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Sometimes I forget I'm not in China anymore
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09:38, September 23, 2009

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Right now I am going through the strange process of reverse culture shock. This occurs when you've been away from home for so long that on returning you find it difficult to adjust to your own culture.

After living and working in China for about three years I moved back to the US several weeks ago.

China had become my home. I had learned enough Chinese to converse (within limits) and to get around. I had a job I enjoyed. I had a beautiful apartment and lots of friends. Slowly but steadily, I had become increasingly at home in China. So much so that when I returned home, things that had been normal struck me as strange. It was as if I had moved to another country instead of back home.

An example of reverse culture shock occurred just today when I went to the library. As I approached the building I was several steps behind the fellow ahead of me, but after he opened the door, he stopped, looked back, saw me and waited, holding the door open.

This came as an abrupt shock. In Beijing, more and more people hold the door open for you nowadays, but they do not look back and stand there and wait for you. In the US, the politeness is far more formalized and taken far more seriously.

And this annoyed me. "Oh stop, you don't need to stand there waiting for me," I wanted to shout. Instead, I hurried my pace and thanked him for holding the door.

(Global Times Photo)

That is truly reverse culture shock – when you return to something that had always been there and that you'd never particularly noticed (like extreme courtesy), and now it suddenly becomes very noticeable, to the point of irritating you. How long will it take for me to get used to people waiting for me so they can let go of the door?

Another example is noise. In Peter Hessler's book River Town, about his life as a teacher in a Sichuan city, he describes his father noticing, on a visit to see him, that Chinese drivers keep honking their horns.

It was true in the provinces, it was true in Beijing and it's probably true in most other Chinese cities – the roads generate a lot of noise, and at any given moment on any busy street you're likely to hear a cacophony of honking horns. This is quite different from the US, where most drivers (except in New York) use the horn sparingly.

In China, you will rarely ride for more than a few minutes before you hear drivers slamming on their horns. If the driver in front doesn't instantly bolt ahead when the light changes from red to green, you hear a chorus of horns.

Often drivers will honk simply to tell other drivers they're on the road. Today, I went for a 30-minute ride, mainly on the Arizona highway, and I never once heard a horn although the roads were busy. In Beijing, this would be unthinkable.

The difference in the pace of life in general is probably my biggest source of reverse culture shock. American life is not slow, but it is not as hectic as in China. When you have as many people as there are in Beijing, sometimes it is simply not possible to be as polite as you should be to each one of them. Now that I'm in the US, I need to be sure I don't rush into an elevator before everyone's off.

And so day by day I'm getting re-accustomed to the pace of American life while slowly getting used to those things I took for granted in China not being with me anymore. However, I still miss life in China, even the hurrying and the noise. It may not be the US, but there is no place as dynamic and as irrepressible.

I may get used to the US completely again in another few months, but I'll still carry China in my heart and look forward with tremendous excitement to my return.

Sure, I may have to go through culture shock when I arrive and reverse culture shock when I return. But it is more than worth it.

The author is a writer now based in the US. His blog is pekingduck.org

Source: Global Times

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