China First Hand

5 February 2006


Filed under: Personal — china1sthand @ 11:09 pm

You can’t remember what you forget

One of my biggest fears is forgetting. My Mum used to say that if it is important, you will remember. That’s a nice comforter and I still try to convince myself of it: I still hope that those ideas I considered important will all reappear. Unfortunately, I think that without sufficient associations with an idea, it won’t be remembered. My brain often buzzes with thought. At these times, forgetting new thoughts is probably inevitable.

I have felt a bit… lost… this week. I guess this is because travelling provides so much food for thought, that for much of the early period you are in a daze. Ironically, new things are often the most interesting observations – but it is these that overwhelm me so I forget! There must be things I would have shared but are now lost. What were these? I don’t know. But maybe – if it really was important enough – this information will again reappear…

I’ve adapted now. I can read the people. I am confident I can communicate where necessary. Perhaps more importantly, I realise how little language we need. I have learnt a lot in this first week: from books, my surroundings and informative TV. I have used the underground and even ascertained how the local internet café works. I doubt I’ll remember any details. All I know is it took several days to get there. I believe the official term is: Culture Shock.

My Chinese friend comes back today – and it’s her birthday! I give her a card with words I don’t understand, and she must choose the restaurant I take her to, as well as get us there and do all translation! I wanted to do more, but these are the unfortunate restrictions us imbeciles have. It was a good choice of restaurant though. Mmmm…



  1. I realise how little language we need.

    For small values of “need”, I suspect. I feel lost in a country where I don’t speak the language. One eventually gets used to not understanding, and just lets it all wash over – this is what I suspect you describe here. You accept that you can’t describe anything more than simple, and how slow communication is, and how imprecise.

    The thing I enjoy about the other languages that I speak is when after being immersed in them for a week or two, you start to understand without concentrating, and that’s nice.

    Comment by Max Hammond — 24 August 2006 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  2. Culture shock is different from language familiarity. At this stage I probably knew about a dozen words – so communicating anything was a real achievement! Wow, even by the end of the trip I would have been happy to describe something, however simply I did it.
    This is a good link defining culture shock: I used to describe it like you are landing on mars: things are different in ways you can’t imagine now. Your knowledge of the world is completely thrown out the window because what you think a person is, and how you think the world is, isn’t actually the case. As I said, it’s hard to go into much detail. I hope that I can cover some of it in the other articles. This description (from puts it wonderfully:

    “Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs are the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases… These cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which are unconsciously learned.
    When an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed. He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good will he may be, a series of props have been knocked from under him. This is followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety.”
    I don’t agree that it is small values of need. You can get practically everything you need without saying a word. It takes a lot more planning, but when you have no choice, it can be done.

    Comment by china1sthand — 24 August 2006 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

  3. I used to describe it like you are landing on mars: things are different in ways you can’t imagine now.

    And I maintain that culture shock is a lot more severe when the language is changed. I don’t feel culture shock when I go to a distant and different part of the UK, but I do (or did) when I went to parts of Germany (which are really more like home than parts of Wales are).

    The experience of cultural relocation is typically:
    * a short period (weeks) of being overwhelmed
    * a longer period (a month or two) of being very enthusiastic – everything is new and interesting
    * a period of frustration – as you quoted above. 6-9 mo depending on the person
    * acceptance. Cultures are different, it takes time to genuinely come to terms with it. I simply don’t believe that this is possible without at least moderate language skills.

    I don’t agree that it is small values of need. You can get practically everything you need without saying a word. It takes a lot more planning, but when you have no choice, it can be done.

    I need: friendship, interesting discussions, awareness of what’s going on in my local, regional, and global environment. Those are big needs. Small needs – food, transport, accommodation – are ironically easier because they’re simpler, and because when there’s an exchange of money, the vendor makes an effort.

    Comment by Max Hammond — 24 August 2006 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  4. Mis-quoting the information I have given just to argue with me isn’t a productive use of time.

    Comment by china1sthand — 24 August 2006 @ 10:47 pm | Reply

  5. How did I misquote you? I’m interested in your perspective, but it differs from my own somewhat. My argument is that “needs” are a lot more than food, water, shelter.

    Comment by Max Hammond — 25 August 2006 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  6. You’re throwing around various arguments:
    1. Obviously language influences culture shock. They are still very different things.
    2. I used to think many things were important. When you’re in a sink-or-swim situation where all energy goes on the basics, you realise how little we actually need. Have you been without your needs? Did you die? (These are rhetorical questions so please don’t answer them.)
    3. The quote I gave was for culture shock. It exactly describes what I was going through and felt I had overcome. Ergo I had culture shock, and had passed through it. Fini. Over.
    Now lets go do something else with our time…

    Comment by china1sthand — 25 August 2006 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  7. […] When I was later settled in my trip, any reminder of the world I came from would completely make my day. Throughout my entire time in China I never found such a close reference to home as this one from my first full day in China. As you see from the poem below, this coincidence came at just the right time to help me overcome my transition into Chinese life. […]

    Pingback by Trying To Adapt « China First Hand — 15 September 2006 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  8. I’ve just been glancing through these comments because I’m actually re-launching this blog ( I don’t think I previously gave you a very good reply. I remember that time was short then because I had only an evening to write and publish a detailed article, and plan ahead to the next topic(s).
    Looking again at your comments, you seemed to be saying that language is an important factor in experiencing and overcoming culture shock. Is that a fair summary? I think I perfectly agree with you there, in that when we are surrounded by a language we understand, the environment would probably be familiar enough to not cause the shock response. (There could well be exceptions to this – I guess it depends on how much familiarity the individual prefers.) Where I think we disagree is that I don’t think the reverse is necessarily true: having no shared language does not lead to shock. It is quite an extreme response to feel shock. I have visited various places where I have not been able to communicate verbally (within Malaysia; Brazil; France) and I felt unfamiliarity and uncertainty – but not a culture shock.
    I hope you’re well btw. Always enjoy these discussions with you – as long as I’m not worrying about time! I hope you’re happy and enjoying life 🙂

    Comment by china1sthand — 5 May 2008 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: