Finding Your Place in Shanghai

By Dr. Elizabeth Sadock

I moved to Shanghai in April and since then have perfected the introductory exchange when first meeting another expat. It goes something like this, “Since April.” “My husband’s job.” “It’s been an adjustment…”

I have given a lot of thought to the idea of adjustment, especially since I initially moved to Shanghai without a clear vision of what life might look like. I began asking myself, “How can I find my place in Shanghai?”

Perhaps some of you have struggled with this same question. Suddenly, all of the scaffolding of life in your home country is stripped away, leaving a feeling of groundlessness and disorientation. What is your new identity when everyone you meet has no context of who you are or where you are from? Who are you without your identity of work, social group, activities, religious group, or community?

Adjustment requires that we adapt to a new situation to create a sense of balance or acceptance. It is a natural part of life; as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “The only thing constant in life is change.” However, change is not easy and it is sometimes a struggle to emerge from the challenges of adjustment, especially when coping with a shift in identity.

As a psychologist, I have spent a lot of time working with people who have had to cope with significant life changes that dramatically altered their sense of self. Their lives were suddenly divided into two eras: before and after the life-altering event. This was never more apparent than when I worked with people with spinal cord injuries and brain trauma. I was often inspired by their resilience and by how these significant injuries held the potential for transformative growth. And so to aid in my own adjustment to life in Shanghai, I often think about these individuals’ paths to adjustment. I hope you also find these steps helpful wherever you may be in the adjustment process:

  1. Mourn the loss. Adjustment signals a shift to a new state, which means that some aspects of familiarity are lost and may need to be mourned before we can move forward. Even if there are many positive aspects of life, it is okay to also acknowledge loss. In fact, if we push out the negative emotions, we end up stamping down all emotions, even the good ones! These emotions can also signal important information to guide our lives.
  2. Accept the reality. Acceptance allows for a shift in energy. When we stop having a futile fight with reality, our energy is freed up to find ways to realistically improve our current situation.
  3. Find connection. Community is key and creates a sense of belonging and safety. We are social creatures who need connection. Reaching out to family, friends, or a counselor for support is a good place to start.
  4. Examine values. Even if our reality has shifted and we may not be able to do the same things that we used to do, there are deeper values that remain consistent and stable. This may require a deeper exploration beyond the superficial to discover our unique core. A good way to explore values is to ask yourself, “How do I want to be remembered at the end of my life?” Once we identity our values, we can discover new aspects of life that tap into those same core desires.
  5. Commit to action. We can reclaim life by living in a way that fulfills our deepest values.  With this comes a willingness to fail and a boldness to venture outside of our comfort zones. This may mean trying a new hobby, volunteering, or reaching out to a potential friend.
  6. Make meaning. Adjustment requires change and change signifies growth. Simply knowing this truth can make us less resistant towards the natural shifts of life, and can even inspire us to embrace the challenge. Ask yourself, “How will I interpret the changes in my life? How do they fit into the way I view myself and the world?”

I expect that life in China, as true of life in general, will be an ongoing adjustment, but it is comforting to know that we are all in this together and that it is bound to be a transformative experience. Wishing you a meaningful journey!

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