Master of Advanced Studies in

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Culture Shock in China - CS EN


The author reflects on the different stages of the culture shock she experienced when moving to China.


I experienced a culture shock in China. I lived there for one year. In this time I made a lot of experiences which could be seen as a culture shock experience. A fascinating thing to me was how my behaviour in China and my perception of Chinese life changed during these 12 months. With these changes also my person changed in some way. I often realise that my sight on things is not the same anymore. I became more open and tolerant toward different cultures. And I realised how important this topic became for me and my life. This change is one reason, why I decided to do the MIC in Lugano. Because of the importance to me of this year, I decided to analyse in this assignment the process as a hole instead of picking out one single story.


1.1. Critical Incident: Cultural Shock in China

During my studies of Sinology at the university in Zurich, I have spent one year in Hangzhou/China (1997/98) in order to learn Chinese. We were sent abroad without any information or training. I had a cultural shock without even knowing that it is one! I just realised that nothing is like it was before and I always thought, that I am going to be crazy.

I arrived in China two weeks before university in Hangzhou started. I didn’t go directly to Hangzhou. I wanted to take my time and travel around first. These two weeks were a phenomenal time to me. I was starting a great adventure and I was very enthusiastic about this foreign land. I could handle finding hotels, buying train tickets and so on. These things made me feel good. I remember that people used to be very nice and helpful. It was I wonderful time!

One day before the semester started I arrived in Hangzhou. They gave me a room at the dormitory. The dormitory was a nightmare to me. No more single rooms! In my room, which I was supposed to share with a person I didn’t know, the mildew was hanging from the walls; everything was old, in pieces or both of them. We had 2 toilets, not more than a hole in the ground, in a really bad condition for 200 foreign students. I was shocked and disappointed.

From that moment on, I hated China! I just couldn’t imagine staying here for one whole year. I wanted to go back home as soon as possible. I was not sure anymore whether learning Chinese was a good idea, nor if I will be strong enough to stand it one year.

I was very unhappy. Even the Chinese people seemed to have changed. I didn’t consider them friendly or patient anymore. Also my physics changed. I was always tired. I slept a lot, even during the day, but I didn’t feel better. I spend a lot of time in my room avoiding contact with the Chinese life! All these differences I found so interesting before – I didn’t like and understand them anymore. They just frightened me. I denied them and I was convinced, that in Switzerland everything war much better!

One day I realized that I have to do something to change the situation. I didn’t want to stay in this dormitory anymore. Somehow I managed it to rent an apartment. This was at this time very seldom. Usually foreigners where not allowed to rent an apartment in China but with the help of a teacher it worked. I was very happy about my new privacy und my newfound freedom. The fact that I was able to organize my life also in China gave me back my self- confidence.

Now I was convinced that I can make it und I started again to deal with China and its life. Somehow I discovered again the reasons why I came to China: I wanted to learn more about the Chinese culture and language. It took me about 4 – 5 months to come to this point. From now on it was much easier to life in this culture. I learnt very easily the “rules of the game” and I enjoyed applying them. My humour was back and most of the time I felt very conformable in my “new world”.


2.     Acculturative stress

According to Thomas & Schenk (2001:14-15) cultural values lead the thinking, the judgements and the acting of the members of a culture within wide ranges. They are deep- rooted and multiple linked in history, philosophy and religion of a culture. They are matter of courses and guidelines of social acting, which are learned by the individual during socialisation into the society. How strong and in which way the own behaviour is shaped by such cultural values, becomes often only apparent in contact with members of a different culture. In co-operation and by dealing with them the matter of course of certain actions and attitudes are put into question. When individuals of two cultures meet, meet not only two humans with different languages and goals but also humans with different cultural values.

