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Lao wai Blues

September 29, 2009

I have officially been living in China for a little over a month now, and the entire experience has been a roller-coaster of emotions. This is not my first time traveling to a foreign country, nor my first solo trip, however this is the first time I’ve lived in a foreign country on a semi-permanent basis (one-year assignment).
Before I left for Shanghai, I read an excellent article on Matador Network about the phases of culture-shock and how to combat them. Having lived in Paris solo last summer for four weeks, I wasn’t too concerned about home-sickness or any kind of cultural freak-out. And, while there hasn’t been a lowest of the low point yet during my time here, living in China is definitely proving to be more challenging emotionally than I had anticipated.
1. Say Goodbye to Anonymity
As I walk through the crowded streets of my Shanghai neighborhood, I am the only one with light hair and blue eyes. Plus, my extremely pale complexition starkly contrasts with the tan skin of those around me. Stares are coming from all sides at a mile a minute, some friendly and some not so much, but the common vein is that I can forget the idea of becoming invisible or losing myself in a crowd.
2. Why Can’t I Understand You?
I think one of the biggest contributors to culture shock is the lack of a shared language. Being in China, this is the first time I’ve been somewhere that I don’t have a very strong foundation in the local language. Though I have little difficulty getting by with my one year of college-level Mandarin, it is not enough to truly connect with people beyond the superficial or make Chinese-speaking friends. This causes one to never feel integrated into the culture, much less accepted.
3. I Miss American Things
Wow! I can’t believe I’m admitting to this, but it’s true! As much as I miss my family, friends, and TexMex, what I seem to miss the most are random American ways of thought or cultural values. Being from Texas, I think this is acutely felt. Hearing songs like “Country Road” have the effect of almost bringing me to tears. Here I have huge cravings to simply watch old re-runs, listen to country music, and eat a buttermilk biscuit. I guess I think this will bring me closer to the American values I am missing here.
4. Why Do You Call Me That?
In America there is a racial slur for most every ethnic group. These have evolved over time and are seen as politically incorrect and generally unacceptable. China is a little different. Though they have ethnic minorities that all fall into the category of Chinese, they do not have the overwhelming immigrant population that largely makes up the United States. Therefore, anytime they see someone who doesn’t look like them, they immediately know it is not an immigrant but a wai guo ren (literally outside the country person). The closest equivalent in English is foreigner. I am constantly called a wai guo ren in China. In fact, many people shout it as I walk past to alert others. It is not a derogatory or mean-spirited term, but simply indicates that I am not Chinese. However, the Chinese have another word they use to refer to foreigners: lao wai (literally old outside). Calling someone a lao wai might be similar to calling an American person a gringo/a in Mexico. However the term also carries the connotation that the person is stupid and generally inferior. Many may argue with me on this. In fact, the Chinese say that there is nothing negative meant by it, but it is just a cute or teasing term. Regardless, I despise this word. Since my arrival in China I’ve only been called lao wai twice (to my face), both times on the street. Once was by an older man and the other by a small child with his grandparents. The first time I started to cry and wanted to turn around and yell obstinacies at the man, and the second time my feelings were severely hurt, but I really just wanted to hide.
They talk about four stages of culture shock in the Matador article: wonder, frustration, depression, and acceptance. I think I battle with and totter between frustration and depression every day. However, there are many times when I travel outside of Shanghai or see something new that I am filled with absolute wonder. I believe I will likely continue to struggle against some form of culture shock throughout my trip. In fact, it’s only natural. However, I am hoping I will soon learn to accept my position here and be at peace with the four things that so far make it much more difficult to live here than I had initially thought.

See link to Matador’s: The Four Stages of Culture Shock (And How to Beat Them).


19 Comments leave one →
  1. pariskarin permalink
    September 29, 2009 4:25 am

    Hi Ashley! πŸ™‚ I stumbled upon your blog through a Bonjour Paris post ( where the author linked to this page: where I found your post here: There. LOL. That’s how I got here!! I live in Paris now and have been for 15 months, but back in 1990-1991 I was an English teacher in China. Fresh out of college, I was thinking about ESL as a career and so I went to teach in China to see if I liked the whole thing or not. I was minoring in Asian Studies at college, majoring in English and did not know what to do with my life. Nineteen years later, I STILL don’t know, hahaha. Anyways, I have to say that I have had a lot of these same experiences and feelings the past 15 months in Paris, just as I had them when I was in China all those years ago. Culture stress is not easy. It cycles. What I discovered way back then and what I have had to re-learn living in Paris (and I am not working right now while here, which also makes things hard. Long story there, but some of it I address in my own blog is that facing these external pressures through cultural differences makes a person really have to dig deep inside to find out who he or she really is at the depths. It is frustrating, and wonderful, confusing and angering at times to cope with cross-cultural living, but at the end of it all, you will know more about who YOU are.

    I’m looking over at your tags and see that the Parc Buttes Chaumont is listed there. I am living just off of rue Armand Carrell, which leads up to the park in the 19th. I’m going to check out your posts about that, and maybe just get myself outside today and to the “Buttremont” on this beautiful fall Parisian day! I will also try to remember that “wherever you go, there you are.” LOL. Be well. Hang in there. A few weeks into teaching in China, you’re feeling exactly what I did way back when. In my sitch, the stress peaked by the end of October, so expect there may be some rougher patches still. It gets better in November, but then the holidays cramp things up a bit again. By February-March, after Chinese New Year, you should feel yourself hitting a good stride, April and May are the sh*t (! in a good way, lol) and then suddenly at the end of July, your year of teaching is over and you are in the process of deciding whether to go back for another year or not…

    I’m going to add you to my Google Reader list, so I can check back in! Also, I am a 19 year ESL veteran teacher and while I am not teaching now, I have taught both in China & in an ESL Kindergarten in the States, I know JUST what you are dealing with with those kiddos, lol. Hang tough, if you need some advice or support, lemme know via my blog!

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink
      September 29, 2009 6:45 pm


      Thanks so much for all of your lovely comments! How funny to meet someone with so many similar adventure stories! So glad that we found each other! I love Linda over at Parisien Salon; that is such a fabulous site.

      Please enjoy the City of Lights for me. Lucky you living so close to the Parc Buttes Chaumont! For some reason being in China has caused me to miss Paris even more! Shanghai has a district known as the French Concession, very expensive and chic area, which always makes me long for my exquisite afternoons strolling through the Paris parks.

      What part of China were you working in as an ESL teacher? Please do keep in touch. I will check out your site and hopefully we can live vicariously through the other’s adventures! πŸ™‚

      • pariskarin permalink
        October 4, 2009 4:49 am

        Hi Ashley!

        We just had La Nuit Blanche last night here in the city and the Buttes Chaumont was one of the main sites for it! It was fun to see the park late at night. I hope to post photos later…

        Re: Shanghai — Yes, I know, the older, formerly-French parts of Shanghai are really reminiscent of Paris. For me, I visited there in 1990-91, before I ever saw Paris, so for me it was “Gee, Paris reminds me a lot of Shanghai,” lol.

        I was in Nanchang, Jiangxi at Jiangxi Normal University’s Foreign Languages Training Center teaching for their Intensive English Program August 1990-July 1991. I got married to a Chinese guy in October 1991, and we divorced in 1999. He immigrated to the US in 1992 and became a naturalized citizen in 1995. I have not been back to China since 1991, but actually, my ex is there right now! He’s got an apt. somewhere in Shanghai… One day I would really like to go back. My 13-year-old son has a chance to go to the Olympics in 2008 with his dad, and he also got to do the whole see-the-family-village-origins and see-the-family-burial-plots thing in Jiangxi. I saw his photos of Nanchang and could not believe how very much it had changed.

        Have a great rest-of-the-weekend (oh it’s already almost over for you as I type this, heh!) and continued luck as you deal with culture stress, etc. I’ll be back! πŸ™‚

  2. pariskarin permalink
    September 29, 2009 4:28 am

    When I typed in my blog link, the closing parenthesis got “attached” to the link & it’s going to a “post not found” page. Here’s the “clean” link:

  3. September 29, 2009 8:42 am

    Sounds like it has been tough. Don’t worry, things will get better. You will see that soon it will all just roll off your shoulders when they yell out at you and eventually you will hardly notice people staring at you.
    Good luck with everything and thinking of you with a big hug!

