Stages in Learning, Adapting


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I’m a pretty analytical guy. Ever since high school, when I was introduced to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I liked the idea that we all go through the same psychological stages of development, which can be diagnosed and predicted. The Kübler-Ross “5 Stages of Grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), popularized by various movies and TV shows, also appealed to me. When studying linguistics, I learned a bit about how babies’ brains develop, as well as how certain cognitive abilities appear first, and others later. I also learned about Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis, which states that learners of a language can expect to master most features of a language in a predictable order, one which is “natural.” This all fascinated me.

Sure, I know that there are criticisms of Krashen’s theories, and that it’s pretty damn difficult to come up with generalities that are true enough to be meaningful. I have still felt drawn to these ideas over the years, and proposed a few similar thoughts of my own, including The 5 Stages to Learning Chinese (not entirely serious), The Process of Learning Tones (serious, if unresearched), and even touched on these ideas in my master’s thesis on foreigner’s acquisition of Mandarin tones (pretty serious). Is this useful? Yes, I think so. And I’m more and more convinced of it as I work with this stuff firsthand through AllSet.

The “natural order” propositions I’m more skeptical of are the cultural ones. The one I’m most familiar with is the Stages of Culture Shock idea (and its sequel, the Stages of Reverse Culture Shock). I’m not surprised to see a disclaimer like this preceding the stages on the Wikipedia page:

> The shock of moving to a foreign country often consists of distinct phases, though not everyone passes through these phases and not everyone is in the new culture long enough to pass through all five. There are no fixed symptoms ascribed to culture shock as each person is affected differently.

OK, everyone’s different, and every culture’s different. I get that. Your mileage may vary. Fair enough. I’m just not sure if this is useful to anyone. (Is it?)

But what if you reduced the number of variables to something more manageable? Might the validity of the generalization be improved then?

This idea came to me because over time I seem to be moving through a series of progressive “mini culture shock” stages in my trips back to the United States, and from what I’ve observed among friends and on other blogs, my experiences are pretty typical of Americans who have spent a considerable amount of time in China. These stages are spread out over a period of years, and I only notice the differences on separate trips, usually spaced at least one year apart.

Anyway, I’m just going to throw these out there. I went back through some of my old entries (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008), and there’s partial support there. But I’m curious if any readers that have been living in China a while have experienced something similar:

Stages of Cultural Response to the United States on Periodic Visits from China:

1. So Many White and Black People! (This one is typical of Americans who have lived in small-town China for a while. They can also get this reaction just from visiting Shanghai or Beijing.)

2. Americans are so fat! (This is really cliché, but it’s real. I wrote my own post on this, long ago.)

3. American air is so clean! (Pretty obvious, but perhaps less so than American obesity…)

4. America is so diverse! (I remember feeling this very acutely a few years back. It was a source of renewed pride and appreciation for my home culture.)

5. American culture is so bizarre/lame! (This is when the cultural disconnect really starts to kick in. The stars de jour, the songs, and the TV shows, are almost all unfamiliar now. It wouldn’t seem weird at all if it weren’t so unfamiliar.)

6. American food is so sweet! (I know a lot of people experience this sooner than I do, but I’m a fan of the sweets. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m getting older, or if it’s the Chinese diet changing my tastes, but on my last visit, the sweetness everywhere was hard to take.)

Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s much universality here (especially in terms of sequence). The only one I feel strongly about is the “Americans are so fat!” stage early on. Are there any other identifiable patterns here?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I’ve noticed American food is very sweet and I haven’t even left China yet, just eating some subway cookies, eating some McDonald’s or making a recipe from back home I’m starting to find American food too sweet to the point where I don’t crave some of it at all anymore, and I was a kid that used to hide bowls of sugar under his bead from his parents so that he could get his fix.

  2. I’ve only been in China for one year, & I haven’t been back home yet (I’m going to the US for a visit next month), but I am anxious to see how my perspective has changed since I’ve been away.

    Still, I have noticed some things about Americans. One thing I think we might be able to add to your list here is “Americans are so self-centered!”

