Mainland Moments: Culture Shock
Australian expat Karen Tye, reflects of her last five years in China.
It sounds unbelievable when I say it out loud but in August, I celebrated my fifth anniversary of living in China.
For someone who never envisioned working and living outside of the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, five years (plus who knows how many more) is certainly a fair stint.
While things have changed and a lot more Australian women are heading to China because of a career move, back then, the majority of expat women, including myself, held spouse’s visas. To cut a long story short, I would have never left Australia if not to support my husband.
Looking back, I can definitively say that my adjustment phase – the first two years – were the toughest. God bless my husband’s soul for patiently acting as my translator, listening to my countless mainland moment stories and putting up with my desperate tears and tantrums over moving back home. Yes, even me, an Aussie of Chinese descent experienced culture shock in China, so I can imagine that other Aussies in China would at times feel even more isolated, exasperated and flummoxed.
But over the years, I have come to realise that my initial unsettledness in China was quite unwarranted. China and Australia in fact are quite similar in certain aspects. Nah, I hear you say, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Well, in celebration of my five years in China, here are five similarities I think the two countries share.
Food, Glorious Food
Aussies love to cook it, the Chinese love to eat it. Both cultures are just obsessed with food.
In Australia, everyone seems to be glued to their TV sets when the latest season of Masterchef airs and newspapers, magazines and supermarket catalogues are filled with recipes penned by home-grown celebrity chefs like Curtis Stone.
On the other hand, Chinese people (though you can’t tell by their slight figures) have an insatiable appetite for all kinds of food – snacks, local delicacies, festive foods, you name it, they want it. After coming back from a trip within China, our Chinese friends and colleagues will always ask my husband and I whether we tried a particular food that town or city is renowned for, no matter how obscure-sounding that food may seem. Moreover, it’s always an unspoken rule at Chinese workplaces that one must return from a trip bearing some local snacks to share with colleagues.
One of the toughest things about leaving home is definitely our close-knit friends and family. But foreigners in China are very open to helping each other out and there are many new friends to be made within the expat community.
However, I once stumbled across this situation. An expat asked me how long I was intending to stay in Shanghai. If it was less than two years, then she was quite blatant in stating that she was not open to keeping in touch with me because she was sick of going to the effort of making new friends to only have them leave shortly after.
While the expat crowd in China tends to be quite transient due to the standard two-year contract and my husband and I have had to find a new batch of friends every year in China due to mass expat exoduses, we know we have made some lifetime friendships in China too. We have recently expanded our network of friends to local Chinese as we figured we wouldn’t have the problem of witnessing them move away!
Shop Til You Drop
Aussies and Chinese people both love a great deal and are bargain hunters at heart. All you have to do is to try hitting the shops on Boxing Day in Australia, and watch a local person haggle over something in China.
Aside from the ton of bags, watches and DVDs you’ll be offered on every street corner in Shanghai, China is also a country of great deals and steals, from clothing to artwork to porcelain.
More recently, shoppers in both countries have gone online for better deals. In Australia, books and the demise of Borders comes to mind, while in China, Taobao.com, where you can buy anything from computers to nappies, is all the rage.
Melbourne vs. Sydney, Beijing vs. Shanghai
City rivalry is alive and kicking in both countries. No explanation is required for the rift between Sydneysiders and Melburnians though in China, the competition is just as heated as to which city is more cultured, has better cuisine, more breathtaking sights and who has… the prettiest girls.
This just goes to show that each of these cities has plenty to offer and you’ll never find yourself twiddling your thumbs when living in any of them!
While the population sizes are vastly different, China and Australia are geographically very similarly in size, which means there is plenty of exploring to be done. When travelling within both countries, the breathtaking backdrops often change from deserts to vast green plains, from cosmopolitan cities, to quaint country areas.
In hindsight, I should have enjoyed my first two years in China more than I did but I was too caught up in the language barrier and on the differences between home and China. If I had focused more on the similarities of the two countries, well, then I suppose my husband would have less grey hairs today! ■