There are different types of culture shock. There is the initial one, when you first arrive in a foreign place. There is a reverse one, when you return to your home country and lastly, there is the sudden one, that hits you in the face unexpectedly.
The first type I experienced in Rome, only a few months ago on our pre-wedding-travels in Italy. I am not quite sure, what triggered it (anxiety, sleep deprivation, hunger or feeling the warm sun rays on my still from Norway frozen face), but after a good night’s sleep, a lot of delicious carbs and sorting out the last few details for the wedding, it all went away. (Here: the leaning Tower of Pisa, on a tiny scale).
The second type hit me hard, when I first returned to Austria after living in the US for several months. I remember distinctively that everything seemed so small and it felt like the rooms where closing in on me. This one lasted for the entire time I visited Austria, but it got better as time progressed and vanished completely the second I set foot on US ground. (Here: Johann Strauss, an iconic statue in Vienna!)
Now the third one caught me by surprise yesterday morning. I decided to do a day-tour in Shenzhen, Mainland China. Only about an hour away from Hong Kong and as silly as it may sound, the second I stepped across the border, I felt like I was not in Hong Kong anymore. Everything got that much more Chinese. (Here: a small version of a Chinese Temple)
Now, WHAT could that possibly mean? Well, it means that my English did me no good, at all. My limited Mandarin helped me even less, since I could just understand a few words and a few characters (also by now, the only thing I can say is “Do you want to have coffee” – not very helpful when trying to communicate with the border control). It was like, I landed on a different planet and I stood out in every way possible. As you may know by now, I am about average height by European standards but in Mainland China, apparently I am a giant (and so is my butt).
Here you see one of my favorite places, where I did not encounter any cultural shock: London.
But let me start at the beginning, I got to Shenzhen about 9.30 and quickly followed the sea of black haired people to the border, where I stood in line for about 25 minutes, only to find out that I was standing in the wrong line (this I only found out, because the person was wildly gesturing and talking in a raised voice). So I found another line to stand in for another 15 minutes, this person send me back to the border control, where I stood another 20 minutes. All the while having to use the bathroom really bad. Apparently, nobody ever heard about putting bathrooms in BEFORE the border control, but once I was through, I quickly found a bathroom, where I stood in line again – surprise!
It took me only a quick glance at the toilet to know, that THIS was not going to happen. A hole in the ground, no toilet paper, a weird stink and 45 people behind me. It’s surprising how quickly the urge disappears when you’re faced with such conditions.
I had planned on going to the zoo that day and I roughly knew how to get there, so I was super happy finding the right bus and getting on it, without having to wait in line. But you have to pay the conductor on the bus a fee for the ride, depending on where you are going. So I said, “I want to go to the zoo”, she shook her head at me, I then said in a diminishing voice “safari park?”, she started yelling at me in Mandarin (not helpful) and I then tried to imitate a tiger (even less helpful). She then raised to fingers, indicating I had to pay 2 CNY, which I gladly did (happy that she finally understood). And after about three stops she yelled at the busdriver and grabbed my bag and (I assumed) told me to get off at the next stop. In disbelief I did. I say disbelief, because I looked it up on the map and the map said, the ride would at least take 45 minutes and would be at the other end of the city. But not being able to tell her, I reluctantly left the bus, looking at her puzzled but she smiled and pointed towards a group of trees.
I slowly got off the bus, looking at the people in the bus, trying to see if anyone was able to understand me, but everyone looked at me, as if I was supposed to know where I was going. And yes, maybe I was supposed to know that, I mean who travels to a place and not know where they are going? This gal.
I then reached for my phone, trying to pull up a map of the area, but since I was not in Hong Kong, and have no roaming, I lucked out and my phone was not able to connect to anything. So I did the only logical thing and looked for a hotel. By that time, I was about to turn around and just go back home, but then I told myself, that’s not what a real tourist does. A real tourist will find a way to get where they are supposed to go. Also, I am extremely stubborn, traveling all this way, without getting to see at least something, does not seem like something I would ever do.
