As can be expected when travelling to the other side of the world, many things will be different. From eating and drinking, to socialising and relationships, expect a lot of cultural differences!
In the West, if you make much noise when eating it may be considered rude and bad manners. However, in Vietnam the more noise the better! When eating a particularly delicious bowl of noodles, locals can be heard slurping.
Whilst your birthday may be considered the most important celebration in the West, in Vietnam it is peoples death day when celebrations take place. During this time they will worship ancestors, prepare a big meal and get all the family and relatives together.
In the West we have no particular routine of introduction, aside from maybe a formal handshake or an embrace with a close friend. In Vietnam however, shaking hands is less common, especially with the opposite sex. When introducing yourself, it is important to greet the elders first before then the younger individuals.
As I’m sure you are aware knives and forks become a rare sight once you enter the Eastern world. You can expect to eat all your meals with a spoon and chopsticks! This may take some getting used to at the start but after a few meals no doubt you will be a pro!
In Vietnam, you will rarely see husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend showing affection in public. This is considered inappropriate and should be kept to private areas. Very different to the West where you can see a whole variety of PDA!
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Let’s paint the picture. You arrived in China, it was all a bit overwhelming at first, but once you’d had chance to settle in, you had the time of your life! Two, three months on, it’s time to pack your bags and head back home, but you’re not ready, and you suddenly hit a low back in your home country.
Sometimes, heading back to your home country after several months overseas can be just as difficult, or possibly more difficult than initially moving away from home. After the initial excitement of seeing your friends and family, eating all your home comforts, and going in your favourite shops, it can wear off and you can find yourself pining after China, feeling quite lonely and bored and not feeling like you are ‘home’ as such. You may not expect to experience reverse culture shock, you might not have even heard of it, so when it hits it could be very unexpected. Like all things you will find a way through it, but it’s good to know what to expect and how possibly to deal with it.
“When In China…”
You will no doubt come back from China wanting to tell every man and their dog about your amazing experiences on the other side of the world; you will probably find yourself saying “In China, it’s like this” or “When I was in China…..…..happened”. People might listen to begin with, but you may never be able to fully get your point across, or even start to feel like no one wants to listen. I’ve always found it difficult to get across to friends and family what China really is like; that it’s not like how the media portrays it, and that it is one of the most beautiful and welcoming places I’ve been.
Record your memories: There will be people out there eager to hear about your adventures. Perhaps start up a blog, write articles about what you saw, ate, heard, did. Try make mini projects for yourself related to your trip. Choose your favourite pictures to put up in your room, put together a scrapbook of your trip try or just try jot down your memories in one way or another, rather than keeping them in your head to slowly fade away.
Keeping it local: Another possibility is to try find some Chinese friends back home; they’d love to hear about your time exploring their country. Go to your local Chinese restaurant, try find some of the new dishes you tried whilst you were away, practice your newly acquired Chinese with the staff; they will probably be super impressed! Keep in touch with your new-found friends on the other side of the world, and try keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the city, news wise or if there are any new developments.
Pass on your knowledge: Perhaps join a city-related forum so that you can give advice and help to other foreigners who might be heading to that part of the world. I always love sharing advice about places I’ve been with other people; giving them tips on places go, recommending restaurants that are a good hit, or even telling them about what are local hidden secrets that you probably wouldn’t know about if it wasn’t for word-of-mouth.
Just like culture shock; reverse culture shock also falls in a U-Shape. You start high at the excitement of returning home, hit a low when you experience the ‘home sickness’ of your past home, and then you push through to the other side and create many positives out of reverse culture shock. I’ve spent so much time in Asia in the past five or six years, Asia has definitely become my home from home – I experienced reverse culture shock hard for the first time this year, but by finding ways to treasure my memories and use my knowledge to help out others, the experience has moved from a ‘low point’ to very much a ‘high point’.
One of the biggest challenges you may face when travelling overseas aside from a language barrier is culture shock. It may be your first time out of Europe, first time away from American shores or first time encountering an oriental culture, and to begin with, being so far out of your comfort zone, it may come as a bit of a shock.
Growing up your parents may have always said “Don’t stare, it’s rude!”. In China, be prepared for people staring at you, pointing out the lǎowài (老外) and following this up with a two-minute conversation about you (yep they probably won’t hide the fact they are talking about you).
This could be the first time a lot of these people have seen a foreigner, and they will be intrigued as to why you’ve come half way across the world to China. Daily you will get told how tall you are (hào gāo 好高) or how pretty or handsome you are (hěn piàoliang 很漂亮 / hǎo shuài 好帅). Don’t be surprised if they pluck up the courage to ask for a picture with you either.
TIPS: try not to feel self-conscious by the staring; embrace it, remember that you are a foreigner in a country that was once quite closed off from the West. Soon the staring that initially seems quite odd will become a daily normality.
Chinese food in China is not 100% like your Chinese takeaway back home. Whilst you can get your sweet and sour pork and black pepper beef, these aren’t daily dishes here. Don’t be surprised to see every part of the animal on the table (including head and chicken feet). Chinese cuisine, from all different parts of the country, really is delicious, and I find, tastes a lot better than it looks. There is a reason why everyone comes to China and puts weight on!
TIPS: If you don’t like spicy food, have an allergy, or are a vegetarian, make this the first Chinese phrase you learn! Being a vegetarian or halal eater is quite easy if you know what to say (or have it written down). If you try something that you like, try get a name for it or a picture, then this can always be a ‘go to dish’. Finally try not be afraid to give everything a go, if there are a lot of Chinese punters at a restaurant, then you know it’ll be a good’un.
PERSONAL SPACE & QUEUEING:
Personal space is a lot smaller and somewhat inexistent in China. On the bus, people may barge past you without an “excuse me”, be packed in so tightly that you feel quite uncomfortable (there always seems to be space for an extra person!) or they may not move out of the way to let you on or off.
TIPS: Hold your own, be assertive and stand by the back door the bus (always more spacious!). Queueing has improved dramatically over the years and you will see locals standing up to those people trying to push in!
China isn’t the fastest country when it comes to internet speed. What’s more, a lot the websites that me and you are used to using on a daily basis (Facebook, Google, Instagram) are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall so you need a VPN to access them. Sometimes the internet can be a bit hit and miss and it may take twice as a long as normal to download something.
TIPS: Download and install a reliable VPN BEFORE you arrive in China (once you’re in China, you’ll need a VPN to download a VPN!). Patience is a virtue when using the internet!
These are just a few pointers of what to expect in the initial days after landing in China for the first time; initially it can be a bit overwhelming and you can feel a bit like a cat in headlights. But within days you will have found your feet, met some fantastic people and started to make the most of the incredible country and culture that you’ve just landed in! Before long you will no doubt be saying you don’t want to go home!