Last year, my wife and I moved from Melbourne to Nanjing. Since then, I’ve been working on a novel about, among other things, culture shock. While the basic plot and themes were decided before I really began to experience any culture shock for myself — mostly before we even moved — it has certainly informed my writing and made my protagonist more sympathetic. But since George Franklin is not really anything like me (apart from being passionately opinionated), I’d like to talk a bit about how it has affected me.
The most major issue, of course, was the language barrier. I had studied Chinese for a year or two in primary school, and remembered maybe two words. We had six months’ notice of the move, and were able to take some classes in that time, but I’m still not nearly fluent. I can direct a taxi or buy food, but I can’t hold a conversation. This understandably makes it difficult to make friends — Nanjing is a small city (by Chinese standards, at least), and doesn’t have anything like the Anglophone population, local or expat, that somewhere like Shanghai does. In fact, some of the mild anxiety and depression I’ve had over the last year are likely due more to cabin fever than to actual culture shock, as I can’t spend all my time at the handful of cafés frequented by foreign students and the like; and even when I do go out, meeting new people has never been something I’m much good at. I have a part-time job tutoring English, but it hasn’t been much good in that regard either.
But I’m relatively fortunate. Other than that, what culture shock I’ve had has been relatively mild. Unlike my fictional character, I love many of the things they have here that we don’t have at home: the ubiquitous electric motor-scooters, efficient metros, grand infrastructure projects and (thanks to my wife’s employer) free healthcare.
There are a lot of things I find myself missing, and the list only grows. But above all, I have the opportunity to write here which I would not have had to anything like a similar extent back home; and for that, I am extremely grateful.