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Managing Culture Shock When Working Abroad

By Will Perrins

Moving overseas to teach is one of the most unique and exciting experiences you’ll have. Not only does it give you the opportunity to attain and enhance an employable skill set, including the ability to adapt to new surroundings and work flexibility in a cross-cultural environment, it provides a chance to learn new languages.

I was fortunate to live and work as an English Teacher, and later in Education Management, in China for a number of years. By the end of my teaching job in China, I was able to look back on these accomplishments with pride and consider how I could best sell these new skills upon my return home. But while in the thick of my international working experience, I must admit, that it was harder to see the big picture, not least because of the stresses and strains of culture-shock!

Based on my experience and occasional missteps in China, I’ve put together a guide to the ‘4 stages of culture shock’, what each of them meant to me, and advice I received from a wide array of sources on how to deal with them.

Managing Culture Shock When Working Abroad - Kids in China

First Stage: The Honeymoon Period

The stage that feels like it’ll never end. Living and working abroad for the first few months of your international experience will feel exhilarating, exciting, novel – and at times, hilarious! A change of pace, as well as a change of scenery, can do wonders for your well-being, particularly in a country as bright, dynamic and break-neck in speed as China.

There’s a feeling that with the change you have come across, anything is possible and this new country and adventure is like a new frontier, begging to be explored. For these reasons, it’s very easy to get carried away and for your new home to get the better of your bad side! Certainly, when working as an English teacher in China it seemed all too easy to dedicate my time to a lifestyle of late nights, with plenty of food and drink, and workplace hangovers in the morning!

At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, the best way to tackle this first stage is not to give into the temptations of excess and remind yourself why you came to live abroad in the first place… to work! Write a reminder to yourself every morning that there are positive and professional reasons for teaching abroad, and try to see things from your employer’s and students’ perspective.

It’s important to familiarize yourself for the first few months with your place of work and to build positive and lasting relationships with your colleagues, both native and expats. Always consider how your behaviour may affect them, and remember the lack of responsibility on the shoulders of ‘the new guy’ only lasts as long as you are the ‘new guy!’

Listen particularly carefully to what your native friends will tell you about living and working in their country, and be careful to heed their warnings!

Remember as well, that however close a bond you make with expat friends, the life of a temporary worker in another country is just that…temporary. People will come and leave, and this is something to mentally prepare for.

Second Stage: A Period of Frustration and Irritation

Now that the first stage has come to an end, you will begin to feel the fun and exciting lifestyle beginning to become less fun and exciting. Things that used to amuse you, frustrate you and friends that seemed like soulmates are now frustrating and insufferable, not to mention inescapable in the environment you find yourself in.

I remember my daily commute, squeezing into a tube carriage in rush hour as being a fast-paced, exciting and often very funny part of my day-to-day routine. It was great commuting and visiting the street vendors for my breakfast. But at this stage, it was now all a massive drag. I now hated the sights, smells and uncomfortable continuing lack of familiarity with my surroundings. I really felt like I wanted to go home.

At this point, it was vital to keep my channels of communication open. At no other point did I rely so much on the advice and counsel of my friends and colleagues in China.

Again, the importance of not isolating myself was vital at this stage, and the sound advice from my experienced friends on moderation and taking each day at a time was vital.

Teaching Elementary Kids in China

Third Stage: Adjustment

This is where things really start to take a turn for the better. You’ve become more familiar with your surroundings and life is taking on more of a normal feeling.

I had begun to practice and gain more proficiency in my Mandarin skills. My confidence, in general, had taken a strong upturn and I was more willing to try out my skills in public, and when successful gain a bigger confidence boost!

I started to feel more of a sense of acceptance in society and at work as well. I was very much becoming part of the fixtures and started to see my professional contribution in the classroom paying off with my student’s abilities and confidence in English growing. With this also came a sense of value in the workplace as my employers took notice of this hard work.

When you reach this stage of adjustment and adaptation, it’s important to keep the motivation flowing. Use the motivation and confidence gained to practice your language skills in public, take more responsibility at work and grab opportunities for promotion and advancement by the horns!

Fourth Stage: Acceptance

This is the final stage of the Culture Shock Journey. You’ve been able to adapt to your new surroundings. Those initial differences in the initial phases have become part of daily life, and you approach each new day with a sense of familiarity and belonging.

Now you’re ready to really help those who are at the earlier stages of their Culture Shock Journey, in both a professional and social context. Share your experience with them, pass on the advice you’ve learnt and guide them through the hard times while celebrating and encouraging their success.

From my experience at this stage, I was comfortable and familiar with my surroundings by this point and could truly call it home. After a few years of living in China, I realized the importance of taking stock of this journey and my development. I made sure these skills were reflected in my resume and took the opportunity to look into future career paths I could take upon my return home.

By this time, I had the fortune of welcoming many new teachers to China. Introducing them to the city and training, and helping them settle into their new roles at the school. I was lucky enough as well to have the opportunity to pass on some wise advice that I had received during the difficult earlier time of my journey through Culture Shock.

I will always remember my final action upon leaving China. I looked back at 2 new teachers who had arrived the month before, it was bittersweet leaving them as I wouldn’t have the chance to get to know them better, but I was excited for them for their own unique journeys ahead, both the good and bad! I gave them both a wave as I boarded the plane and closed the book on my China adventure and Journey through Culture Shock!

Kids Celebrate Learning English in China

About Will Perrins

Will Perrins is a former teacher and at present the Partnerships Manager for Opportunity China. Opportunity China place graduates and experienced teaching professionals in teaching roles across China, and offer an excellent level of personal support, guidance, and pre-departure training to each and every candidate.

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Interesting read. I have been teaching English in Prague for 5 years and it’s nice to compare your experience to mine.