In it for the Long Haul: 4 Tips for Cultural Immersion

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Expats working in China can immerse themselves in the local culture through local food
Enjoying this scene from a safe distance

“Watch out!” My friend yelled as she pulled me towards her. A frail skinny old man carried a huge gas canister over to our grill. Sparks flew every which way as he ignited the coals. He left the way he came, without speaking a word.

My friend and I began to dress our meats and vegetables. There was a choice of honey, vegetable oil or barbeque sauce. There were only a few paintbrushes, and the marinades were starting to get mixed, as no one seemed to care about keeping the same paintbrush to one cup. No one quite knew what he or she was doing, but none of the Chinese wanted to “lose face” and admit their ignorance. Losing face plays a huge part in Chinese culture, so much so that it can affect the way a communal barbecue is run.

But despite the initial setbacks of charred food and cross-contamination, the Chinese-style barbeque was quite fun and delicious. My best friend in Fuzhou, who is Chinese, had convinced me to come with her. The idea was to get a mix of locals and foreigners together and enjoy some local food, which is exactly what we did.

My friend Jamie and I often spend our free time together gossiping, shopping, getting our nails done or just hanging out. We don’t go out to clubs much; neither of us is that interested in partying — just spending quality time together. This was a rare occasion where we chose to attend a large group event together, but I’m glad she persuaded me to go. While the barbeque was quite different from a traditional American one with burgers and hot dogs, the food was quite enjoyable. There was an array of fish, meat and vegetables on skewers ready to be marinated and rotated over the grill.

Chinese-style barbeque is an exciting and enjoyable food experience for ESL teacher Brycie Gold

One of the most difficult things about sticking with an ESL job for longer than a year is that the turnover is quite high. Most of the people who were here when I first arrived have left and have either gone home or elsewhere. I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends and met some very interesting people, but it’s hard to constantly make an effort with the never-ending influx of newbies replacing the oldies. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy meeting new people; I do, but investing in a serious friendship becomes harder the longer I stay here. I want to spend the majority of my time with people whose company I enjoy, and those I don’t have to worry will be leaving shortly.

My Chinese friend is someone I know I can get really close to because we sync really nicely and as an added bonus I don’t need to worry about her disappearing. When you’re so far away from home, it’s nice to have the comfort that you won’t feel constantly deserted. Sure you can keep in touch when someone leaves, but it’s not the same. When you want to call that person to hang out, they’re not there anymore and the phone number you have becomes obsolete.

New teachers often ask me how I’ve managed to live here in Fuzhou for so long. There are many things here that are different and I’ll admit, at times, are very frustrating. I do get frustrated, but my life here is not so drastically different from my life back home. I enjoy my job and the work environment. I have a lovely modern apartment. My school has over 60 foreign staff members, so we have a nice ex-pat community, which is especially nice when you’re feeling homesick.

However, I don’t think I would have survived here without my local friends and my cultural exchanges. I fill up most of my free time with private students and I’ve formed quite close attachments with them. Sure they pay me for my time, but I also go over the paid time and hang out with them, too. It’s easy to feel lonely here, so I compensate by keeping busy and forming close friendships with people here for the long haul. It makes life more enjoyable because I can create a life and social network for myself here. I’m lucky that I have my husband and his family here, as well. They make the adjustment to living in an entirely foreign culture much easier on me, but everyone needs friends and hobbies to enrich their lives.

One of the best ways to learn more about a culture is by spending time with the locals. If you plan on staying put for a while, I suggest forming friendships with as many local friends as possible. That’s not to say that I don’t love my friendships with other American expats. Sometimes you need someone that understands exactly how you’re feeling because they come from the same culture as you.

However, through my friendships with Chinese locals, I have learned a lot more about myself. These friendships have taught me about universal emotions and beliefs that transcend cultures and also have made me reflect on our similarities as well as our differences. Sometimes I’ve learned that my original ways of thinking weren’t necessarily the best. It’s nice to constantly push yourself to be more self-reflective. It’s something that is bound to happen while living in another country.

Local friends also aid you in discovering all the wonderful things their culture has to offer. They know their hometown inside and out and can show you things beyond what any travel guidebook can offer.

Expats all over the world are known for sticking to their own language groups and not immersing themselves in another culture. Why is that? There are a lot of reasons that people choose to stick with fellow expats instead of forming close bonds with locals. Most of it is about wanting to surround oneself with comfort and familiarity in an unknown place. This is perfectly understandable, but I still recommend the following options to enrich your life and open new windows into the new culture you’re living in.

1. Set up a language exchange

Not only is this a great way to learn the local language and help you navigate your new home, it’s also a great way to spend time with a local and share each others’ cultures.

2. Spend time with your teaching assistants

At my school, we hire local teaching assistants who speak both Chinese and English. They act as translators in the classrooms, and therefore we spend a lot of time together. Instead of playing nice just at work, invite a few over for a movie or a potluck. Take the time to form close friendships with the locals working in your school.

Local Chinese celebrations are a great way to get to know local culture and people for expats living in China
Say “yes” to any and all invites to local celebrations. It’s a great way to get to know people and the culture.

3. Find some private students

If it’s allowed in your country and by your school, I suggest advertising your services to teach private students. Not only will you earn a little extra cash, but you’ll also get to know first-hand about your students’ family lives. The families of my private students cook food for me, have taken me on outings and invited me on weekend adventures to places I never would have heard of or been to otherwise.

4. Date a local

If you arrive single, one of the best ways to learn the language and immerse yourself in the culture is date someone from it. Again, this is not for everyone, and it’s not the only way to immerse yourself, but it is an option that really does give you an in-depth cultural experience.

But most importantly, keep an open mind and grab opportunities to meet and talk to locals wherever you go. When you’re tired at the end of a long work day, it can be tempting to take the easy route and only form social circles with other English speakers. But your experience abroad will be so much more enriched if learn another language, meet locals who show you around and make an effort to bridge the gap between your understanding of the world and the world in which you’re living now. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

What tips do you have for getting the most out of your experience abroad?

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