Culture Shock and Depression: Introduction

Expatriate State of Mind

Having a cool head is very important to me, for two reasons. The first is that I have a very bad temper; when set off, while I rarely hurt people, I’m liable to break things, yell at people, and otherwise not be a person you want to be around. The second is that I have depression. I was diagnosed in my teens, went to therapy and took medication for several years, then stopped both after we agreed it was a good time for me to try doing things on my own. I’m 8 years off medication, but the depression is still there, every single day.

So, when I arrived in China, I was extremely antsy about one thing: Culture shock. What is culture shock? How would it affect me? Would I have any warning? My understanding was that culture shock was a negative reaction to stimulus around you. A reaction to people’s habits, their customs, the way they live, things like that. I read a few blog entries about culture shock, but they just seemed to repeat the same thing. What I was looking for was a concrete example, because I couldn’t imagine what it is that I could react negatively to.

Here’s what I have reacted to, in no particular order. First, traffic. I have a bicycle, and I ride it everywhere. I have a 25 minute commute to my school, and I have to dodge at least one car that’s going out of turn and one electric bicycle going the wrong way every time I go anywhere. Some days I don’t notice it, and other days I want to learn how to tell people to get a fucking clue. Second, staring. It’s a reality for any foreigner (especially white ones), and it’s a reality that changes every moment. Sometimes it’s a curious glance from a child, sometimes a bashful one from a young woman, and sometimes it’s a glare from an old person that makes you feel like you’re from Mars.

These things, however, add up to minor irritations at best. I was told by a couple of people that I would wake up one day, a few months into my stay, and “hate Chinese people.” I’m six months into my stay and this has yet to happen. I don’t think I possess any special power here… but I do suspect a couple of things. One, I think that the mental acuity required to live a full life with depression allows me to combat the effects of culture shock and homesickness. Two, and these go hand in hand… I think just having an open mind, a result of the recent experiences and training I’ve had, also allow for this. I never reject an idea on its face unless it’s clearly a harmful one (which is why the traffic thing bothers me so much). I always remain mindful of where these people are coming from when they stare at me; when they come up and talk to me in broken English; when they cut me off in traffic.

There is another aspect to culture shock that I’m working to overcome as well: the language barrier. I live in Luoyang city, Henan province, which, although developed and populated, is a bit rural, and not many expats wind up here. There is some tourism during the Peony Festival, which means there’s English on most street signs, English in most grocery stores, but that’s about it. There’s not a lot of spoken English here outside of private school classrooms. Fortunately, I’m personally inclined to learn languages, and I’m pretty good at it, too. I studied Japanese in college, which gave me a slight edge on reading, and I hooked up with a private tutor as soon as I could. All this has helped me establish a little independence; I can read bus stop signs, I can direct a taxi to my apartment, I can (sort of) order for myself at restaurants (pictures help!), and I once asked someone to point me to a local bike shop when my chain broke halfway to work (successfully, I might add). So that is also a huge factor in warding off this nefarious demon.

I’m pretty happy where I am. I’m not always happy… but then, I wasn’t always happy in the States, either. One blog entry that did very much help me understand culture shock interpreted it not as a single instance of peak (“honeymoon”) and valley (“shock”) but rather a sine wave with a gradually shrinking wavelength. I think that this applies to my situation greatly.