The culture shock when moving to Shanghai.

In December of 2018, I moved from the United States to China, on the other side of the world. Not only that, but I upgraded from a city that has around 200,000 people to one with 24 million. Adjusting to Shanghai and its culture was difficult for me. I’d never relied on the metro before and moreover, I barely knew any Chinese. I also needed to find an apartment within two weeks of arriving.

However, during this hectic time, I felt blissfully happy and excited. There was so much to do! So much to see! Every day I could accomplish a number of satisfying, little tasks. Eventually, though, I ran out of busy work and had to acclimate to my new environment. This left me wondering, what is culture shock and how do I overcome it?

Culture shock is the confusion, anxiety, and discomfort experienced when a person moves from their home to a different culture. 

The four phases of culture shock.

The “honeymoon”.

To break it down, culture shock has four phases: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance (learning). As you can probably guess, the “honeymoon” happens right away and varies in duration.


That brings us to “frustration.” This is the worst phase. While you might know that it will pass, that doesn’t stop you from being annoyed by every little thing in your new environment: the language, the food, the manners. Forgetting your wallet in the taxi might trigger a real breakdown. Every day I encountered new stressors, and my brain was struggling to adapt, which led me to research. A study about stress and culture shock found that dogs dealing with unpredictable environments, reacted in two ways:

one is to break-down into withdrawal (introvert) while the other becomes highly aggressive (extrovert).

I found this to be a useful study because once I identified which behavior I tended towards, it was easy to counteract it. During my TEFL training in 2017, my class had received some practical advice on the subject. My teacher had described how one of her friends abroad, who was a great cook at home, had taken culinary classes so that she could feel more comfortable at the market. She advised that we find a way to connect with new people. As an introvert, this all helped me realize that finding access to my hobbies from home was important in making me feel more comfortable in my new city.

My extended advice to anyone who has just moved abroad is to pick something you’re interested in, and to talk to everyone about it. Chances are that you’ll find others doing exactly what you like to do, or close to it. Meeting new friends was instrumental in getting to the next phase of culture shock. I feel lucky that I was located in a vast urban city, as it only took a couple weeks to find a community separate from the one I had at work.

For anyone struggling to adjust in China specifically, here are some phone applications to ease your transition:

WeChat: Essential for communication. DiDi: Chinese equivalent of Uber. MetroMan: How to find the best route via the metro. Sherpas: The English-friendly food delivery service. Google Translate: Translate spoken conversations and text.


The next two stages after frustration are “adjustment” and “acceptance”.

“Adjustment” means that you’re asking questions, and that you’re more open to experiencing the culture for what it is. This is where you gain the language, geographical, and other miscellaneous skills that you need to survive. It can take some time to complete this phase. Personally, I think it never truly ends.

For example, I enjoyed talking to my Chinese coworkers about their customs and superstitions. It’s all a part of the experience! Not only did I get to know them personally, but they helped me travel, and made sure I wasn’t so rude as to stick chopsticks in my rice.


Lastly, “acceptance” happens when you come to view your host country as a second home. There’s no judgement as to what’s right or wrong, just acknowledgement that it’s a different way of living. It took me a long time to get to this phase, but it feels great to finally appreciate another country for its unique gifts and experiences. So stay curious, stay open, and enjoy your journey through culture shock one day at a time.



Learning, Participate. “The 4 Stages of Culture Shock.” Medium. Global Perspectives, 11 Mar. 2019. Web.

Dutton, Edward. (2011). ‘Towards a Scientific Model of Culture Shock and Intercultural Communication.’ Journal of Intercultural Communication, 27.


Author: Catherine Tremblay

Catherine Tremblay (or Cat to her students) is an American who is enthusiastic about travel. Her degree is in film and writing from Grand Valley State University, and her favorite hobbies are cooking, painting, and playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends. This past year, Cat has lived in China as an English teacher and part-time app designer.

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