My first month in China was not a honeymoon. It was a month of confusion, nerves, and stress – the good kind and the bad – peppered with lots of fun. (Like the mouth-numbing peppercorns in nearly every dish here – surprising, not entirely comfortable, but intriguing.) The amount of work that went into that first month made it one of the most rewarding times in my memory.
According to everyone who has ever warned me about culture shock, after the first month of living in a new place everything goes downhill for a while. The newness stops being a good thing; life becomes tedious minus the comforts of home. But for me, at least in China, the second-month blues had almost nothing to do with missing home and everything to do with life getting easier – and therefore a little boring.
Nothing compares to the triumph of going from lost, illiterate, and helpless, to essentially settled into life.
I can now run my university classroom, even without the luxury of a curriculum. I can go grocery shopping, order take-out from the Muslim noodle place by my apartment, or buy a multitude of foods on the street with reasonable certainty that I know what I’ll be getting. I take buses and cabs to a dozen different places around the city to meet friends or go to capoeira class (I’ve started training in a Brazilian martial art!). In short, I get through every day almost as if I knew what I was doing in this country.
That’s a lot of growing up in one month and it makes it hard for the smaller victories of month two to compare. After getting really used to life being difficult and confusing every day, it’s not so entertaining when nothing is a struggle.
Call me a masochist, but easy just isn’t much fun.
Combine that with the predictable burn-out phase of the semester schedule, which most of my international-student friends seem to be experiencing, and it makes sense why the end of month two is not the most exciting time on the culture shock curve. This week, I taught my sophomore students the term:
“You know, when you’re sick of school, and you’re tired and bored, and you kind of hate everything, and you just want it all to stop so you can take a nap, but IT NEVER DOES … it’s called being burnt out.”
Eyes widened. Heads nodded. Smiles appeared on sleepy faces. Some things transcend cultures.
Then I taught them about Halloween clichés (sexy mouse costumes à la Mean Girls; the level of drunkenness achieved at Halloween parties), and the U.S. political system (happy belated Election Day!) and the culture gap widened again.
As my students and anyone who’s ever tried to learn a language can attest, some days go better than others.
Adjusting to China is similar. It is a long process of fighting my way out of the fog, with victories along the way that I’m sometimes reluctant to admit celebrating for how miniscule they are. But if I didn’t appreciate those moments, I wouldn’t be able to keep up the fight.
For instance, when a cabbie drops me off on a different block than I’m expecting and I still know where to go, or every time I handle an interaction, however brief, in Mandarin, I get so excited and proud of myself I want to high-five strangers. Maybe I won’t want to stick around here anymore when it feels easier. Maybe I shouldn’t.
Long-term travel isn’t worth the hassle if you don’t enjoy the struggles and appreciate the small victories. When it comes to keeping the boredom away, I’m happy to have both.