Culture Shock: Reverting to Life Outside of China

What happens when you move away from Dongguan and return to the place you thought was your home? Does reverse culture shock hold an unexpected challenge?

Most of you would probably agree that moving to Dongguan was somewhat of a challenge. Maybe you came here from a place far away and utterly different. Maybe you were not quite prepared for what you encountered, or you had the wrong expectations.

Whatever the reason, it is not unusual to experience culture shock upon arriving in a strange and exotic place like our new home. Most foreigners who move to Dongguan eventually go back to their hometown or leave to other locations. What happens then? Is it easy to adjust?

What happens when you move away from Dongguan and return to the place you thought was your home? Does reverse culture shock hold an unexpected challenge?

What better way to find out than asking those who have already done it. I had the great pleasure of talking with some ex/part time Dongguaners who have all recently experienced a big move:

Ashley Thayne, 38 years old, moved back to the U.S. in September 2019 after spending two years in Taiwan and a year in Dongguan.

Ashley Thayne

Doh “David” Huh, 21 years old, moved back to South Korea last year in order to attend university after living in Dongguan for four years.

Doh “David” Huh

Nathalie Ferreira Schnorr, 18 years old, lived in Dongguan most of her life but is Brazilian of German descent. She recently moved to the Netherlands to start university.

Nathalie Ferreira Schnorr

Gayatri Reddy, 50 years old, lived in Dongguan for four years. Originally from India, but Italy is also her home and moved back to Italy in 2019.

Gayatri Reddy

Pao Li, 30 years old, lived in Dongguan for six years and still lives here. She was born in Shenyang, and spent her formative years in Beijing.

Pao Li

Thanks to their astute observations and insightful comments, I feel more prepared to face the challenges of reverse culture shock awaiting me.

The Big Picture

When considering the grand scheme of one’s return home, life should be easier. There is no language barrier, and there are familiar sights, but sometimes life is too easy.

“It was quite appealing at first, but then I realized that I miss the challenge. I liked the constant feeling of accomplishment when I found something I needed, found a new place to eat or figured out how to navigate around in Dongguan,” Thayne said.

After being abroad for so long in a community with people from all over the world, returning home appears a bit more monotonous.

“Living in Dongguan opened me up to so many opportunities to meet foreigners,” Huh said. “This has not only honed my skills in English but also given me a sense of cultural tolerance. Koreans are often not used to foreign cultures.”

Health and Safety

Both Thayne and Reddy describe at length how living in China has made them appreciate the clean air and natural beauty of their home surroundings even more. Reddy said now she does not need to install an air-quality app, because the air is always good.

Li experienced quite the opposite; for her, living in Dongguan felt like a breath of fresh air.

“Everyone back in Beijing is jealous of me,” she said.

As for Schnorr, who spent most of her life in Dongguan, moving to Europe entailed a different kind of shock.

“The air here is just far too clean. It feels like my lungs are on fire at times because I was so used to breathing the polluted air in China,” she surprisingly said.

One of the first questions Thayne got upon telling someone in the U.S. that she used to live in China was, “Is it safe?”

“I would say, ‘I wouldn’t live there alone if it wasn’t’,” she said with confidence.

Reddy was surprised that she felt much safer walking at night in Dongguan than she did in her small Italian town. She never felt scared or threatened in China, even when traveling with her young son. Now she must think twice before visiting public areas such as parks, in case there is someone there who might mean her harm.

Swapping Stories

I was curious if people back home are interested in hearing about experiences in Dongguan. Reddy said not many people are.

“It’s a different world that they can’t quite relate to. Sometimes I don’t even bother mentioning that I’ve lived in China,” she said.

“The only people I have conversations with about my time abroad are people who have either traveled a lot or have lived abroad themselves,” Thayne added.

Even Li admitted that she does not always have the patience to explain to her Beijing friends how wrong their assumptions about life in Dongguan are.

However, an academic environment seems to make it easier. According to Schnorr, as soon as she dropped the “Hey, I’ve lived in China my entire life” bomb, her teacher said she will be fun to talk to. Huh agreed, adding that saying he lived in China was a good conversation starter at university.

No Longer “Famous”

Being an exotic foreigner in Dongguan has its perks.

“I’m not a blond and blue-eyed laowai, so I never experienced any ‘celebrity status’. But my son did. He would sometimes get irritated with all the Chinese who wanted to take a picture with him. As a joke, he asked them for 10 RMB per picture. And one time he actually got the money,” Reddy joked.

Schnorr does not think she lost her celebrity status at all.
“You rarely meet people, here in Europe, who have lived abroad for such a long time and have managed to full-on immerse themselves in a completely different culture,” she said.

As for Thayne, it is not about the “celebrity status” at all. It is about something else.

“What I miss most is the ability to be in a world that wasn’t mine. I didn’t understand the language so I could just be an observer. Watch how people interact, carry on about their day… And I didn’t care what they thought about me or what I was doing. I liked being anonymous,” she said.

Money Matters

Whether back in the U.S., Korea or Europe, daily life seems to be much more expensive than in our Dongguan bubble. A wistful Reddy confesses she was able to afford help in Dongguan.

“My ayi did most of the cleaning, which meant more time for myself—such a luxury,” she admitted.

My young friend Huh seemed to have different priorities.
“I know one thing for sure: Coca-Cola is much cheaper in China than in Korea,” he said.

Having experienced life as an expat made my interviewees somewhat more minimalistic.

“Maybe because I am not a shopper, but it seems like Americans shop for sport. They are constantly buying stuff they don’t really need,” Thayne said.

