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September 22, 2011

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Homesick in Shanghai

WITH all the praise heaped on Shanghai, it's easy to forget that new arrivals can feel homesick, and wish they were elsewhere. Judith Tietel reports on Shang-highs and Shang-lows.

When Anna stepped off the plane on her first day in Shanghai two months ago, she felt a huge wave of euphoria. She took a taxi to her Chinese host family.

The 25-year-old German student from Rostock was impressed with the modern landscape outside the window, she felt the warm wind on her face and felt very happy. But it didn't take long, around three weeks, until the exhilaration gave way to other feelings.

Soon the Chinese language student, who asked that her surname not be used, realized that everything was very, and uncomfortably, different from her home country - the food, the culture, the language and the climate.

The weather was too hot and humid, she was always perspiring; she was always pushed and shoved in crowds, especially in the Metro; people were often late for appointments; and she missed her "normal" wholemeal breads and cheeses.

"I expected it to be different but nonetheless it wasn't easy all the time. For example the taxi-drivers never understood me, in most restaurants there was no chance to get a fork and a knife instead of chopsticks and my host family thought that coming home at 10pm is already late."

In the evenings there were painful feelings, a bit of anxiety, a bit of loneliness, feeling down in the dumps and missing the good old place called home.

Anna is not alone, many expats in Shanghai feel homesick, some for a short while, some have occasional pangs, some never get used to the city.

American psychologist Christine Forte, who has been working in Shanghai for two years, says there is indeed a phenomenon called homesickness.

"It's part of the concept of culture shock," says Forte, who works at the Shanghai International Mental Health Association (SIMHA), which was started in 2009. It's an interdisciplinary group of 40 therapists serving different nationalities.

Culture shock is generally defined as a state of bewilderment and distress when suddenly exposed to a new, strange or foreign social and cultural environment. There's uncertainty and anxiety and all the familiar social signposts and cues are missing. For some people, it's traumatic.

Forte says people who move to a foreign country pass through as many as four phases: the honeymoon phase, the negotiation phase, the adjustment phase and finally, if they get that far, the mastery phase.

"In the beginning, everything is new, exciting and interesting. We call that honeymoon phase. But after a while people start realizing there are parts of their new reality that they really don't like. "

Everything is different from what they are used to and that's the way it will be every day. They start to realize that they won't go home soon.

"In that negotiation phase, it's common for people to get homesick," says Forte. "They become angry very easily, get frustrated and start complaining. Normal things start to stress them out." Some people call it the "crisis phase."

Many people tend to idealize home.

After a while, people start accepting, adjusting and learning how to deal with the new culture. To get to the mastery phase takes a long time and that includes getting to know the language and culture.

"A lot of expats in Shanghai never reach the mastery phase," she says.

Richard, a 31-year-old American from Philadelphia, has been in Shanghai for seven months, working for a trading company.

"In the beginning, I was out every evening. I went to all the clubs and had a lot of fun," he says, asking that his surname not be used. "But then I realized I needed to come back to a normal life again and that is really hard in Shanghai. You need hours to find the right shops for the things you need, you need hours to find the right way. And everywhere it's always busy, crowded, noisy. Sometimes I really miss home."

Even if people manage to make it to the third adjustment phase, it's normal to feel occasionally homesickness. Forte sees many problems, especially in some expats who stay for a longer time.

"The biggest areas are relationship problems, anxiety, anger and depression," she says. "Shanghai seems to bring a lot of tumult into relationships. Especially women, who followed their partner to China, have to deal with homesickness."

If the feeling of homesickness becomes too strong, some people might slide into isolation and depression. SIMHA is one place where they can find help.

"It (adjustment and dealing with culture shock) depends on who you are in the beginning," says Barbara J. Shaya, president of the association. "Some people come out of it very easily, but some people start to isolate themselves, they don't make friends or go out. They start texting home, e-mailing home, Skype-ing home."

She calls the possibilities great but says they can be dangerous. "If it's your only way to spend your days, it takes away the space to create a new life. And Shang-high becomes Shangh-low for you."

The advice is pretty standard. Find satisfying and engaging activities and build friendships and relationships. Human connections are essential. Be prepared for bad days.

Learning Chinese is one of the best ways to adjust. When people know how to talk to taxi drivers, bargain in shops and talk to people in the street, they feel much more comfortable.

"I don't want to go back to Germany anymore," says Paul, age 39, from Breman, who has been in the city for more than six years and is enjoying himself a lot.

"I only felt homesick a few times," he says, also asking that his surname not be published. "I think it's because I met a wonderful woman in my first weeks here and from then on all I felt was love." They have been married for two years.

His advice to ward of homesickness: stay engaged, make new friends, share with others, establish a personal routine and remember that time flies, so enjoy the experience and make the best of it.


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