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink
      September 29, 2009 6:47 pm

      Thanks so much for the kind comment you guys! I really appreciate knowing people are thinking about me while I’m on this wild ride!

  4. September 29, 2009 11:39 am

    The first few months will be hard, but before you know it you’ll ease right into a new way of living … and then it will be time to pack up and head home. The hard part then will be adjusting to returning to the United States. Keep smiling!

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink
      September 29, 2009 6:49 pm

      Thanks for the comment JoAnna. I’ve heard it gets easier as time passes, which is good. I think I just wasn’t prepared for how intensely I would be feeling these emotions. During my time in France, I suffered virtually zero homesickness and thought China would be similar. Good to hear from someone who has done this! Hopefully the reverse culture shock won’t be too painful! Thanks for the encouragement!

      • pariskarin permalink
        October 4, 2009 5:04 am

        This sentence made me chuckle a little, knowingly: “I think I just wasn’t prepared for how intensely I would be feeling these emotions. During my time in France, I suffered virtually zero homesickness and thought China would be similar.”

        First, I have to say I felt the same way about Paris and France. The first few months of the almost 16 I have been here, I suffered debilitating anxiety about going out and about. I kept thinking to myself, “”HOLY COW, you lived in CHINA for Pete’s sake, and Paris is freaking you out??? Get a grip!” LOL. So, have experienced this in Paris, too. What freaks me out even still about being a foreigner in Paris is just what you address here: in China it was *obvious* I was a foreigner and did not speak much Chinese. So, it was kind of expected that I was different from the get-go. In Paris, because I don’t dress super-obviously American most times (when I actually do go out, lol), and I blend in more than I did in China. People here will start talking to me in French and I freak out because I don’t know how to answer back. This is getting better and better as I pick up a little more French (I studied Spanish in high school and a little Japanese in college, lol. I never in a million years thought I would wind up someplace like France…), but I still get freaked out by this. Plus, Parisians have this *wonderful* [sarcasm] way of making you feel like an absolute retard if you don’t speak French!

        Also, though, the China Experience in just plain HARD. It is a *very* different place culturally from either Paris or the States. China has a way of challenging even the most seasoned world-traveler. It would be unusual if you did *not* feel this sense of culture stress there, yanno?

  5. Karen permalink
    October 2, 2009 4:03 pm

    Ashley, you know in your heart that this is the experience you were wanting and dreaming of. What you will learn in China will forever change your life. I certainly know how difficult culture shock can be. I’m glad you have the intellectual skills to know that there are phases, and the emotional depth to weep and hurt. It’s not often in the average run of the mill life (and I’ll speak for myself) we are given the opportunity to face up against a challenge or to even declare an ardent feeling. While the living is hard, it is living to its supreme sense.

    I remember on one random Thanksgiving in Thailand I wanted to find something…anything…that resembled an American Thanksgiving dinner. I ended up eating an Apple Pie at McDonalds. Ha! Wanting the American things around you is completely normal…while you’re enjoying them don’t forget to share them with you landlady, your noodle vendor, your principal. They’ll enjoy it, too.

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink
      October 23, 2009 10:39 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Karen! It is nice to be able to share all of my ups and downs with you guys, and I love all of the support! The growing pains are what is making this such a pivotal experience in my life. So, while it’s hard, I think it’s just what I need. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. πŸ˜‰

  6. October 23, 2009 9:42 am

    I love your blog and your style of writing and look forward to following your experiences in China. Your blog was suggested to me by Paola Santos on the Travel blog exchange as I mentioned I was moving to China in February.

    We spent a couple of months traveling across China two years ago, so I have a better idea what to experience and it will be my fourth expat country. But importantly, as you mentioned, the lack of language skills will be the greatest challenge.

    I’m not blond and blue eyed but even so the Chinese notice us as not being from there. By the time we arrived in China, we had been traveling around the world for 18 months so we were used to being different. We actually began thinking that if we weren’t pointed at every once in a while we must be doing something wrong in our travels. Golden week in Nanjing was probably the funniest for this as many country folk were in the big city for the week and they had never seen non-Chinese before.

