will come out from their throats at any moment’s notice. Which is why when people are having a conversation in Arabic, it always seems like they are fighting with each other. And naturally, this misconception is common throughout the Arabic-speaking countries.

In my case, I actually never got scared to see them talking loudly; most often, I was actually waiting for them to start throwing punches to see how physical they could get. But as earlier mentioned, they’re not really having a fight and if ever they do, they never really got into fist fights or any physical whatsoever.

Here’s a funny story. Many Saudi locals are reckless drivers which often result in car accidents. One time, a car crashed into another parked car causing a large dent on the stationary car. It so happened that the owner of the car that got hit was still inside so he went out of the car immediately upon collision. We were waiting for a fight to ensue but to our dismay, no physical assault happened. The two guys merely exchanged greetings and hugs and parted ways as if nothing happened.

These kinds of incidents occur all the time but, until now, it never fails to amuse us whenever we would see it happen. In Saudi Arabia, it is normal to see high-end cars hugely dented as if they just came out from the wreckage site.

In the Philippines, give another man’s car the tiniest scratch and you can expect a series of expletives and endless street chase. Bonus points if there are steel pipes and jungle bolos involved. It’s just too frustrating that we let our cars define and control the best of us.

Assimilation is the only way to survive

A country can not change for you and neither you should change for a country. You just have to recognize the social norms and find a way to deal with it while keeping your sanity intact. The sooner you feel more familiar and comfortable with the culture, the easier you can navigate and appreciate to the fullest whatever this new environment has to offer. Assimilation is the process by which you acknowledge the social and psychological norms and responding in conformity with a foreign culture.

If you would look deeper into it, a nation’s culture or social behavior is a set of skills acquired by the people in the course of generations as a way to adapt, cope and survive in the environment with what available resources they are presented with.

When traveling in a foreign country, it is not only important to know the sights you are about to see; knowing what culture and way of living you’ll be immersing yourself with is just as important. The shocking culture difference will not be eliminated but, armed with proper information, you’ll be able to emotionally and psychologically prepare yourself knowing what possible scenarios you’re getting into.

As a post note, Jill of Reading the Book has a bit of advice — ” it is very hard to go wrong with a smile.” You could go over her multiple accounts on culture shock and how she handles them.

Have you ever been in a situation where a huge difference in culture negatively affected your travel experience? How did you cope up with the situation? Did you head towards the exit or did you manage to assess and react positively? Share your experience in the comment section below.

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