This fact affects their way of acting even like current events and conditions. Sometimes this misunderstandings, also due to different cultural values, can lead according to Triandis (1994:262-265) to uncertainties. Such loading situations produce the phenomenon culture shock. Characteristics of a culture shock can be physical and psychological symptoms. A possible explanation for the culture shock lies after Triandis (1994), similarly as for Thomas & Schenk (2001) in the fact that our doing is founded in "control by habit". We react to  certain references and expect from the others that they behave in such a way, as we already know it. Humans in unusual environment however can behave in such a way, we do not expect and are not able to understand it. We might feel, as if we lose control. Persons, who notice that they have little control, can become depressive and helpless. After Thomas & Schenk (2001:15-16) the purpose of ones own doing is put in question and one devalues the foreign culture as peculiar or irrationally. Only an understanding for the meaning and purpose of the observed foreign cultural behaviours leads to a process of intercultural learning and out of the crisis. If it becomes understandable and comprehensible why which behaviour when is shown, orientation returns and with it action security. The more we know about the other culture, the more control and security we have and it becomes easier to live in the new culture.

Culture shock is an individual experience. The intensity and the process of culture shock experience can be different for everyone. The culture shock experiences can vary also with the same person. It appears in an unknown environment under unusual circumstances. The new circumstances can force one to regard himself and his new environment from completely different side. Culture shock is not an illness, although it can often cause a physical indisposition and appropriate symptoms. On the contrary, culture shock is a learning process. Culture shock can cause following symptoms, which Berry & Sam (1997:301-302) differentiate three levels:

Behavioural shifts

Acculturative stress

Psychological disturbances

  • over sensitivity
  • inactivity
  • fretfulness
  • imbalance
  • feeling of "I can’t make it!"
  • insomnia
  • exhaustion
  • fits of rage
  • the feeling of helplessness
  • excessive hand washing and concern about hygiene
  • fear of physical contact with others
  • mental absence excessive fear of to be robbed or hurt.

Tab. 1: Possible symptoms of culture shock.


Consequences of these symptoms can be over reaction with small physical symptoms such as pain or skin irritations, abuse of alcohol or drugs, or also strong feelings of homesickness.

Nearly everybody who spent a certain time in another culture experienced some behaviour changes described above. Most experiences also some the symptoms of acculturative stress. In rare cases the culture shock leads to serious psychological disturbances.


2.1.  Culture Shock according to Petersen

The process of culture shock is described by Petersen (1995) in five phases. The phases vary individually in length and intensity. Also, the sequence is not compelling; on the contrary, this is connected much with the personality of the individual.


Honeymoon stage

  • Big enthusiasm for the new environment
  • Discover new possibilities
  • „Trust-make“ with the unknown
  • Master the practical obstacles
  • A positive perception dominates
  • The feeling of the acceptance prevails
  • The social environment shows understanding and tolerance


Disintegration stage

  • Doubts actually arise
  • Uncertainty, disappointment, alienation dominates
  • Often a feeling of the inadequacy
  • Strong sense of guilt when misunderstandings arise
  • External view: Affiliation to the group
  • Interior view: Acceptance is missing
  • Less tolerance of the social environment


Reintegration Stage

  • Annoyance in relation to the social environment
  • Tendencies to stereotyping and generalisation
  • Refusal of the guest culture
  • Ignore the differences and similarities between the guest culture and the own culture
  • Take a “defending position”


Autonomy stage

  • More objective sight on the situation
  • A new perception of the strange culture and the own « I » arises
  • A new feeling: Now I understand it!
  • Self-assertion turns back
  • New found liberty can be enjoyed


Interdependence stage

  • It can come to a new identity: from a bi-cultural to a multi-cultural person
  • Differences remain visible, but thy do no coin life anymore
  • Development of new confidence
  • Creativity and humour return
  • Appropriate interpretation of the conditions of the strange culture becomes possible


2.2.  Bennett's Developmental Model

Bennett's Developmental Model (Brislin & Yoshida 1994:57-84) describes a similar process. They described the different stages of a culture meeting from a ethnocwntric to a  ethnorelative stage. They talk about six reactions which occur in the two following categories:

Ethnocentric stage

  • denial
  • defense
  • minimization

Ethnorelative stage

  • acceptance
  • adaptation
  • integration


Denial: One represents a black/white, ethnocentric opinion and can not imagine any other possibilities.

Defense: One excuses its own values - often with simultaneous deffamation of the host culture’s values.

