When we moved to London my greatest worry was the question “Is this how it’s done here?” That thought lay beneath the surface of all my interactions and behaviors. Small things like greeting someone, or giving a tip, carried the weight of my fear that I was getting it wrong. Of course my fear wasn’t without cause, each culture does have its own unspoken protocols that generally we take for granted. In the states we greet with a handshake, or maybe a hug. In the London a greeting often included a kiss on the cheek.
I got by alright in the U.K, social behaviors for example were slightly different but not dramatically different. Here in Shanghai though, that worry has become less specific and more of a general sentiment that everything is different. Something like giving a high five, in the U.S. (and elsewhere) is just understood to mean what it means. (I don’t even know how to describe what it means because it’s just so natural.) Is a high-five even a thing in China?
This means that it has become the default for me to assume that things are done in ways I don’t understand, rather than that most things are the same with some exceptions. It’s no longer an articulate thought, it’s a pervasive feeling. At the school orientation on Monday, which is an American school with a cafeteria, I found myself wondering if I was getting my lunch the “right” way. Do I get a tray, and put the food on the tray and pay at the end of the line just like I would do at a cafeteria in the U.S?
This disorienting feeling of doubt has crept into the smallest of tasks. I was clipping my fingernails the other day and feeling like even THAT was different. My brain tried to conjure up a physiological explanation for why my fingernails would be different in China.
It finally occurred to me that, to state the obvious, this is culture shock. It has become my new normal and I’m trying to just lean in and have a sense of humor about it. The other day I did some Google searching about culture shock (maybe I should have read the books KPMG gave us, but now they are packed away in our shipment which is still hostage in NYC). I’m sure it’ll be a topic that resurfaces for me on this blog, but I did find these helpful, and very validating, info-graphics on this website.