3 Tips to Help You Develop Cultural Competence and Adaptability in Shanghai

Jun 29, 2019 10:34:00 AM / by Absa Samba

It's the summer for learning and improving yourself! Absa has moved and lived in several countries over the course of her life, and she is approaching her time in Shanghai with curiosity, openness, and intentionality. Take a quick dive into how you can be culturally competent by being proactive in a new environment (with a completely different language) like China.
It can be nerve-wracking to travel to a place far away from home to an unfamiliar culture and environment. I know because I have been through it many times—moving to the US from The Gambia and then to the UK. But it can be even more challenging when you don’t know the local language.

Me at Yuyuan GardenMe at Yuyuan Garden.

Even before my arrival in Shanghai, I felt pretty nervous about how I would navigate. "How do I get myself out of the airport to my hotel? How do I communicate with the driver about where to take me? How do I avoid paying the tourist price for things in Shanghai, including my first taxi?" These thoughts filled my head. But if there are things I have learned from my travels, it’s that no two cultures are ever the same and that culture shock is real. Recognizing and accepting this is one step to overcoming culture shock. I too have experience my fair share of it in every new environment I have been to—like avoiding opportunities to interact with people and even avoiding going out if at all possible.

Champlain College’s Desti buying Street YogurtDesti buying street yogurt.

As our communities become increasingly multicultural, we need to be able to work effectively in intercultural situations. The cultural competency that one develops while living and interning in Shanghai will help you for the rest of your life. Cultural competency is increasingly important for various professions including business, psychology, medicine, criminal justice, education, and politics. Research shows that cultural competence doesn’t automatically develop just because we interact with people from diverse cultural environments. It only happens when we approach these experiences with intentionality and make proactive efforts to learn from our experiences. Developing cultural competence is a self-reflective, intentional, and gradual developmental process. So how can you intentionally create moments of surprise, curiosity, confusion, and insight about cultural differences?

Champlain College Student at the Shanghai Museum for Urban Planning led by Capa Director for Shanghai Colin SpeakmanChamplain College students at the Shanghai Museum for Urban Planning led by Colin Speakman, CAPA Director for Shanghai Programs.

Here are some tips on what to do to develop your cultural competency and how to adapt to living in Shanghai.

1. Explore

There are many cool places to visit. Check out the museums, from the Museum of Urban Planning to Science. Shanghai caters for a variety of needs. Try new and different things, whether it is eating the local food or listening to local music.

Local DumplingsLocal dumplings.

2. Find a Community

I have found a community to be supportive in grappling in my experience and building my network within a new community. I have, in different places, made a point to seek out the Gambian community because it gave me some semblance of home and helps minimize homesickness. Community can be people you have something in common with. Connecting with the locals is a plus because this will enhance your cultural competency.

Students trying Chinese foodStudents trying Chinese food as they immerse culturally.

3. Ask for Help

Finally and most importantly, ask for help when you need it.

Thanks, Absa!

Absa Samba


Absa Samba is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2019, sharing her story in recurring posts on CAPA World. A Social Work major at Champlain College, she is studying abroad in Shanghai on a custom program with CAPA and Champlain College this semester.

Absa's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA Shanghai Program

Topics: International Education, Shanghai, China