5 Cases of Reverse Culture Shock for Expats Who Leave China

5 Cases of Reverse Culture Shock for Expats Who Leave China
Jun 04, 2020 By Cian Dineen , eChinacities.com

We’ve all heard about the culture shock many foreigners experience when they first move to China, but what’s less well-documented is the reverse culture shock those same foreigners go through when they return to their home countries. Reverse culture shock can take many forms, some less obvious than others. Here are five of the most common cases experienced by expats returning home from China.

Source: Brooke Cagle

1. The way cities actually sleep

Although there is now a handful of 24-hour venues in most cities around the world, few countries are as active throughout the night as China. Be it fast food restaurants, online deliveries, late-night bars and clubs, or even fruit shops, life in China never seems to shut up shop.

It’s a way of living that you don’t even realize you’ve got used to until you return to your home country. Suddenly, you find the shops close at 5pm and don't open at all on Sundays, bars all close at 11pm, and you’re unable to order in food at 2am. While this may have all felt normal to you before, you’re now endlessly frustrated that you can’t do what you want, when you want to.  

2. The way we pay for things

In a very short period of time, China has almost completed the transition to a cashless society. Whether it’s paying for your taxi, getting the tab at a restaurant, topping up your subway card, or paying the monthly bills, almost every transaction in China can now be done via WeChat Pay or Alipay. Mobile phone payments have replaced the need to carry cash, and the only time most people use an ATM these days is to deposit money rather than withdraw it.

While contactless credit cards are on the rise across the world, the speed and scope of adoption has not been quite as fast or absolute. On arriving back in your home country, it’s easy to find yourself short of cash because you’re so use to paying with your phone. You may have to keep reminding yourself to make regular trips to the ATM in order to have cash for buses, tips, and other small expenses. Worse still, you have to input all your credit card details every time you want to pay for things online.

3. The apps we use

The way that the internet has developed, and been policed, in China has effectively led to the mainland having its own apps for everything. While in the West they use Whatsapp, Uber, Spotify, and Amazon, in China we use WeChat, Didi, QQ Music, and Taobao. It’s basically an alternate universe of apps.

When traveling from one realm to the other, you’re often forced to start over on the relevant set of apps, either because the apps you’re used to aren’t available in that country or because your friends are all on the alternative system.

It can be difficult to wean yourself off your Chinese apps when you return home. All those playlists you spent hours making on QQ Music no longer work and you have to start over on Spotify. You stop posting on WeChat moments and pick up Instagram again. Worst of all, you have to accept that you can no longer take advantage of all the great offers on Taobao and have to make do with Amazon instead.

4. The way we eat

Eating a meal in China is often a much more social experience than it is in the West. People order together, eat together, toast together, and even cook together when enjoying hotpot or barbecue. It sometimes takes new China expats a while to get used to this family style of eating, but once you do, you wonder how you ever ate any other way.

It can be such a shock, therefore, when first going out for meals again with friends and family back home. People order dishes just for themselves without a thought of sharing with others, and asking to try someone else’s food can cause a serious social faux pas. Going out for meals in your home country can feel like a strangely cold experience after years of living in China.

5. The way we speak

It’s amazing how our use of language evolves while living in China. Some Chinese words and phrases, such as keyi (can), mafan (annoying) and suibian (whatever/relaxed) become so ingrained in our lexicon that we start to use them in place of English.

Meanwhile, whether consciously or not, we start to change the way we speak English so it’s easier for locals and expats from other countries to understand us. Many of us lose our accents and adopt a more neutral speaking voice. We start to speak more slowly, adjust our vocabulary, and even sometimes drift into chinglish.

Returning to your home country can be an awkward experience as a result. Friends and family might think you’re ashamed of where you’re from because you lost your accent. They may even accuse you of patronizing them by speaking slowly and over-enunciating your words. This is often all the more awkward because it’s not even something you’re aware that you’re doing. Sometimes you don’t even realize how much China has changed you until you leave.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock when returning to your home country from China? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Keywords: Reverse culture shock China


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after being in China 10 years, the west is a huge disappointment

Jan 12, 2022 12:02 Report Abuse



It's bizarre how alien everything feels when you go back to your home country after being in China for a few years. I find it strange that people don't mention it much at all. I really miss Wechat pay myself. It made everything so easy!

