Any journey begins long before you arrive at your destination. Inevitably, there is preparation with most attention given to the practicalities of travel arrangements, paperwork, packing and farewells. Some things are "packed" without a thoughtand these can often lead to the biggest problems.
We all have themexpectations of ourselves and others. Often we are unaware of them as they are buried in our subconscious. Consider what expectations you have in your baggage: what living conditions may be like, how long it will take to get set up, how you will make friends, what you will do for leisure, how you will learn the language and what that will demand of you, as well as what you will do and how quickly.
We easily become victims of our own expectations. For example, on first moving to North China after almost five years in Taiwan where I had studied Mandarin, I expected to be able to complete numerous tasks in any one day (even with small children). What an optimist! I was soon getting frustrated at how little I achieved and was beginning to feel twinges of negativity. Everything just took longer: queues were somewhat token, systems were different, paying utility bills was a run around, the children drew comments resulting in conversations that took time, office lunch hours were long . Then, I made a simple readjustment of my expectations and decided I would feel good if I managed to get one thing done properly per day out of my list of several tasks. It helped to celebrate fewer successes rather than bemoan a failure to achieve as much as I had expected!
I also soon realized I had less energy and/or became tired more quickly. Having been forewarned that this was a natural part of culture stress when coping with so much that was new, unfamiliar, different and incomprehensible, I was able to accept it more easily. Expect to get tired and make sure you take times of restdaily, weekly (the Sabbath principle) and annually.
Another way to prepare for going abroad is to deal beforehand with any major personal or relational issues of which you are aware. Do not pack them in with your other baggage or expect they will remain behind. Living in another culture tends to bring things to the surface making life harder both for yourself and any team of which you are a part. So, for example, if anger management is a challenge for you in your current location, try to address this and get the help you may need while it is more readily available rather than having a major blow up on the other side of the world where the fallout may be more disastrous.
Ensure Your Identity
It is also immensely helpful, after taking a long hard look at yourself, to be honest about what gives you your identity. Is it your role? Your skills? Your qualifications? Your job? Your nationality? What makes you who you are? When moving to another country and culture, much of what we may have built our identity upon is removed. You may be taking up a new job or not have any clear job at all if you are becoming a student again. You may have been looked up to for your ability with words and intellectual skills, but now you are like a toddler hardly able to string a sentence together, let alone be erudite. A useful item to have in your "identikit" is the attitude of being a learner. This will help you face a new culture with a degree of enthusiasm and humility. Furthermore, it is valuable to be able to recognize how much of your culture is imprinted on you and may cause a "rub" with the new culture/s. You may be as unaware of various cultural elements of your make-up, worldview and behavior as of your expectations (which are probably in part culturally conditioned!). Noticing what you think and do, and then considering why, may help to defuse potentially flammable situations or evaluate what are referred to as "critical incidents." These are encounters with people of a different culture that go wrong, with negative judgments made that can greatly damage a foreigner's effectiveness. Sometimes our identity as "foreigners" can work to our advantage as more grace is extended to us. When first learning Mandarin, as students we would go around greeting people practicing certain new phrases; no Chinese would do this but with the "crazy foreigners" it was acceptable. Doing something like this may be easier for us to do in a foreign context than back in our home countries.
Over time, I have found that I have grown into a new identity which is linked to my Chinese name. Choosing a name in Chinese culture is a significant and carefully considered exercise. Its meaning expresses much. Do give it due consideration and see it as opening a new dimension to who you are, but at the same time, hold onto the identity you have in Christ.
Engage with Others and the World around You
It may be tempting to respond to a new culture with fright, fight and flight reflexes. In the first instance, everything becomes overwhelming and very threatening. You may feel horrified, afraid you will never manage and become somewhat paralyzed. This will pass. In the second case, you will often express your feelings in anger, consider the way things are done as "stupid," "inefficient," "crazy" and even "downright wrong." This can make you unpleasant to be around. In the third instance, one wants to retreat, whether by getting on the next flight home or by withdrawing into the local expatriate "ghetto" where things feel familiar, comprehensible and safe. While these may be natural responses, one should not get stuck in them or allow them to set the tone for living in a new place as they will, in the long-term, alienate the very people with whom you have come to make friends.
Investing in developing relationships with local people is a good way to ensure a healthy adjustment. These friends will provide invaluable help in understanding the culture better and giving an insider's view to life. They are also more likely to be around long after many of one's expatriate friends have moved on. If you intend to stay in one place for some time, the constant cycle of "hellos" and "goodbyes" with expatriates can be draining. Sign up for activities that will enlarge your circle of acquaintancesjoin the dancing in the park on summer nights, try out calligraphy in the community center, find out where the nearest badminton court is. If you are more of an introvert, team up with an extrovert. I have made some of my best Chinese friends thanks to my husband chatting to all sorts of people and then introducing them to me.
