A Stranger In My Own Country



When I went back to China two years ago after living in the U.S. for four years, I experienced profound culture shock. I was born and raised in a small city in southern China, but somehow I never felt I quite fit in there throughout my life. Ever since I was a teenager, I felt like I was the little mermaid who wanted to leave the sea and be part of the human world.  I didn’t know what my place would be.


I chose Shanghai when I had to resettle in China because I wanted a new adventure and the air in Beijing was simply too bad. I remembered right after landing in the Pudong Airport, I felt very lonely and sad, because there was no one there to greet me or take me in. I had nowhere to go, and no one to call. I was lost and confused. I went to the mobile shop at the airport to buy a Chinese phone, and I got yelled at by the counter lady just because I asked too many questions. I lost track of all the things happening in China during my graduate study and working in the U.S., and I forgot how everything worked, from transportation to cell phone services. Like any newcomer, I was simply asking basic questions about the services of the two China mobile companies. But the lady yelled at me and shouted, “Buy this one!” Wow, that would be so offensive in the U.S., and I would have walked out right away. But I desperately needed a local phone to call my Airbnb owner that night. So I gave in. Soon after, I realized that was only the tip of the iceberg of my struggles with adjusting in China.


I quickly realized that people don’t like answering questions. For me, I am simply seeking information. For example, I asked someone if there was overdraft on the metro card. I remembered in Beijing, you were allowed to have a small amount of overdraft. But I was struggling with my Chinese, and the person didn’t seem to understand what I meant by overdraft. I felt more comfortable speaking English than Chinese. Now I only speak English, watch shows and movies in English, read in English, and even dream in English. My ability to communicate in Mandarin has been drastically declining. It took me a while to pick it up again, and the person I was speaking to seem very impatient and snarky, thinking I was being pretentious. Then he insulted me when he understood my question. I don’t understand at all. I was only asking an innocent question whether there was overdraft on the metro card. Why did he have to insult me and call me insane before he gave me an answer? That happened almost daily.


The overdraft encounter was just a random person on the street, it also happens in working environments. I was put in charge of financing in my department which I had absolutely no idea why because, in the U.S., the accountant would handle the financing, not me, the producer. My job was to run a production in films. I didn’t study finance or accounting, and I knew nothing about it. But to be a good team player, I took up the challenge and was ready to learn. The same insulting and impatient yelling happened again when I asked the accountant questions and tried to learn to do my job better. I didn’t understand, and I don’t understand still. In the U.S., you are always welcome to ask questions.


Did that bother me before I left China? I don’t remember. I hated being pushed in the subway. I hated waiting for two hours in the bank to watch them going back and forth doing the hideous and unnecessary paperwork. I never spent more than 20 minutes in the banks in the U.S. to get things done. I don’t understand why a simple deposit would need the signatures of three bank clerks in China. I don’t get it.


I quickly fell into a severe depression. I had no friends in Shanghai. My old friends there were all too busy with their own life and work. I was angry every day. I was mad at the conservative values, the sexism and how you just weren’t seen or treated as a human in China. I got yelled at, pushed, and ridiculed all the time. Men even commented on my body and laughed at me right in front of me. I don’t understand how it was OK. I don’t understand how women were simply enduring all these BS quietly. I just don’t get it, and all I could do is to be mad and depressed.


I was so depressed that I started binge eating. I gained a lot of weight. I couldn’t get out of bed, and I spent every night crying for hours. The closest therapy I found was in Japan, which didn’t work for me. So I relied on a hotline for foreigners in Shanghai, ironically. It was a hotline for foreigners who had trouble adjusting life in China. That was my lifeline.


Six months later, I moved back to New York. I felt alive again. I felt home again. I felt safe again. I always look at that episode in Shanghai as a long nightmare, and I am glad that I no longer live in it.


Shako Liu

Shako Liu

You can contact Shako Liu at sliu@shakoliu.com