Be prepared for culture shock: China as an example for the challenges when moving abroad

A different language, a different mentality and often a completely different culture – going abroad for some time to work or study means facing all of this. Which are the biggest social and cultural challenges and how can we try to feel at home in a foreign country?

Most readers of the Alumniportal Deutschland will know: The first period of a stay abroad can be particularly difficult. You don’t speak your host country’s language yet, or at least not fluently. You don’t know many people and everything is new and unfamiliar. Perhaps the new culture is so foreign that you need help to find your bearings.

Thorough preparation can help to deal with the social and cultural challenges of a stay abroad. Taking the example of China, we would like to illustrate what this preparation can entail and how it can be successful.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”. How strong this sense of confusion becomes during a stay abroad also depends on the quality of the preparation for the destination.

There are various internet forums, books and travel guides that can be used for preparation. Also, if possible, you should visit your destination before you move there. It is also worthwhile to talk to people who have spent some time in this country. This will give you a first idea of the differences of the new country, of its style of communication, time management and manners. If you don’t speak the language yet, a language course might be a good idea.

The more different the new culture, the better you should be prepared

You might also consider professional intercultural training in preparation for a stay abroad, particularly if you are going abroad to work. “Intercultural preparation is absolutely necessary, especially for a cultural environment that is as foreign to us as China,” says Dr Oliver Prüfer, who first came to China in 2006 and has been living there for nearly ten years. He is the Vice General Manager and Human Resources Manager of German Industry & Commerce Greater China, the service provider for the German Chamber of Foreign Industry and Trade in Greater China, and he has been teaching intercultural training seminars for China for many years.

Dr Prüfer believes that people who plan to move to China should prepare with the help of a trainer who has lived and worked in China for some time. And this stay in China should be no more than two years ago. “China is undergoing such rapid changes that a knowledge of the country five years ago can be no longer useful today”, he explains. The Chinese mentality, especially in the work-place, is totally different from the German one: “In China, relationships are of vital importance. A professional relationship will always more or less involve the private domain. There are no real ‘after work hours’ in the Chinese understanding. If a Chinese business partner would like to do something after work, you can’t simply say no.”

As far as he is concerned, knowing and being ready to get involved in the Chinese culture is vital for a successful stay in China. “If your strategy is to isolate yourself, you will not be happy here. You should rather try to combine the best elements from both cultures and not measure everything by your home country’s standards. And it is very important to meet the foreign culture with appreciation and respect.”

According to Dr Prüfer, it is often more important to integrate into Chinese society and to invest some time and effort into creating a network than to learn the language. “Knowing Chinese is required in some positions, but not in others. In any case, I would recommend focusing on networking with your Chinese business partners, colleagues and employees.” But: “Of course, Chinese language skills are helpful in all jobs and everyone should know some standards of the Chinese language. For instance, taxi drivers here don’t speak English.”

What are the characteristics of a good intercultural training programme?

Dr Oliver Prüfer suggests:

The trainer should know the country in question very well and should have lived and worked there for some time. His knowledge of the country should not be older than two years – at least when it comes to China.

The training programme should communicate the specifics of the cultural environment and should give clear indications of why it is worthwhile to prepare for a foreign culture and to get involved in it.

In an interactive training session, practical examples from everyday life should demonstrate how to interpret Chinese behaviour and how to behave appropriately towards the foreign culture. Examples could be:

  • Typical examples of situations that often lead to intercultural misunderstandings
  • Practising conversational situations
  • Drafting culturally appropriate business e-mails
  • Tips for everyday situations with business partners

Good to know:

German Industry & Commerce Greater China has long years of experience in the field of intercultural training. They are the first contact point for successful German-Chinese cooperation. Their employees, among them several Chinese Germany-Alumni, provide a wide range of services, tips and advice.

AHK Greater China

Contact Dr Oliver Prüfer

What happens if the whole family goes abroad together?

Going abroad for some time not just by yourself but with your whole family creates quite a different situation. Partners and children also have to prepare for this new culture, which raises several new questions. Will my partner find a job in our new home? Will he or she be able to deal with the new culture?

Where will my children go to school? And what kind of education would I like them to have? The kind that I am familiar with from my home country? Or should I adapt to the new culture in this, too? Dr Oliver Prüfer says that in China, people rarely say “no” very clearly. Does this mean that children are raised with no boundaries?

When children are coming along, the stay abroad needs extra-comprehensive preparation. Possible conflicts about issues of education and schools should be addressed and solved before departure. Communication with other parents in the same situation can be helpful here – perhaps via internet forums.

Nothing can replace your own experience

You should definitely find out about possible problems and conflicts before a longer stay abroad and prepare yourself for the new country and its culture. And yet, there will always be events that you have to experience in person, because it is impossible to prepare for them in theory.

For instance, I may prepare in theory to the overcrowded underground trains in Beijing before I actually have to take one. But how does it feel to take this jam-packed underground to work every day? And how can I be sure that I will be able to always find a friendly paraphrase for a “no”, and whether I will enjoy investing all that energy into creating a personal network?

A thorough preparation can help us to adjust to the social and cultural challenges of a stay abroad, but you will only find out how you are really dealing with this new, foreign culture once you experience it at first hand: Where do I adapt and change my behaviour? Where might I even change my personality? How will I deal with culture shock and how can I get past it as quickly as possible? Dr Oliver Prüfer knows: “If you approach your stay abroad with this attitude, you will have an opportunity to not only experience an unforgettable adventure but also to gather valuable experiences – and not just for your stay in China.”

Discussion on social and cultural challenges when moving abroad

How did you prepare for your stay abroad, for instance for your studies in Germany? And how did your preparation help you? Maybe you are living abroad for professional reasons? Then share your experiences in our community group “Spotlight on Jobs & Careers”!

Community discussion

February 2017

The text of this page is licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. Additional terms may apply for other contents like images/media. By using this website you agree to the Terms of Use and the Privacy Policy. Please note also our terms for correct designation of the author and source and translations.


APD Redaktionsteam
3 March 2017

Dear Victor,

For recent calls for applications, scholarships, research projects or funding programmes, please follow the link:

In our Study & Continuing education section you can find helpful links on the subject of Studying in Germany:

All the best and kind regards,

Alumniportal Deutschland - Redaktion

3 March 2017

please i would like to know of scholarships opportunities for Africans to study in Germany

Prof. Christopher Obel Gor (PhD-AgEcon)
1 March 2017

Yes! Cultural shock is real but at the moment, almost all countries of the World have representations through Ambassadors or Consulates i other countries. An important mitigation would be to get in touch with Network of Compatriots already living in the foreign country visited. Equally helpful is to link up with various Internationally oriented organizations and groups that may be residents in the foreign country visited.

Add a comment now