Breaking Out of Your Shell


by Monique Ting - HCE Mentor

It’s so hard not to feel overwhelmed when you move half way around the world and transplant yourself into an entirely new location, culture, and even family.

When you travel to a place as different from America as China is your brain is constantly inundated with new information. Even every day tasks like eating breakfast become a learning experience. What do Chinese people eat for breakfast? How do you know it’s time for breakfast? What are all these words they keep yelling at me? It’s like being a child again. Every single experience has to be absorbed and evaluated and categorized so your brain can make sense of it and add it to your existing knowledge.

However, this kind of hyperactive intellectual stimulation is extremely exhausting, and as a result you may feel you want to shut down a little. It’s hard to find the energy, or the desire to go outside. If being at home is this strange, what is the outside world going to be like?

It’s so hard not to feel overwhelmed when you move half way around the world and transplant yourself into an entirely new location, culture, and even family.

When I first got to China, I never really left my host family’s house. I didn’t know what I would do, or could do, or even wanted to do. At first I wandered around the malls, but there are so many expensive malls in Shenzhen, and I never wanted to buy anything, that got really old really fast. So I stopped going outside. I stopped exploring and I stayed home a lot. Plus jet lag, and over simulation made me really tired all the time. But being at home wasn’t the answer either. I began to feel claustrophobic and stir crazy. I had no real direction and didn’t know what I was supposed to do at home. There was no work when the kids were at school, so I would just sit there or nap. I learned that everything is going to feel hard and confusing and weird, and I realized that I simply forgot to try different things.

It’s only now, after settling in, that I realize why those first few months were so overwhelming, but also boring. I never explored any parks or went to the beach or went out to find sports clubs or interesting classes to take. I wasn’t meeting new people, and I wasn’t going to new places. Malls are almost always the same all over the world, and asking the grandparents what they did for fun was ridiculous because old people have their own interests, very different from a young adult’s.

There had simply been so much new information when I first got here, that those concepts never even occurred to me. When people ask me what I do for fun in America I default and say, “Hang out with my friends, and go to the movies, and watch tv.” And that’s what people all over the world will say, despite the fact that there’s so much more to my life, and their lives, that I remember to share.

Everybody is different, and not every personality is equipped to handle China right away; that’s okay. I definitely needed some time to be inside and gather myself, but I ended up stuck inside because I forgot what having to discover my hobbies was like. I forgot that I didn’t always know my favorite restaurant or bar or park; at one point I had to find these things. And in my mind, without them, there were no good restaurants or bars or parks. I learned to always ask lots of people different questions. I was confused and lost with myself, and I never talked to any local people, so I never knew anything about local life. I only had the perspective of my friends back home, and my own mind. You should always ask questions, constantly, because you never know when an outside perspective will spark something in your brain.

Life in China will be a new experience everyday, particularly in the first few months, but never forget to push yourself. Never forget to engage with your world actively, not just let new things happen to you, but create new experiences for yourself.

I wasn’t adapting and exploring in the beginning and I quickly began to simply exist. Eventually, life in China was moving, but I wasn’t. So my advice is to embrace the fact that everything is overwhelming, and notice when you think you’re shutting down or retreating into your shell, because only when you realize you’re doing it can you stop yourself. I think the great thing about deciding to start this Chinese adventure is that you’re already adventurous in some shape or form by simply coming to China. That means no matter what you’ll find a way to adapt, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all on your own. It is okay to talk about your confusion, and to ask for help if you get stuck along the way. HCE is like a family. We want you to have the best Chinese experience you can, and you can’t do that by yourself; it’s just not possible.

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