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This is a personal narrative describing how I gained a newfound understanding of the forms that culture shock can take, based on my experiences in China

The first time I came to China was during my junior year. The ostensible purpose of this semester in China was to increase my knowledge of Chinese history, language and culture, although study abroad is rarely really about study. In order to prepare the departing students for their experience abroad, my college had us sit through a lecture on experiences abroad - what to do, what not to do and especially how to deal with cultural differences.

This lecture I believe was a long-standing tradition that the foreign study office considered highly beneficial, but it was given a sense of urgency by the recent experiences of another visitor to China. The story was not mentioned in its specifics, although I was later to hear the full narrative from that student himself during the seminar dinner that ended the semester in our course on modern Chinese history(to make a long story short, he was chased by the hei shi hui or Chinese mafia, jumped on a garbage truck and hid in an alley in the famous Beijing hutongs). This incident is presumably what caused the pre-departure speech to focus on safety: both emphasizing that "New York is more dangerous than most foreign cities" and the need to be culturally sensitive and to refrain from doing anything stupid.

Before leaving Beijing to return to the US, we were subject to a similar, if differently focused, discussion of reverse culture shock. After watching a short documentary on the experience of re-acclimatizing to our home culture, we had a brief talk about the ways in which America can seem very strange after spending even a single semester abroad. We were told that people at home would not understand our stories about China, and that we should be prepared to give the short version, to summarize our experiences in a sentence or two and to gauge by the response they elicited whether or not to continue. Of the two seminars on culture shock, this latter would prove the more important. While there had been days in Beijing when I felt overwhelmed by the impossibility of reading Chinese characters or the like, it was far more traumatic to return home where I expected people to understand me but increasingly found that they didn't.

Upon returning to China, to the rail-hub, sprawl of a city that is Zhengzhou, I watched with interest as other foreigners experienced the culture shock of entering China. It has been interesting to me to observe the different forms that culture shock takes. Of course foreign language is the ever-present barrier that makes it difficult to live in a foreign country. Some other common difficulties center around the food and the pit toilets or "squatters" that are the seemingly endless subject of certain foreigners' complaints. None of these differences bother me; not even the relative lack of my beloved cheese upsets me very deeply. I thought myself relatively immune to culture shock this time around.

It was at this point that I began to realize that culture shock does not always manifest as the sort of confusion and helplessness that I remember feeling briefly during my first trip to Beijing. For many travelers who stay in a foreign country for more than a few weeks, culture shock seems to continue primarily in the form of pet peeves. The bathrooms are no longer endlessly confusing, they are just annoying. Foreigners get fed up with the Chinese habit of spitting (which, though now illegal in some cities like Beijing in the wake of SARS, is still quite common both indoors and out), with the total lack of lines or queues, with the pervasive litter and air pollution and especially noise pollution. I recently noticed myself becoming infuriated in the Dennis store (a department store) because no one on the escalators was walking, everyone was just standing. I found this particularly maddening given that elsewhere in the store, people walked up and down non-moving escalators in addition to the adjacent stairs (somehow I was reminded of the late Mitch Hedberg's joke about how an escalator can't really break, it can only become stairs). It was then that I noticed there were no signs indicating that shoppers should walk left, stand right as there are in America. Clearly this was a case of cultural difference. In retrospect, the Chinese pedestrians were somewhat annoyed at my hurried attempt to weave in between them while climbing or descending the moving staircase.

So it appears that in many cases what manifest as pet peeves are really just cultural differences. When these differences are not properly understood, they seem irrational and sometimes even intentionally infuriating. Further examples abound: the fellow English teacher who cannot stand the fact that the Chinese wear their coats indoors. Closer examination reveals this to be a rational response to inadequate or non-functional radiators and minimal thermal insulation, which is in turn a result of the Chinese drive for quantity and speed, as opposed to quality, in industrialization and construction as part of their rapidly modernizing economy. Because this confusion goes both ways, I am unsurprised to note that my students often worry about my health when I take off my jacket indoors.

As a final point, it is worth noting the transition from the extraordinary to the mundane. An individual's first trip abroad is an enlightening and frightening experience that is liminal and therefore almost religious. Consequent trips to the same country become increasingly mundane. Live in any place long enough and it becomes something like home. When you are on a wanderjahr or a pilgrimage, mundane difficulties can appear insurmountable and reduce you to tears, but if you are at home, they are just annoyances. And if home is, temporarily or permanently, somewhere foreign, then pet peeves are often the continuance of culture shock.

Note: This, my first attempt at a node, has now been spell-Czech-ed. Forgetting to do that was such a stupid rookie mistake which I'm certain is a pet peeve of many of the locals here. Thanks for all the comments; again, I'd like to welcome any and all comments on this or future works.

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