Culture Shock

Rachel Palfini

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Many people told me I would experience culture shock when I came to Shanghai, but I did not take any of their comments seriously. Last summer, I lived on the Thailand/Burma border doing volunteer work with Burmese migrant workers and we lived in really basic conditions: bucket showers, squat toilets, and bamboo mats as mattresses. However, my “initial curiosity and enthusiasm” never turned into “irritation, frustration, anger, and depression” (Whitman Off-Campus Studies Pre-departure Handbook). I loved living in our small border town and as such, assumed I had not experienced culture shock.

That being said, I now have a more holistic understanding of the phrase and do realize that I did experience culture shock in Thailand and am certainly experiencing it in Shanghai, just not any of the negative side affects. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a very easy going traveler because I know I can’t control everything, which causes me to look on strange situations over here with amusement instead of frustration. I’ve told a couple people these stories, and they have laughed, so hopefully that humor will also come across in a blog post.

Culture Shock Stories:

1)   The concept of “personal space” does not exist in Shanghai. Last Thursday morning I had just gotten off the subway and was heading towards ECNU. To get out of the subway station, you have to ride a really long escalator, but there usually aren’t that many people on the one for the fifth exit. Thursday was no exception. There were four people on the escalator when I was riding it: me, two women, and a man. The two women were about six stairs in front of me, chatting, standing on separate stairs. And then there was the man, who happened to be standing right next to me. On the same stair. Even though there was no one behind us and only those two women, six stairs in front of us. I don’t even know how he ended up standing next to me because we didn’t get on at the same time! When I noticed that he was standing next to me, I looked over to see if he’d make eye contact and move, but he didn’t look my way. Just kept staring straight ahead the whole time. I wasn’t about to move because 1) I thought it would be awkward and 2) I didn’t really care if he wanted to stand on the same escalator stair as me. It did give me a good laugh as I was walking to campus though because we had just talked about the lack of personal space in my culture class the day before.

2)   Anything can drive anywhere at any time. In the two weeks that I’ve been here, I’ve seen motorbikes zoom by on the sidewalks, narrowly missing pedestrians, I’ve seen bicycles compete with huge buses for control of a traffic lane, and I’ve been on buses that have intentionally driven on the wrong side of the road to bypass traffic. Last Wednesday though, I passed a car driving on the sidewalk. It wasn’t a particularly wide sidewalk––street vendors had their carts set up and there were loads of pedestrians. And then there was the car, just driving along. As I walked past this car going, oh, half a mile an hour, I really wanted to ask the driver what his game plan was when he decided to go on the sidewalk. The language barrier and my desire not to get run over by the slowest moving car, kept me walking though.

3) All windows must be open. All. The. Time. It’s deceptively cold in Shanghai right now. Nothing like the winter storms in the US about a month ago but it’s consistently in the 40s. Despite this, all windows in all buildings and all houses are open all the time. This really surprised me my first couple days here because it’s so cold and windy outside, and it’s not much better inside because the windows are always open. Everyone loves to bring the “fresh air” into houses and buildings. My host mom explained it to me my first day by saying we needed to get the “bad air” from the night out and bring in “new, clean air.” The idea of keeping rooms from getting stuffy makes sense to me except 1) the air is really smoggy here so it isn’t as if you are really getting “clean” air and 2) it’s 40 degrees outside! Which means the house is 40 degrees when you leave the windows and doors open! I’ve tried to compensate by only leaving my window open a little bit, but more than once I have come home and it’s been shoved open farther to get in more “clean air.” Oh well, layers upon layers it is (I’m wearing three now).

This is a photo of the Bund--very famous in Shanghai. As you can see, smog is a real issue here.

This is a photo of the Bund–very famous area in Shanghai. As you can see, smog is a real issue here.

Those are my culture shock stories. As you can tell, I haven’t experienced anything drastic, but the way of life is definitely different here in Shanghai than Southern California or Walla Walla. I am still really enjoying living in a city and adore my host family. Talking to them is the highlight of every day. Right now, I would say I understand about 60% of what they say. I am definitely improving my listening comprehension and almost always get the general idea of what we’re talking about. Oh also, warm milk for breakfast and fruit after dinner is actually amazing. I recommend everyone try it. I know warm milk isn’t really a thing in the US, but trust me, after a few days, you’ll be hooked. It also helps if it’s whole milk–pretty sure that’s what I’m given for breakfast everyday.

再见!

-The Cold Sparrow

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