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When Shanghai Challenges Expats
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The commonly held view of expat life in Shanghai is one of fast and exciting times, but the community centers and psychologists of the city can testify to a less rosy picture. Tales of bumpy landings and sudden culture shock are rife. Language barriers,unfamiliar social norms, and the absence of a support system can make the challenges of living and working in Shanghai seem almost overwhelming.

Often, the results can be serious: anxiety, low self-confidence, and emotional confusion.What should be an exciting opportunity to experience Shanghai in all its color and glory can turn into a depressing or lonely experience. Culture shock, which many go through when settling into the big city, is both a mental and physiological condition. The body is in a transitional phase, but for some this transition can be punishing, even painful. Expats may feel they have no one to talk to, or nobody to share their experiences, but during the last few years several much needed offers have surfaced for those in need of help and support.

Annemieke Esmeijer, a business psychologist and marriage and family therapist, has helped expats cope with the many different pressures and circumstances that come from moving to Shanghai. Certain truisms, however, seem to exist. They are:

1. Pressure on marriages and families: how to stay as a team, how to manage a hectic working life, and how to manage at home. One spouse may be under severe pressure to perform in the workplace, while the other spouse may be under pressure to get the family up and running smoothly.

2. Depression or isolation: how to cope in the city that never stops, how to stay afloat, and how to cure loneliness. Some may find it difficult to make friends in such a dynamic environment. Others may feel depressed, even lost, by a city that waits for no one.

3. Children and teenagers: international schools are only now starting to look into the number of students who need more academic or emotional support. Some also feel there are limited choices for eenagers to go out 'safely' on the weekends.

4. Professionals who are seeking to redirect, or even restart, their careers.

5. The increase of addiction issues.

Christina Showalter, the Director of Pudong Offi ce of Community Central Shanghai, also shares Esmeijer's professional assessments. She explains: "Loneliness often arises from the language barrier. Because expats might have drivers, ayis, or live in large compounds, they often lack personal connections. If they don't step out of their comfort zones to reach out, they may find they are not involved with the community."

Another dilemma lies within the field of privacy and the need to talk to somebody. If the husband is often travelling, and if there are difficulties in the marriage, the wife may tend to be hesitant to talk or turn for help, sometimes out of fear of affecting the husband's job by opening up to someone.

How to tackle the challenges

An expert on how to tackle the challenges of living in a foreign country is Line Morkbak, cross-cultural consultant and trainer from CultureCrossing, who out of Oregon USA has provided tools and knowledge to navigate in new cultures www.culturecrossing.dk.

According to Morkbak, expats experience loneliness and a loss of identity because in foreign countries they no longer feel they are good at what they do. In Shanghai, expats may feel they have lost the sense of who they are and, at least initially, they may need help for the simple things, like opening a bank account.

Morkbak recommends that expats rebuild their sense of identity as quickly as possible, and to know what is most important in life in order to feel well. It might be to play tennis regularly, or to buy a kitten, or to get an identity in their professional field. The essential thing is to partake in the culture, rather than to stand on the sidelines and be a spectator.

"As an expat, you need to drop the tourist mentality and get involved on a local level. When taking part in the everyday culture, you will achieve a sense of belonging," says Morkbak.

It is also imperative to socialize with local people, because it teaches foreigners to decode the social codes. When moving to another country, it can be quite an eye-opener to discover that what you have been raised to believe is actually only cultural sense.

And one final thought to all worried expats: "When challenging loneliness and anxiety in Shanghai, stay positive and active. Remember, adjustments take time. Be patient and humble to new challenges and the race will be half run."

(Shanghai Stars, November 24, 2006)


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