Once I found a hotel, the receptionist had to call another person that could speak English. Her English though was about as good as my Mandarin, we tried to communicate, but no matter how often I hummed the lost theme song and shrugged my shoulders, she did not understand that I was lost (yeah, you go ahead and try to charade being lost…). But she eventually reached for a map (trying to get rid of me as soon as possible, I assume) and it helped, at least now, I had a map. Not sure where I was or where I was going, but I had a map (also, I have no idea how to read maps…).
I then discovered this other place I was looking for, “Window to the World”. I heard great things about it and I saw, there was a metro stop right there, so I changed my plans and went there instead (not only because I just couldn’t find the safari park on the map). I made my way down to the metro and was met by a security guard that asked everyone to put their belongings through a huge scanning machine, you know the ones you use at an airport. I am not quite sure, what triggered the implementation of this device at a metro station, but I guess that’s normal when met with such overwhelmingly large crowds? After I stood in line to get my metro ticket, I then sat down in the metro, next to two tiny Chinese women, that kept on insisting sitting super close to me and touching my sweaty arm skin with their sweaty arm skin and no matter how much I tried to avoid skin contact by all means, whenever I moved a bit, so would they. I was glad when they finally called my stop (the signs for Window of the World I memorized at home, just for fun…).
Window to the World is a type of amusement park where they portray sights and temples and all kinds of other iconic landmarks from around the world. I arrived there around 12.30, greeted by a magnitude of people beyond believe – and yes, stood in line again for the ticket – and I stayed there until 7. I am 100% sure that I still didn’t see everything that was there to see, I mean the park was huge beyond believe, there were so many sights, and I got lost on numerous occasions, although this time I knew that I would just have to follow the path to make it back from the Jurassic Park to the Americas (and yes, both were real things). I made it around the world in less than 6 hours (Japan, India, Venice, Paris, Manhattan, Kuwait, you name it) and it was amazing.
I got to play Godzilla – a lot – in retrospect, maybe that’s why people stopped their ways and looked at me. There were numerous occasions when people (locals) would ask me for pictures (and I don’t mean me taking their picture but them taking a picture with me), or when they would say something in Mandarin to me, to which I responded (mm sik teng, which first of all you surely don’t write like that and secondly means “I don’t understand” in Cantonese), or when they stared at me in disbelief. And I guess I get it, the entire day, I saw maybe one other Caucasian person, that didn’t speak Mandarin, so we were kind of like a rarity.
But after what seemed like an eternity in the world of windows and wonders, I decided to call it quits and return to my beloved Hong Kong. I was drowned in a sea of people more often than I can count, I was pushed forwards in directions I didn’t want to go, and apparently people don’t mind standing elbow to elbow just randomly, although there would be enough space for everyone’s comfort and personal space. But maybe it was just me and my European ass, that were uncomfortable touching skin while standing next to each other. (As you can see in this picture, there WAS enough space for everyone to feel comfortable, but somehow I always found myself in the middle of a cluster of people with no regard to personal space).
Although I never made it to the safari park, which I am really sad about (but no matter how sad I am about that, I will probably not return to Shenzhen any time soon), I did get to see some animals, not the ones I was hoping for, but who’s judging?
Oh my god, so funny! I’ve been living in Shenzhen for six years (across from the zoo, actually!), and I know Hong Kongers get really freaked out here, but it was really interesting to read your experience. You can actually take the MTR to the Zoo from all the borders (well, pretty close to the zoo anyway). If you want to come back, drop me an email and I’ll be your guide:p
Are you kidding me? I tried to find it on the tourist map that I got but I just couldn’t match the MTR lines with the actual map. Up until yesterday I thought Hong Kong was confusing, but compared to Shenzhen Hong Kong is a paradise of signs and translations. And YES, I will definitely look you up before my next trip, which will have to wait a bit until I can recover from yesterday 😉
FWIW, there’s plenty of expats who have been living here 10+ years who wouldn’t DREAM of getting on a bus to the zoo, so I admire your bravery! Please do!