    When I first came to Asia, lots of people asked me where I was from. I said I was from Arizona, but my answer was always met with a glazed expression. That wasn’t the answer they wanted – they wanted me to say which country I was from, that I was from “America”. It was the first time I really understood how self-absorbed I had really been.

    • You mean how Americans expect the rest of the world to be familiar with American geography? Yeah, when I first arrived, I used to say I’m from “Florida,” but now I say, “Tampa, Florida, USA.” (Nothing wrong with giving a thorough answer!)

  3. Shanghai Ty Says: January 6, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Here are a few more that come to mind whenever I go back to the US:

    Americans are so friendly

    America is empty — I don’t mean culturally but in terms of population density

    Americans wear shoes inside their houses (strange)

    • True, the friendliness can be very striking as well!

      I actually don’t think the shoe thing is very strange anymore, because the outdoors is just cleaner in the US. Have you ever sat down and Chinese grass and gotten dirty (dusty)? I have. I used to laugh at the Chinese for putting down newspaper when they sit on the grass, but they really do know their country better than us foreigners, and the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty dirty outside in China. Part of it is pollution, and part of it is the constant construction.

  4. Touching down at the airport is like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, you can let your guard down. In Shanghai (not a Chinese thing, just SH I guess) I always feel on edge. Probably cuz I do alot of ‘street crossing’ and it can really wear you down. Silly me. 😛

  5. When you return to the US it’s more of a holiday I detect notes of novelty in your tone.

    What if you decided to return to the US permanently? to find a house, a car, a job, some friends, hobbies etc. I think you may find reverse cultureshock, that is the pressure of learning how to fit in with the old crowd that has changed since you’ve been gone.

    You may find yourself in a different position on Moslov’s ladder from your position of life in Shanghai.

    Which is better? I guess that is not the question here.

    Which one do you want and why is a better question because there appear to be many realities and truths; some of those can be in conflict with each other like a good fictional crime story.

    • Bob,

      Yeah, you’re totally right. There is plenty of novelty in my visits back to the US. I can afford to see it as novelty rather than just “further evidence that I am becoming totally out of touch with my home culture” because I currently have no plans to move back to the States. Obviously, that could change some day.

  6. That US citizens are so self-centered is obvious also from the fact that they speak about their own country and about themselves as “America/Americans”, while there are plenty of others nationalities in America (which is even divided into south and north)…

    • Couldn’t that be a convenience thing?

      If it were truly offensive and unreasonable, other languages could use a completely different word to refer to Americans, but most (including the ones with the speakers that complain the loudest about the term “American”) seem to follow suit (americano, Américain, Amerikaner, amerika-jin, etc.). To me that indicates that convenience trumps all.

    • Come on Lu. The fact that people from the USA are called “Americans” has nothing to do with selfishness. It’s just language. Perhaps we should criticise the Chinese for calling themselves “Middle Kingdom People”. How dare they say their kingdom is in the middle?The word “American” when used to refer to a person means “a person from the USA”. And it used that way by English speakers everywhere. French and Italian also use the same convention (américain, americano), and I suspect a lot of other languages do also. As for other people from North and South America (Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Columbians, whatever), they don’t call themselves Americans and don’t want to be called Americans.

  7. I realise that the replies here are all from Americans but here I am, a Brit in China since 2007. I went back to the UK three months ago for a visit and felt completely out of it. In totally the wrong place. I didn’t enjoy the food, I just thought everywhere was drab and dirty, the people just totally unhappy and generally miserable. I was shocked to find that I could not wait to get back to China even with all of its faults and problems. Nowhere is perfect but life here suits me pretty well. I have always found the people welcoming and friendly and I love the “can do” attitude which is moving the country forward as fast as the UK appears to be going backwards.

    • Wow, dirty? Really?

      I can identify with the unhappy part… the economy is pretty bad in the US right now, and people don’t feel in control of their lives.

      What part of China are you in?

