Embrace rather than Escape

Culture shock in the States
MAR 2019
Zhenshu (Stan)
W.
Chemical Engineering

There is a saying in Chinese: “It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books.” Embracing this old saying, I started my four-year undergrad journey in Minnesota after graduating from my high school in Beijing.

I got this stamp on my passport when I first came to the United States on 8/22/2011. I still remember that the farmland in Minnesota looked just like a chess board from the plane. As I walked toward immigration, the excitement of coming to a new country started to fade away and to be replaced by fear that the security officer would ask me some hard questions in English that I would not fully understand. To my surprise, the officer only asked me a couple of easy questions and let me pass into the United States. As I sat in a cab leaving the airport, I told myself, “Finally, I am in the States now!”

The first night was tough. It was my first time leaving home, leaving my parents and friends, leaving all my support behind. I lay on my bed and couldn’t fall asleep due to jet lag. Homesickness took over my mind; I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Is studying abroad really a correct decision for me? Can I really adapt to the new life here?”

The culture shock came the second day as I ran out of hot water from my thermos cup. Back in China, most people drink either hot or lukewarm water daily. So when I started drinking from the water fountain in my dorm, I didn’t expect the water to be so cold and I couldn’t help but spit it all out. My roommate saw what happened and asked me if everything was alright. After learning that cold water here is as normal as hot water back in China, I immediately put a water boiler on my shopping list.

When school started, I found that I gradually adapted to the campus life. Ironically, after traveling more than 6,000 miles across the world, the things I wanted to change the most stayed the same — homework and exams. Chinese junior and senior high school include six core courses and three technical electives every semester for 12 semesters. The core courses have homework every day, exams once per month, and finals at the end of the semester. Technical electives have less workload, but still there are midterms and finals. These educational methods are surprisingly similar across the world. The biggest difference I found was probably the unit system for measuring quantities such as weight and length.

The most troublesome unit is, no doubt, Fahrenheit. Since Minnesota is a very cold place even in the middle of September, I usually checked the temperature in the morning to have an idea what I should wear for the day. As I was not very familiar with the temperature conversion, I regularly switched between Celsius and Fahrenheit. One day, I checked the temperature while I was not fully awake. It displayed as 10० on my phone and I assumed it was 10०C (or about 50०F), so I only wore a light jacket. Not too surprisingly, I caught a cold after walking in the Minnesota wind chill on that -12०C day. Since then, I have memorized the conversion formula and set my phone to only display temperature in Fahrenheit.

After four years in Minnesota, I chose to attend grad school in Boston. As I had been in the States for my undergrad, I did not expect that I would continue to experience culture shock when I came to MIT, but never say never. The first couple of years at  MIT were similar to my undergrad, where I focused mainly on study and research. However, as I become more senior in the lab, I started to take on more management responsibilities. My advisor started a one-year sabbatical in June 2018, and our lab was due for a renovation at the same time. As the senior grad student in  the lab, I was assigned the role of communicating with the renovation team and facilitating their work while keeping the lab running.

For the first couple of meetings with the renovation team, I found that our lab requests were not being met, but I kept my Chinese modesty and tried to avoid confrontations. After missing multiple deadlines the renovation team had set for themselves, the whole lab was not happy with the renovation progress and my lack of insistence. Therefore, I had to set deadlines for the renovation team. Fearing that they might continue missing deadlines, I also asked the renovation project manager from MIT to wait to issue the full payment contingent on the renovation finishing on time. Eventually, the renovation did finish on time, and we have been using the new lab set-up for a couple of months now. Coming from a more reserved culture, I used to be too shy to make my requests for fear that I might inconvenience others; from this experience, I have learned that if you do not speak up firmly, your voice will not be heard.   

Culture shock can be embarrassing, scary and troublesome, but it’s also rewarding when I overcome all the embarrassment, fear, and trouble and adapt to the new environment. It’s about constantly learning. It’s about continuously stepping out of my comfort zone. It’s about making my heart bigger to embrace the whole world.