I Came, I Adapted, I Thrived: Resilience in Our Globalized World

Nathan ZhangJune 8, 2017ResilienceFeatures
I Came, I Adapted, I Thrived: Resilience in Our Globalized World

In this increasingly globalized world, people have to adapt to be successful, but adapting is not always easy.

I still remember the day in 2012 when my mom told me that we were going to move to China because of her job relocation. First, I laughed it off, thinking that she was joking. All my friends lived in America, and I was doing well in school. Moving to China? It was way too late for an April Fool’s joke.

However, as the date got closer, I started to become more and more scared. What if we were actually moving? What would happen to me? As the date began to creep closer and closer, like a tiger coming up onto its prey, I began to realize that I was really going to leave for China.

I was devastated at the idea of moving across the world. I spent many nights crying and asking my mom why we were moving to a country that I had barely been to my entire life. I didn’t know what the environment was like there, or what the people were like, or if I would make any new friends. But the dreaded moment finally came. As I boarded the plane, I waited for my mom to change her mind or tell me it was all a prank. When we took off, I saw the place I knew, the place I called home, getting smaller and smaller by the second, as I headed into the vast unknown.

Looking back, it is obvious now that I fell victim to fear of the new and different. At the time, for me, the frightening unknown was called China—a country into which many global companies were rushing in the hope of grabbing a piece of its big emerging market. With my mom’s job relocation there, I had no choice but to go to Beijing, but I was still unwilling to prepare myself for that strange city.

Stories like mine are becoming increasingly common. Globalization has caused many different cultures and languages to come in contact with each other, since now we can easily travel all the way around the world. This ever-surging flow of peoples and commodities constitute a new environment that we must face every day. These new environments require adaptation if we want to thrive. As the quote often misattributed to Charles Darwin says, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

Adaptation to new environments can be classified into various categories. The first category is physical adaptation. This includes adjusting to the environment, like the weather or landscape of a new country. There is also linguistic adaptation, which is about learning the language of a new country. We don’t necessarily need to learn the entire language, but we need to at least learn what are often regarded as survival words, like “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and “I don’t speak this language.” Finally, there is acclimating to a country’s culture, which means eating that nation’s food, learning its customs and history, and so on. Cultural adaption also includes familiarizing yourself with the social structure of the new environment and learning behavioral expectations, table manners, and what is considered polite or rude.

But why is adaptation so important to the resilience of human beings, and how does it make us stronger and more successful in the future?

To find out about how we can be stronger by physically adapting, perhaps we need to first look at the animal kingdom. In the natural world, there are two types of species: generalists and specialists. Generalists survive on a wide variety of food. An example of a generalist would be the raccoon, which can even eat garbage. Specialists, on the other hand, can only eat a very limited selection of food that may be native to a particular environment. A good example of a specialist is the koala, which only eats eucalyptus leaves. Although specialists are very successful in their particular habitats or ecosystems, they are usually less adaptable than generalists and go extinct much more easily.

In today’s globalized society, humans are required to be generalists adaptable to different environments, rather than specialists capable thriving only in one local habitat. To make my point of how essential cultural and social adaptation is to human resilience, let me tell you the story of a friend I’ll call Dave.

Dave was my former neighbor’s child, who moved from Oklahoma City to Beijing at the same time as I did—January 2013—and for the same reason as mine—a parent’s job relocation. Although he was already in Beijing, the center of China, Dave resisted opening himself up to his new home. He thought that China was boring, with nowhere to go and play, and he didn't try to explore. He continued to behave how he would have in America, and he didn't follow any of the Chinese customs, since he didn't want to immerse himself in the culture. He also didn't try to eat Chinese food, but instead frequented only the very few American restaurants in Beijing. More importantly, he didn't try to learn the local language, which is essential because most Chinese people know little to no English. He claimed that Chinese was too difficult for him. This means that he couldn't do such simple things as ask people how much money something cost or how to go somewhere. He constantly had to have a Chinese-English speaker around to translate or interpret for him.

While Dave was in Beijing, he was very frustrated that he couldn't make any friends with the local kids. He kept complaining to me and other American kids in our neighborhood about how much he hated China and how Chinese people didn’t understand him. One time he got lost, and he couldn’t ask for directions, so his parents had to call the police to find him. He was constantly in a bad mood, and it was not long before this started to affect his life in and outside of school. Eventually, his parents had no choice but to send him back to America. I understood this decision, for Dave’s inability to adapt physically, linguistically, and culturally to China had made him very unhappy in his new environment. On the day I went to the airport to see him off, I felt sad looking at him disappearing into the departing crowd—I could hardly imagine what he had been through during his time in Beijing.

For the first few weeks after I moved to China, I had the same feelings as Dave. I had an advantage over him and many of the other international students in Beijing, because I already knew quite a lot of Chinese. But the climate, environment, atmosphere, and culture were indeed very different from those in the U.S., and I still had to adjust. Not long after I arrived in Beijing, I told myself that as I was already there, I had better get used to whatever life was like in my new home. One of the big things was adjusting to the smog and traffic. I had to learn lots of Chinese customs, such as taking off my shoes when I visited the house of a local resident. Also, Beijing is very crowded, and residents can only drive on certain days dictated by the government, so I had to get used to using public transportation and taxis much more often.

At first it was hard to adapt to these customs, since they were so different from those back home, but I tried my best, and eventually I did it. Unlike Dave, I managed to adapt to Beijing. I ended up, upon my departure in 2016, liking to eat Chinese noodles and rice, knowing how to interact with the local people, making a lot of friends, and feeling reluctant to come back to the U.S.

Being adaptable in our globalized world is a powerful tool that allows people to be more resilient and strong in new places, especially in a foreign country like China. If people are adaptable, they can thrive anywhere and be prepared for every situation. Being adaptable does not necessarily mean transforming oneself wherever one encounters a new environment; instead, it is about opening oneself up to new ideas, foods, customs, languages, and cultures—about renewing and enriching oneself with something new and different, even if it is unpleasant in the beginning. As people do this, they will find themselves more free and open-minded, and will have a better chance of thriving anywhere in the world.

Nathan Zhang is a 12th grader currently living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He lived in China for about three years. His hobbies include reading, writing, gaming, computer hardware, and enjoying all kinds of food.