    I loved Shanghai…but we are moving to Wenzhou (my husband teaches English) a few hours south by train. Who knows, maybe we can meet up sometime. Check out my web site if you want to learn more about me:

    Good luck with the culture shock.

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink
      October 23, 2009 10:43 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Doris. I need to check out the travel blog exchange. My access to various sites has been a bit precarious here; so, I haven’t been able to do as much with the blog and such as I’d like.

      In what other countries have you had the expat experience? There are definitely many expats here in China, especially Shanghai. The shared experiences of that community helps me get through all the ups and downs.

      Let me know when you are in nearby and maybe we can meet up in Shanghai.

      All the best,


  7. Katy Crawford permalink
    October 25, 2009 1:25 am

    Hey Ashley! I know it’s been a month since you posted this, but I wanted to comment anyway. πŸ™‚
    I hope this month finds you closer to that state “acceptance” you mentioned and with a little of the “wonder” mixed in as well! πŸ™‚
    Gosh, I have no idea how I would handle living in a non-western country for a prolonged period of time. I totally get the difference between living in France and living in China…France may be a little on the wacky side with some of its differences from US culture, but it’s still very close compared to the Eastern culture you’re experiencing, I’m sure!
    I wanted to mention that your writing is beautiful. I read a little of it to my mom earlier as well, and her first comment was how great of a writer you were. πŸ™‚ I hope that’s an encouragement to you.
    How’s it going now? How’s your class going? And how are your students?

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink
      November 20, 2009 2:50 am

      Thanks so much for your comment, Katy! Hope life-after-graduation is treating you well. We need to catch up soon!

  8. November 12, 2009 3:54 am

    Excellent post Ashley!!! Very brave of you to admit those things. I find it very difficult to express my Lao Wai Blues because quite frankly, most people don’t get it. In preparation for moving abroad all sorts of images of my exotic wheelings and dealings flooded my mind. While I still get to do some pretty crazy things, I never really dreamed of the occasional mundane nature of daily life. It’s not like I sat at home counting down the days until I would get to go and grocery shop while I am in China. I mean the first time it was cool, not it’s just a chore.

    The adventures that take place in your mind are difficult to balance with the routine that accompanies reality.

    Also, never underestimate the power of the weather. Lately in Suzhou the skies have been gray and if last year was any indication we won’t be seeing much of our friend the sun for a while. I assume that Shanghai will be much the same.

    If you are interested I wrote a post back in the spring called “Dealing with the Expat Blues” which you can find at: Hope it helps!

    • Ashley Bruckbauer permalink
      November 20, 2009 3:03 am

      Thanks for the comment, Glen. I always enjoy your postings on Lost Lao Wai and am glad to see you found your way to La Vie en China.

      I find many expats, especially in Shanghai, are in either completely unaffected (meaning they live an entirely “western lifestyle”) or overly bitter in expressing the culture shock and homesickness that comes with living here. It’s not always easy to admit the feelings, especially the frustrations, that come with living here for fear of not being culturally sensitive. However, I would like when put forth and thoughfully examined these allow us to find out more about ourselves. At least, this is what I tell myself on good days. πŸ˜‰

      Seasonal depression is becoming a huge issue for me in Shanghai. The cold I don’t mind as much as being constantly wet and never getting to see a glimmer of sunshine. I still need to visit Suzhou. It seems most of the attractions are outdoors. Would it be best to wait until Spring? Let me know if you are ever in Shanghai, I’d love to meet up.

  9. August 18, 2010 1:08 am

    Hello Ashley!

    I stumpled upon your blog when I was trying to find some photos of Tianzifang. Your words are interesting and the photos are great. Your life experience here in Shanghai simply reminds me of my foreign teachers back in the university. Most of them were also from USA, and they had almost the same feelings. I believe that you will get better, although culture shock is sometimes, I have to say, overwhelming. However,calling you a “lao wai” is either to show our curiosity in a way you may find strange, or to welcome you with weird excitement. The word means nothing negative. Of course there must be staring, and I know it is always annoying, but most of the times it is only because we cannot ignore your beauty, which is very much different from Chinese terms of “beautiful”. Hope you enjoy living in Shanghai!


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