      • Hi John, we spent 2007 and early 2008 in Shanghai but now down in sunny Xiamen. Don’t get me wrong, my hometown in the UK is NOT full of thousands of people spitting everywhere and dropping their lunch boxes and cigarettes on the pavements etc., etc, but everywhere I looked just seemed to be going down-hill in a hand-cart. The parks and streams in town full of supermarket carts and junk, graffiti everywhere…I just found the whole visit depressing and I was so glad to be back in Xiamen I cannot tell you. I even made the mistake of going to my favourite Chinese restaurant in the UK – ordered what used to be my once a month absolute favourite food and when it arrived all I thought was “Oh my God! What is this junk?!” Talk about reverse culture shock!

  8. I can absolutely vouch for the feeling of diversity in #4. I lived in Taiwan for a couple months, among complete ethnic homogeneity, but I was shocked to discover how much I had taken my melting pot for granted. It was especially strange because I went from being one kind of minority in Taiwan (a westerner who is gawked at) to being another kind of minority back home (in DC), a white guy in a cultural region where “minorities” are actually the majority.

  9. One of the culture shocks I experienced when I moved back to Connecticut from Sichuan is how big our cars are! They can get huge!

  10. Oh my. These last two trips back to the US has left me encountering things (tv shows, products, commercials, etc) that i wonder if they are real or something from a Saturday Night Live Sketch. Yo Gabba Gabba? Snazzy Nappers? All the Vampire EVERYTHING. It all seems like a parody to me.

  11. The sizes of sodas are huge! If you supersize from a large to an extra large, it’s like drinking coke from a bucket.

  12. This post is so timely! This is my first time back to America after a year and a half from living in Beijing. The only things that I would add are…

    1. It’s really cool to see the nutritional content on everything
    2. America feels REALLY risqué/vulgar/trashy (TV, and it didn’t help landing in Vegas first)
    3. Most things seems so expensive (when did a cup of coffee at Starbucks cost 5 plus dollars??) I wouldn’t dream of spending that in China, but I find myself splurging a lot here.
    4. Finally, I like having all the new drink options to choose from at gas stations.

    Definitely having some reverse culture shock and surprisingly looking forward to being back in China in several weeks!

  13. While I haven’t been back to good old 佛罗里达 yet since I’ve been here, I can’t wait to experience the diversity again! As much as I love the only sport around here being basketball, I am extremely eager to go back to a place with a rock climbing gym, frisbee pick-up, mountain-bike trails, and swimming pools.

    Not to mention the good-old Florida summer air that’s so hot and humid you feel like you could cut it with a knife, and hits you in the face like a wall when you step out of the airport. And yet you still feel like you can take a deep breath without harming your vital organs…


    • Hi Jackson,

      I am guessing you are in Shanghai? Shanghai summers can be pretty hot and humid I seem to remember but down here in Xiamen the weather reminds me very much of Florida most of the year in fact the first time I walked out of Xiamen airport that was one of my first thoughts – just like arriving in Florida, the palm trees, the wall of hot, humid air… We also have quite a few swimming pools, some lovely mountain tracks for cycling, golf courses and relatively clean air! Wow!! I should work for the Xiamen Tourist Board!!!

      • Actually, I’m in a small town in the middle of Henan, where it’s way too cold, but not quite cold enough to have central heating, apparently. And it’s flat as a board for about 100 miles around. Xiamen sounds like paradise, really.

        And I definitely identify with the feeling of surprise when I go to big cities and see so many non-Chinese people! I feel like I should be meeting all of them, but then they don’t even look twice at me. I imagine it’ll be ten times worse in the States =).

  14. I enjoyed reading your post John. It’s good to hear that you can see both the good and bad in America! Hope to cross paths sometime in Florida. Feliz navidad

    1. Americans are so kind to strangers!

    When I got back, nobody tried to over-charge me, give me counterfeit money as change or tea house scam me… and it was weird! Strangers even gave me an old iPhone and offered connections to start my job search! Drivers seeing me approach an intersection sometimes stop and wave for me to go first!

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