The Sunny Side of Cultural Shock
Whilst my background has involved working across a range of industries, from luxury fashion to telecoms, food retail to financial service, my focus has consistently been on helping people become their best selves at work and able to progress in their careers.
I’ve worked in different parts of ‘Talent’ for over a decade, running development programmes, supporting succession planning, coaching high potential future directors, and creating a culture of self-directed learning. To set myself up for success, I’ve sought out opportunities to get hands on experience in new areas, as well as invested in a MSc in Organisational Behaviour and a Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching
Culture is something that has always fascinated me. My Masters research project was on the impact of ‘Cultural Intelligence’ in expats moving country with their organisations and their performance overseas. This was likely prompted by the fact that I was born in Abu Dhabi, grew up in Hong Kong, went to university in the UK, and took on a two-year assignment in Shanghai, shortly after starting my career.
Despite having grown up as an expat due to my parents’ jobs, moving to a new country independently where you have basic language skills and only know one person (minimally), is still a pretty big adventure.
I was a bit odd in that I actively wanted to experience culture shock and get out of my comfort zone… which is all well and good until you remember that this involves feeling, well, rather uncomfortable.
I remember being determined to meet people and build a life for myself that didn’t involve sitting home alone and only speaking to other people at work. I discovered ‘Shanghai Expats’ as an online community and found meet ups on the weekend. The first one I went to, I embraced ‘living like a local’ and using the underground rather than ‘cheating’ by taking a taxi with the address printed out to show the driver.
This was fine until the map by the end the subway was entirely in Mandarin characters and I had no idea which exit to take or which was the right road to follow. No google maps, I could ask for directions but not necessarily understand the response and after 45 minutes of wandering around and searching, I finally found the right bar and heard English voices. I was so relieved!
Heading home took a fraction of the time compared to trying to find my way in the first place. I also learned a few things. I rely heavily on being able to communicate fluently – being able to express myself, understand others, and connect through language. Not being able to read a map, literally walking in circles, it felt like half of my senses were missing.
I’m used to being extremely independent and self-reliant. Living in Shanghai taught me to accept (and even seek out) the help of others. Especially when it comes to getting the basics sorted, like learning how to recognise what bills look like and how you pay them (no direct debits there!), how to set up a bank account and how to deal with problems in my flat. Yes, when there was a leak, I was able to find someone in the management office and gesture with my hands and say “shui, shui!” (“water, water!”) with urgency and explain where I lived so they came to investigate, but having an estate agent liaise with my landlord over a broken aircon and translate between us was a godsend.
Feeling lost and struggling to navigate an unfamiliar environment can knock your confidence. There were times when I felt stupid. I couldn’t understand what was going on around me and you realise what assumptions you have when they are tested.
For anyone considering embarking on an overseas adventure, I would whole-heartedly recommend it. Obviously, everyone’s situation is different and you need to decide for yourself if it’s the right thing for you, but it’s the most incredible learning opportunity.
I learned to slow down and think about how else I could express myself. I learned that I could talk to strangers and make friends in random places, like the taxi line outside the Hilton hotel. I learned that I am more resilient than I’d ever realised AND that there’s real strength in a supportive community. I learned the importance of keeping perspective and questioning how realistic my expectations were when I encountered challenges. I also learned that I need to create my own boundaries with work and with friends, to decide what was and wasn’t OK and reasonable.
By the end of my two years in Shanghai I had gone from very rusty Mandarin (10 years' since studying it in school, pre-GCSE) to being able to have stilted conversations with taxi drivers who talked about their daughter's playing guitar, or feeling pretty confident in restaurants speaking to the staff. I had decent 'holiday' Mandarin and had worked with a tutor to be able to deliver the basics of our company Onboarding presentation in Chinese but was still pretty far from being fluent. Sadly most of my language skills have faded since I've returned to the UK, you really do need to use it or lose it.
I feel lucky that I was able to create a new home for myself there, which was very much dependent on finding the right group of friends and creating our own family together. Having people that you see multiple times a week and establishing a new routine with early morning bootcamps all helped. It became an extra home, rather than a replacement for the UK where my family were, and it was still hard to say goodbye when I came back to visit.
If I could offer advice to those taking the plunge to move overseas:
- Go and try all the things you want to do, even if you have no one else to do them with (yet).
- Make it a priority to meet people and find your tribe. They are out there, and together, you create belonging.
- Pay it forward to anyone joining after you and show them the ropes.
What is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
It’s absolutely fine to change your mind about what you want to do in your career. Find out as much as you can about an area you think you’re interested in. When you find something that you love learning more about, and actually doing, not just the ‘idea’ of the job – make a plan and go for it!
If you had to choose an alternative career, what would you be doing now?
Related field – on my way to becoming a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.
Completely different – running a quirky bookshop/cafe in the Cotswolds that somehow makes enough money to keep on going!
At the end of your career if you were to sit and reflect, what one hope do you have?
I hope to have no regrets in wishing I’d pursued an opportunity but instead held myself back. I’d rather go after what I want and learn from the full experience than play it safe and wonder, "what if?".