Oct 26, 2020 03:43 Report Abuse



MAMAHUHU had a funny sketch about this issue!

Aug 12, 2020 23:59 Report Abuse



I find the language aspect very interesting. How our spoken language evolves and the context of words changes, in particular.

Jun 27, 2020 17:06 Report Abuse



leaving China to a Western country always to me feels like what it must be like for a person to be released from jail. Instant joy - Things like Google and Facebook are accessible and other things like chocolate are in plentiful supply. Plus, the fact places are cleaner is another wow, what.

Jun 19, 2020 23:19 Report Abuse



read this article 10 times, different authors tho

Jun 18, 2020 10:44 Report Abuse



China can also be like this because of the population and urbanization

Jun 10, 2020 19:41 Report Abuse



I wish my country also operate like that.

Jun 10, 2020 19:39 Report Abuse



After 11 years of living, working, playing, sleeping in China, I returned to the US and then to Europe where I am currently now under lockdown. My reverse culture shock has zero to do with this article. I believe it is much more profound. First and foremost is "sticker shock": everything is much more expensive in the West from a bottle of spring water to a rental apartment. Second on my list is fear of police, thieves, gun violence and racism. In the US, I was terrified to drive a car for fear of being stopped by the American police who shoot first and answer questions later. Third on my list: American and European people are not as friendly and courteous as my Chinese neighbors, colleagues, friends, strangers. Yes, I enjoyed "laowai privilege" and although I stand by my Black brothers and sisters who suffer from systemic racism, I cannot undo the privileges that were availed to me. I would much rather share them with my Black brothers and sisters. Fourth shock: the food. Chinese food is both simple and exquisite. How I miss the beef noodles! The dumplings! American food? Expensive and crappy, at least in California. And that goes for Chinese-American food, as well. Rubbish. Fifth (but not last) reverse culture shock: my students in China were wonderful. Studious, courteous, respectful, well-behaved. In the West? Malcreants, snot noses, and darnright stupid and lazy. I took a teaching job in Europe at a middle school which paid poorly compared to what I made in China, and when covid-19 took over, I quit. The kids were obnoxious, the working conditions were up to 19th Century code at best, and the money sucked. Oh yeah. Forgot. Teaching in China was far more lucrative than in America or Europe. My annual salary in China was at least 300% higher than in the West and my housing was paid for. No such deal in the West. So, to the OP: your "reverse culture shock" experiences are trivial and whiney and simply make no sense.

Jun 10, 2020 01:42 Report Abuse



US students & education administrations are flushing the country's future

Jan 12, 2022 12:06 Report Abuse



The left? Republicanist, yeah?

Jun 10, 2020 01:09 Report Abuse



Coning back to the States, I soon realized that everything was racist or sexist or some other "ist" dreamed up by the Left. How moronic. I miss China where I could just be myself and people were not hypersensitive to the point of mental illness.

Jun 07, 2020 11:34 Report Abuse



I imagine it must be tiresome to be aware of all the ism's

Jun 08, 2020 09:51 Report Abuse



nice and interesting

Jun 06, 2020 12:21 Report Abuse



Nice article over all, though depending on the culture you're from certain parts of the article might or might not apply. Say for example, you're from Italian or Portuguese background the eating experience back home might be as social but if you're Anglo Saxon or German, well I don't know. So true about using different apps, it is indeed a bit mafan!

Jun 05, 2020 12:46 Report Abuse



Point 4 is completety wrong (and quite patronising). Meal times have always been a social occasion when phones are off and you spend time talking to family and friends. Barbecue;s and 'pot luck' meals at home are VERY soclal as the participants bring and share food. These can go on all day in the summer, lasting into the night.

Jun 04, 2020 19:11 Report Abuse



my 'reverse culture shock' included stepping out on a road when the pedestrian light was green (at home), and being suprised i was NOT almost run over by a motorist. Also when ordering food in a resturant NOT being suspicious of the meat served (in certain months) or the hygiene standard of the place. When random people stop to ask for something, (at home) it is usually to ask directions or even pass the time of day - not a demand for my time for 'English lessons', my phone number or an offensive personal question. I am happy that shops are not open all hours - to me this means that the pursuit of money is not above all else and people are working to live.

Jun 04, 2020 19:06 Report Abuse