She said as an expat she had to consider everything she bought because she knew at some point she would leave and have to give away the items or ship them home. It helped her realize where she wanted to spend her money and chose experiences over material items.

Life Without Wechat

Reddy said China is more ahead in the world when it comes to technology. She is now back to using cash and debit cards instead of WeChat.

“I miss WeChat Pay (Wallet) so much,” Schnorr admitted. “It had everything you needed in only one app. Here in the Netherlands, you have your bank account, your T-Mobile app, your DigiD app and your iDeal app. It’s a struggle just paying at the local supermarket.”

However, this was not true for Huh.

“I generally stopped using WeChat. But being finally able to use Facebook and Instagram, I think I use social media in general much more,” he said.

Crazy Traffic

“Chinese drivers are a bit more aggressive than their Korean counterparts,” Huh said.

He sometimes sees the Chinese driving style in congested parts of Seoul. According to Schnorr, the roads in the Netherlands are beautiful and there is plenty of space, yet Dutch drivers are quite slow.

“After all these years I just got used to the crazy driving and to traffic laws being only ‘suggestions’ on how to drive. I was never a nervous passenger though, despite a few crazy DiDi rides,” Thayne said.

Reddy misses the cheap and convenient city and cross-country public transportation. “I’m particularly in awe of the fast train network that made it possible for me to visit the whole country,” she said.

Your Daily Rice

When arriving in Dongguan, most go through a food adjustment period. You crave the foods from home that are nowhere to be found, but eventually find your favorite Chinese foods. When you return home after an extended period, you go through the experience again.

“It took me a month for my stomach to adjust to American food again,” Thayne said, and added Chinese food where she is from is nothing like the real thing.

Schnorr agreed saying that she is, now, always on the hunt for authentic Chinese food.

“I end up cooking a bit of Chinese for myself. My flat-mates hate it because the entire flat reeks of garlic and soy sauce,” she said.
Huh also craves ‘proper’ Chinese food, like malatang or Lanzhou lamian. Even Li cannot find authentic Cantonese food in Beijing.

“The abundant and reasonably priced street food of Dongguan, in particular, is something you miss in the North. And there’s no decent durian to be found anywhere in Beijing,” she said.

Now, durian might not be a priority for many of us, but Dongguan is abundant in fresh produce all year.

“In Italy I’m back to mainly using products that are in season,” Reddy said.

Social Animals

Dongguan has always offered a vibrant social life and a tight expat community. According to our interviewees, it is also more relaxed.

“I’ve become much more social in Dongguan,” Li said.
Her friends in Beijing have become workaholics, and she can see the stress on their faces.

“We’d arrange to meet for dinner at 6:30 pm, and I’d be at the restaurant alone waiting for them until 8 pm at least,” she said.
Thayne gave a similar observation, saying it is difficult to make friends for her in the U.S. because everyone is “too busy to hangout,” and there are no places to socialize like in China.

“In China I found like-minded women from all parts of the world,” Reddy said.

This was something that appealed to a former boarding-school girl like herself. Being thrown into the same situation made it easier to meet someone, build a unique bond and become long lasting friends.

“I miss the local expats so much as we all bonded over the collective effervescence of sharing the same experiences, even though we were from different places,” Schnorr said.

Rules of Engagement

A big part of returning home is the social interactions that you go through. It is not only what is said but the mannerisms that accompany the words.

“People here in the South are nicer to each other, their manners are gentler, and they even speak softer,” Li said. “Back in Shenyang, I was shocked when a taxi driver started shouting at me and calling me names just because I was stupid enough to take a taxi for such a short distance. Not used to this kind of talk, I got really scared and didn’t dare to talk back.”

Thayne imported part of the friendly Cantonese culture to the U.S.

“I still smile and talk to strangers all the time and sometimes they are caught off guard,” she said.

For Schnorr there is a conundrum she still has not solved.

“Most people here are quite reserved and cold. It’s an ‘every man for himself’ type of mentality. Yet whenever I act this way, I get called out for being selfish and rude, even though I’m mimicking exactly what they’re doing,” she said.

Phones are a popular part of social interactions in China, but does this apply back home?

Americans are not much different from the Chinese when it come to their phones according to Thayne.

“Everyone is absorbed in them, and social media is just a normal part of life,” she said.

However, Reddy said she feels a bit silly taking a selfie or a picture of her food in Italy.

Things are slightly different in Korea.

“Selfies are a must, even here, and I have never seen a fellow college student that refuses to take selfies,” Huh said.

Biggest Shock

“The hardest part is feeling like I don’t relate to people in the U.S. anymore. I have seen things that have deeply affected me and yet no matter how I try and explain this to someone, until they have seen it and experienced it themselves, they will never understand.”

“My biggest reverse culture shock was probably when I saw my Korean acquaintances in university act and speak vehemently against China and Chinese people. I get that political situations are troublesome sometimes, but I don’t find that to be a good reason to be angry against Chinese people in general.”

“I’ve never encountered a culture shock as massive as the one that I am experiencing now. I’ll get used to it eventually, though, it’s not as bad as one thinks.”

“One has to live in China to experience its many layers and faces, hidden from visitors that just come and go. The smells, the yelling and spitting are quite unique and can’t be described. Some memories bring on a smile, while others make you squirm… In the end, once you leave China, you learn to move on, but those memories will always remain.”

“My biggest shock is facing the taxi drivers when I go back to the northeast. All the drivers in Guangdong are very friendly and quiet, but every time I go back to the Northeast, I am afraid to take a taxi. The drivers get angry if the distance is too short, there is a traffic jam, have to wait or just because I want to pay by cash.”