China is about as different from the West as it gets. Living abroad is exciting and eye-opening, but sometimes we long for the familiar. What do you do when homesickness strikes?
Some of this advice is conflicting, and that's on purpose. The trick here is to "know thyself". That means some people may need an afternoon of YouTube binging, while others should get off the computer and try something new. Your personality type determines how you react to stress. No matter who you are, goal is the same: figure out how to break a negative mental cycle, and get back to being fully-present, experiencing and enjoying China. We don't have all the answers, but here's a few tips for how to work through cultural adjustment, homesickness, burn-out, culture shock, and just plain old bad days:
Maintain a "frame of reference".
This is experience is so temporary; if you're in China through the AYC program, you've likely signed a 10 month contract. In the grand scheme of things, that's short! Don't waste an opportunity, and instead take advantage of the fleeting time you have in a country of unique culture, language, customs, food, and pastimes. Remember why you came to China in the first place. Because of living abroad, I've experienced infinite business opportunities and significant personal growth; ultimately I'm so thankful for the challenges and triumphs that comes with being an expat. Keep a list of things you're thankful for and look for little bits of humor throughout your day, whether it's a grandpa with killer fashion, or dogs with shoes.
Have a routine.
We are creatures of habit. Having simple things like 3 meals a day and a class schedule can add a lot of stability and comfort to our lives. If you feel like you're flying by the seat of your pants, and don't know what's happening next, try scheduling some of your life out. Is there a group of ladies doing Tai Chi you can join in the evenings? Do you have a table of teachers to eat with most days during lunch? If not, try create little habits to bring balance and consistency to your week. A friend of mine started a Tea Club with a few teachers at her school; every Friday afternoon, they'd take turns bringing a new tea and a few snacks, and discuss anything from art to politics to their lesson plans.
For me, I keep a loose schedule of my life in my email calendar. It keeps the big things I want to do at the front of my mind, like travel plans, work deadlines, and things to check off of my Shanghai Bucket List. BUT it isn't so constricting that I fell like I need to consult my calendar for every decision.
Try something new/break a rut.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. If you're feeling bored or overwhelmed with your weekly routine, try to rebel and break some things within it. Add a little thrill to your meals, and try one of these 10 Foods you can only eat in China. Jian Bing is one of my personal favorites. On top of that, here's 21 other good ideas for you to break a rut. Doing something as little as rearranging the furniture can change a lot.
Make new friends.
It can be tough to figure out how to meet new people after college; you're no longer surrounded by people who are about your age and education level. I've had to become a lot more aggressive when it comes to friend-making, and here's the single greatest piece of advice I've heard: Treat friend-making like dating. Make real plans, and create conversations that let you get to know that other person/people better. It can be hard to move past light, superficial conversation, so here's twenty questions that really help you get to know someone.
Where do you even meet new people to begin with, you may ask? The Wall Street Journal published 5 great ways to make new friends in London, but the principles apply in China too. To echo their first point; become a regular somewhere. Go to a coffee shop at the same time each week, and see who else is a regular too. Befriend people like the gym trainers or bartenders; they are a hub of connections, and can help introduce you to people with similar interests. In fact, just being at the same place as another person gives you something in common with them!
Talk to old friends.
In a sea of new, it can be life-giving to talk to someone who knew you BC (before China). Tell your best friends and your mama to download WeChat, so you can stay connected with them. You can video call, send voice messages, or just a classic sticker. Conveniently, Skype isn't blocked in China!
One of the toughest things about living abroad is the feeling that you're missing things back home. Staying up-to-date with friends, and also sharing your amazing experience with them can help the distance not feel so long. It may take some time, but you can find the balance between remaining fully-present where your feet are, and still staying connected to people you love back home. Or, as this author put it, when you live abroad, "you perfect the right balance between bonding and letting go – a perpetual battle between nostalgia and pragmatism."
One of my favorite things about China is the time difference. Why? Because it's the exact opposite of the EST, which gives me TWO opportunities to talk to people back home each day: once in the morning (their evening) and once in the evening (their morning). Most places, the time difference is more awkward, and you only have one span of a few hours to get in touch with folks in real time. Not the case for China.
Take a "pulse check".
When I am feeling my most stressed, it's almost always because I'm neglecting one of these three things: Food, sleep, or physical activity.
Stopping to take a "pulse check" simply means stopping to make sure your basic needs are taken care of. It may not be that the world is crashing down; it could be that you forgot to eat lunch. OR, when I can't figure out how to get a lesson plan together, it's usually because my brain is fried and I need to sleep. By making sure I'm eating right, sleeping at least 8 hours a night, and getting regular physical activity, somehow other areas of my life fall into place.
Developing a healthy lifestyle doesn't only benefit your mental health:
This is what personally pulled me out of a slump the winter of my year as an EA. I joined a gym, started playing basketball with my students, and bought a road bike. I biked everywhere I needed to go, and suddenly I was resting better at night, buzzing with more energized during the day, and feeling great for losing a few pounds! My time at the gym was great stress relief and something I did FOR MYSELF, which brings me to...
Treat Yo Self.
Do you need a massage? A burger? A weekend trip to a nearby city? Do things that bring you joy, and that give you energy. A dear friend of mine loves writing short fiction stories in his free time, so he planned a DIY Writing Retreat for himself one day. It was relatively low cost, and I quote: "It feels reassuring to pursue my interests. It makes me feel smarter and more capable. Only downside is: time goes by way too fast".
If you don't have a full day, here's some ideas for a Creative Afternoon Retreat to help connect with yourself. You have permission to rest. Do that thing that you love; get out your poetry journal, dust off your guitar, buy a coloring book, or join a painting/cooking/yoga class. Get back into that thing that's your thing.
Find a new hobby; something you wouldn't have tried at home.
On the exact flip side of the above point: Kung Fu, calligraphy, Tai Chi, Chinese cooking, learn a KTV song in Chinese, get into tea culture... I could go on. I got into biking around my city and photographing strangers and cool buildings. I found that the being behind a camera made new experiences a little less overwhelming.
Try to say "yes" as often as (reasonably) possible. You never know what colleague knows a great restaurant, or which of your student's parents want to take you hiking. Having a "yes" mindset can expose you to something you wouldn't experience otherwise. Trying new things is good for you in a multitude of ways... and who knows, it could become your next passion.
Make Some alone time.
China can be overwhelming. Even when I'm home alone, I can hear people ride by on e-bikes or hear chatter in the street. I had to adjust how I defined "alone time" so that I could rest and recharge.
A great way to do this is: put your headphones in. It became a ritual for me to ride the bus with music blasting, disappear into a bubble of sound, and arrive at my destination refreshed. Here's a Spotify playlist I made, conveniently titled Adventure (Homesick Antidote). It never fails to lift my spirits.
When all else fails, sometimes you just need to sit with a good book in a Starbucks. They're pretty easy to find, along with KFC and McDonalds. If you love coffee like me, sometimes a big cuppa can set the world right. Here's a cute infographic for how to order coffee in China like a boss:
Ultimately, you have a lot of power over your own happiness.
How do you cheer yourself up, whether you're homesick or just having a bad day? Let us know in the comments below!