Cultural conflicts are very common for expatriates, foreign students, and visitors in China. They are things that color the experiences of everyone, even ethnic Chinese who grew up overseas. However, while this is normal when visiting any foreign country, it often leads to negative experiences and results. When faced with conflicting viewpoints, concepts, behaviors, beliefs and customs, it is not uncommon for foreigners to get angry, become bitter, or simply give up.

With this in mind, I have put together several tips on how visitors to China can try to get over culture shock and acclimate to Chinese culture quicker, thereby gaining more enjoyment and knowledge from their stay.

  1. Don’t believe in stereotypes: Stereotypes about Chinese people are everywhere, largely driven by incomplete reporting in the media and biased accounts written by foreigners who have spent time in China. These descriptions view the Chinese people through a narrow and often backwards lens, and are never helpful. Once we view a single culture or people as being “only one way”, we lose our ability to view them as individuals and our fellow human beings. There is an old Chinese story which is particularly relevant here: Three blind men were placed in front of an elephant. One touched the trunk and thought it was a snake. One touched the leg and thought it was the trunk of a tree. The last man touched the tail and thought it was a rope. Each man was confident he knew what was in front of him, but in reality, each did not come close to truly understanding what the elephant was. Likewise, while stereotypes might reflect some aspects of China and its people, they also make true comprehension impossible.
  2. Don’t assume something is wrong with Chinese Culture: A common reaction to the difficulties of living and working in a foreign environment is defensiveness and blame. Specifically, I have heard many foreigners claim that Chinese culture is “wrong”, “backwards” or “bad”. And while this type of reaction may be natural, it also offers no help in adapting to a new environment. For example, the main problems I have personally faced in China involved specific individuals with bad attitudes, or my own failure to adapt. They had nothing to do with Chinese culture as a whole. It is important to remember that there are negative individuals in any culture or society, though culture shock can make it much more likely for foreigners to incorrectly remember such experiences as representative of the culture. It’s true that Mainland Chinese society may face certain developmental woes, but Chinese culture is rich, and there is much we all can learn, given the patience to do so.
  3.  Don’t assume you are the patient one: One thing that often strikes me is how easy it is for foreigners (including myself, on occasion) to become frustrated when communicating with Chinese locals. While this is of course a natural part of adapting to a foreign culture, my own experience shows that the Chinese people are often overwhelmingly polite and accommodating when trying to help a foreigner. Yet time and again, it’s also very common for foreigners to lose their temper and lash out verbally. I understand that foreigners can feel lost and confused in a foreign culture. However, being impolite doesn’t help solve problems, and it is also disrespectful to the Chinese, whose country we are visiting.
  4. Don’t object to personal questions: Personal questions are a big taboo for many foreigners, especially those from Western countries. However, there is literally no getting around this in China, as the Chinese are naturally curious about their foreign visitors, and often uneducated about what questions can make non-Chinese feel uncomfortable. Instead of taking such questions personally, I’ve found that it’s more helpful to prepare answers ahead of time, as these conversations can occur so often you often are simply repeating the same answers – just like small talk. For example, when asked for the umpteenth time whether or not I plan to marry a Chinese woman, I now always reply with, “I’ll leave it to Yuanfen (fate) to decide.” After this kind of reply, most Chinese people will give a knowing nod, and not press the subject any further.
  5. Don’t focus on your feelings; focus on getting results: After a long day of confusion and cultural conflicts, it’s very easy to get to the point where anything not from your own culture simply feels wrong. However, it’s best not to get bogged down in questions of right and wrong (culturally), and instead focus on the bigger picture. For example, if you are in China to sign an important contract, your end goal is much more important than the initial discomfort you may feel concerning drinking Baijiu or Chinese communication styles. Likewise, if you are living and working in China long-term, your end goal may be to learn about the Chinese language and culture, make money or simply enjoy life. In all these cases, trying to overcome cultural barriers, while potentially uncomfortable at first, will lead to a much more enjoyable stay, and make it easier for you to achieve your end goal.

Focus on Learning, Understanding and Adapting

Lastly, I’d like to emphasize that I in no way intend to make light of the bad experiences of other foreigners in China. Indeed, I have had my own share of bad experiences. Even the most localized foreigner will almost certainly have the odd off day in a foreign culture – that’s simply how our minds and the world work. However, I DO think is important to remember is that there are ways to compensate for the potential negative mental impact of living for a long time in a foreign environment, some of which I listed above.

While our journeys in or outside China may differ in their courses, I believe we can all benefit from a certain degree of humility and a willingness to compromise. Our goals, after all, are to enjoy life and work to the greatest extent possible, and I believe these goals can be best obtained by trying to learn more about the Chinese people, understand the reasons behind their behavior and adapting, whenever possible, to the nuances of local life.


Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions about adapting to life in China or other countries? What has been your own experience adapting to Chinese culture? Do you have any other suggestions? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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