Guard against spending too much time on the computer to stay connected with friends on the other side of the world through e-mails, Skype and Facebook. Technology is a blessing for keeping in touch, but it can seriously erode time that would be better used in building up friendships where you are. Similarly, despite the increasingly widespread use of cars, going via public transportation or bicycle are good ways of being less isolated and provide opportunities to talk to people.
A good way to start building relationships is through asking questions. This keeps one from coming across as expert in any way and shows that one is keen to learn and interested in the other person. People love talking about themselves, their families, country and culture. One may meet especially knowledgeable people who will patiently explain aspects of the new culture within the confines of one's language ability. Such cultural interpreters are a blessing. Here are some suggested starter questions to help "break the ice." A questionnaire depersonalizes the questions somewhat which can help put the other person at ease. Hopefully it can also facilitate a two-way discussion where you are able to share from your life and culture as well.
In today's increasingly globalized world, and with China's expanding relations with so many countries, it is important to remember that culture is in flux. Asking how things today are different from several years ago, how this generation differs from that of the previous one, how experiences in the city and countryside, or north and south, east or west of the country differ, will be revealing. It will also perhaps provide a corrective to any sweeping generalizations.
Often a prelude to asking questions is observation. Spend time looking at what is going on around you, noting similarities and differences, seeing how people act in various situations and what they say. In addition, it is good to ask for help and advice. This puts one in the often uncomfortable position of acknowledging one's helplessness. Self-sufficiency (real or projected) can create a distance whereas being on the receiving end of someone else's assistance can be a good way of making contact and building bridges. This is true for relating to both expatriates and local people who will tend to leave you alone if they sense you are able to manage without them.
Although asking questions is a way to acquire a greater understanding, this can be difficult with limited language ability. I recommend that you make an effort to learn to speak some Mandarin and at least recognize some key Chinese characters. This not only enables communication but also earns one a certain degree of respect (and I am not talking about the praise given at how well you speak on your merely uttering n ho in greeting). When Chinese people hear you making an effort, they feel that you value them and their culture; you communicate that you care enough to try. It is certainly not easy for Westerners to tackle such a different language with its tones and written characters, but persistence and an ongoing learning attitude with humility is of great value. It makes engaging at a heart level more natural, and Christian faith takes on a Chinese hue.
Sometimes, the best way to become equipped is by being stretchedby saying "Yes" to things beyond one's felt level of competence. Early on, I agreed to tell a Bible story to the youngest Sunday school class in Taiwan. I spent time preparing with my language teacher, ensuring I knew all the names and key terms. Using a flannel board helped, and I felt the level, although demanding, was linguistically age appropriate for me! Similarly, after two years and with a bit more language but still feeling inadequate, I accepted a friend's invitation to do some Bible studies in the book of Luke. It certainly pushed me but provided an invaluable basis on which I could build. A certain amount of daring is needed.
Another form of equipping is through reading. There are so many excellent books available on different aspects of life in Chinahistories, novels, travel, culture and business. A beginner's booklist is included in this issue to whet your appetite. (See the bibliography.) It is worthwhile to subscribe to a journal such as TIME, The Economist or a reputable on-line newspaper which may contain insightful information or comment on current events in China. These can provide another angle to English media in China such as The China Daily. There are also bite-size offerings such as ChinaSource and ZG Briefs. You may also want to pack some of your favorite Christian books that will provide nourishment for your soul and perhaps ask some friends to keep you supplied with new books that will build up and encourage you in your faith. This is a valuable part of our ongoing equipping to serve.
There is the old adage in cross-cultural circles that "It's not right or wrongit's just different." For the most part, this is true and a good starting point. If one begins with a superior attitude, little will be gained. It is always a good idea to start by observing, withholding judgment and noting what is going on. Then, one can ask a few leading questions to start unpacking the situation. This way one begins to see not only what is different but why, as well as observing one's own reaction and considering why it is so. Explanations that emerge may lead to greater tolerance and understanding of where the other person is coming from. Respecting differences creates a platform for building relationships.
There is a huge need to extend graceboth to oneself and to others. One will make mistakesrepeatedly. Some may be relatively minor while others may be much bigger. Laughing at oneself helps, even if sometimes you feel more like crying! I made the mistake of writing my Chinese name in the relevant space in my residence book (no longer needed for foreigners). Then, when I went to have it renewed, I was told I had defaced Chinese government property and needed to write a letter of confession. I swallowed my indignation and obliged. Grace allows for honesty and openness, humility and flexibility. These are vital as one adjusts to a new culture. Sharing one's struggles is far better than pretending one has it all figured out. You will, with persistence and work, grow in your understandingand then you will have to show grace to the newly arrived.
Embrace the Challenge
There are no quick and easy shortcuts. For those who are hoping to be involved in China long-term, the effort is definitely worthwhile. The more one adapts, the more one appreciates being privileged to live in such a dynamic, culturally deep country--and it does get easier.
Andrea Klopper has taught in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and China. She has mentored Mandarin language students and developed a cultural orientation and acquisition program which she used in two organizations. One of her passions is researching the lives of expats in her city pre-Liberation. She enjoys reading, cycling... View Full Bio