I was detached from the reality of a long-term move to China until I stepped on the plane to Beijing. I had booked a one-way flight, and I broke more than a little sweat knowing that I probably wouldn’t be flying back to the US for another year.
In the Detroit airport, I jokingly tweeted a picture of myself eating some Chick-fil-A and labeled the tweet “The Last Supper.” It really was the last Chick-fil-A I’ll have for awhile. By the time my plane entered China territory, I realized that no Chick-fil-A is no laughing matter.
When I arrived at the Beijing airport, the culture shock finally hit me. By shock, I mean I was hit by a prime-era Mike Tyson blow to the nether region. Customs were different, the language was different, the population was massive, and I wouldn’t be crawling back to America any time soon.
My sweat glands went into overdrive, and I hadn’t even arrived in Changchun. My flight to Changchun came after a long struggle to buy some food using the Chinese Yuan currency. The reality that this would not be a vacation had set in; indeed, this would be an uphill struggle with setbacks and failures aplenty. Don’t get me wrong: I told myself repeatedly before traveling that the experience would be a struggle… but sometimes, you don’t know something to be true, know it in your core, until you’ve seen it and felt it.
The company I work for assured me that they would pick me up at the airport and drive me to my apartment. What if they weren’t there? What if they weren’t even a real company? What if there was some sort of new legislation enacted that sent me right back to the US with a few thousand dollars less? During my flight to Beijing, my neighboring passenger, an American enrolling in Mandarin classes at a Beijing university, told me numerous horror stories of teachers being scammed, or having their paperwork filled too lazily and thus having Visas denied. Ultimately, he said, many of them had to leave China embittered and feeling betrayed.
This was not a good time to drink coffee, so I wisely refrained.
I arrived in Changchun at 11 pm. I had been traveling for 28 hours, and my final flight was delayed another two hours. I had slept about two hours for the entire trip thus far. Note to self: fly first class next time. The sleep is worth the money.
My primary contact, Chloe, was waiting at the baggage claim for me with a wide smile and a warm greeting. This was more of a relief that I could have ever imagined.
We drove about thirty minutes through a city of 7 million, through clusters of tall buildings, endless seas of city lights, foreign billboards, and massive stalwart Chinese banks. I was short of breath. I would soon be navigating this city?
I arrived at the apartment and gave the place a thorough look before unpacking. I noted that it has a kitchen, a washer and drier, a bed, a window, and a heater. It also has Wi-Fi. Check.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. I didn’t sleep that night, which meant that I had now slept a little shy of 3 hours in the past 3 days. I felt what every expat told me I would experience, but refused to believe: an innate “fight or flight” response that tells you that you need to pick up your things, tell your boss that you can’t do it, and fly right back to America. Escape, a voice in the back of your head tells you, will save you.
Panicked, I texted a friend of mine from back home. “I can’t do this,” I wrote.
“Take deep breaths,” he said. “Let the panic settle. Force yourself not to do anything rash for one week. Just keep forcing yourself to breathe deeply until the dust settles.”
“Deep breaths”, I told myself, over and over again through the sleepless night. Yet the urge to flee was overwhelming. It was a fear I’d never experienced, not in swimming or in work. I didn’t feel it at the world championships, at the NCAA championships, or at the Olympic Trials… and here I was, at age 32, feeling it in China. So I just… kept… breathing deeply.
Chloe picked me up the next morning at 9 am to show me to the office and meet the other workers at my recruiting agency. Walking through the China streets and taking the bus, my heart was still beating as though I was on the starting blocks next to Michael Phelps and he was reminding me that I was about to have my esophagus metaphorically ripped out of my throat.
I said some hellos at the office, shook some hands, and kept breathing deeply.
As I did, something “magical” happened. The panic abated. My mind was slowly processing that I would not be severely hurt here.
That night I gained the courage to use what little Mandarin I knew to order some food at a nearby restaurant. I struggled, but eventually got the dish I asked for.
I sweat when I’m nervous; I think most people do. When in a non-English speaking country, everything you do, even the things we take for granted in America, makes you nervous. As I ate, I was sweating bullets. It didn’t help that I ordered a spicy noodle dish. It must have looked funny because locals struggled to contain their laughter as I struggled to use my chopsticks. The restaurant manager took out a giant fan and blew it at me out of sympathy. I needed it.
Deep breaths. Through it all, I kept breathing deeply, and by day 3 my fear plummeted. I was feeling like myself again. I knew the school I would be teaching at. I found a local movie theater and a local grocery store. I washed my clothes. I ate some Chinese ice cream. I met a few expat friends.
The country was becoming more familiar. I was realizing that I could actually do this, despite some significant challenges ahead.
I’ve been told that culture shock hits every expat differently. For some it lingers for weeks. For me, it was ten seconds in the ring with Mike Tyson, in which I suffered that single massive blow. The blow left some crippling bruises, but within three days the healing was well underway. I always had a quick recovery.
The buses became familiar. Then the subway became familiar. Then the food became familiar. Then I met my students, and I realized that I kinda like them.
I’m here, and I’m smiling. I did something few have done, and I’m living in a place that few Americans have seen.
Sometimes in life, you need that Tyson punch to wake your ass up. It’s a reminder that you’re alive.
As the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius said: “Why worry about death if you don’t know how to live?”