Minimization: One does admit that there are differences, but dies not consider it as relevant.

Acceptance: One understands the differences. However, its habits and opinions did not change yet. "You have to develop behavioural strategies to overcome this level."  (Brislin & Yoshida 1994:63)

Adaption: A change happened, one now becomes more and more bi-cultural or multi-cultural.

Integration: "On good days these people feel as belonging to two cultures, while on bad days they feel as being outcast of both cultures." (Brislin & Yoshida 1994:65)


Brislin & Yoshida (1994) make in connection with this model attentive to the fact that it does not exhaust all possibilities. The reality is much more complex. Participants in a culture shock situation can, for example, be on different levels at the same time.


3.     Analyses

I try to analyse my experiences according to the five stages of culture shock.

The first part of my China experience was very exiting. I travelled around, could overcome all problems of daily travellers life. Chinese people were very nice to me and I was looking forward to my new life in China. I was not yet landed in Chinese daily life but I had really a feeling of “flying high”. So I would say that the first two weeks travelling around in China were my honeymoon stage.

I landed in reality when I arrived at the dormitory in Hangzhou. From one moment to the other I saw in what environment I will have to spend the next year. I was very disappointed about the circumstances. This reality changes my mood very quickly! I didn’t feel good anymore but doubts aroused. I quarrelled a lot which the Chinese people in the “foreign affairs office” in order to get a better or a single room. But they couldn’t understand what my problem was. I was sure that they just didn’t want to understand me! By-and-by the blocked me, which I thought was very unfriendly. In fact, they just didn’t know anymore what they should tell me. In this time I felt very sad and helpless. I was not sure anymore in what I was doing here. In this time I was fallen into the disintegration stage.

Once I realized that the people in the “foreign affairs office” couldn’t help me, I got very sad and sluggish. I spent most of the day in my room doing nothing. I was not able to learn. I was not able to go out. I didn’t even feel like seeing friends. I was sleeping most of the afternoons. An even though I slept half a day I still could sleep in the night. When I was sleeping I hadn’t to think about my situation. Sleeping was like an escape from the daily Chinese life, which I really hated at that point. When I went out, for example, to buy aliments, I didn’t want to bargain with the people on the market. Instead, I was sure, that they all just wanted to cheat me. I was very unfriendly and so they were also unfriendly to me. In this phase, I couldn’t see anything positive in my life. I wanted to go home! Home in my country where everything was much better or even perfect! I arrived at the lowest point of my life, which might be the reintegration stage.

After a while I was able to see my situation from a more objective sight. I realized that I would feel better, when I could live outside of the dormitory. So I made another effort to find another place to stay. This time a succeeded! This achievement was a proof that I am able to organise my life in China gave my new power. I was very proud that I made it. I was very happy having back my privacy. The new “life” in my small apartment motivated me again to take part of the Chinese life. I started to make Chinese friends and I finally started to learn Chinese. This time was my autonomy stage.

From now on most of the time I felt very well in China. I learnt a lot of the Chinese Culture. I was keen on learning the “rules of the game” and I enjoyed it very much to apply them. This fact was also appreciated by my Chinese environment. More and more I was integrated in my new social surround. Over the time I realised that I have two “sets of behaviour” - one for my western world and one for my Chinese world. This was a fact which made my very happy.

The hole experience made me stronger and in a was also more adult. At this point, I reached the interdependence stage.


4.     Resume

In connection with acculturation one often speaks of the u-curve. Also Bennett's Developmental Model (see above) describes a similar process. Ward et. al. (1998) however investigated that the adaptation phase does not have to run necessarily in such a form. But in my case, it took exactly that way.

For me, it’s very important that people who go abroad are informed about culture shock. When we went to China nobody informed or trained us. I knew the word “culture shock” but I didn’t know that it could mean. I experienced in China a lot of strong feelings I didn’t have before.

For example, I was very aggressive, which I never was before in Switzerland. These new feelings made me very insecure. From time to time I asked myself if I’m going to be crazy. I didn’t know myself anymore! If I had known at that time from these different stages of the culture shock it would have been very useful. I would have known that it is normal to go trough such phases!