Cognitive Dissonance and My Temper in China

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It’s no secret that living abroad changes you. While those changes are usually positive — becoming more accepting of others, more adaptable in new situations, and increasingly knowledgeable about the world — there are certainly downsides as well. One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that in China I’m much more quick to anger than at home in the US.

One evening I decided to go on a run with our German Shepherd, Damon. I jogged on the path in our complex with Damon on a leash close by my side. Upon seeing us, a woman dramatically jumped off the pathway into the grass and said, “太吓人啦!”, “Too scary!” On the next lap the lady jumped aside again and scoffed loudly. I reminded her, “公共场所,我们都可以用””This is a public area that we can all use.” I felt proud of myself for having kept my composure, but as I rounded the next lap to find that she had called a security guard, I quickly lost it. As if a switch inside of me had flipped, I just started screaming at her, telling her it was none of her business, and if she didn’t like seeing my dog, she should get lost. I even yelled at the security guard for suggesting perhaps I find a nearby park instead. Eventually she and the security guard left and I finished my run. At home after my anger faded, I felt embarrassed. Had the same situation happened in the US, I would have never yelled like that. And this is only one small example of when I’ve lost my cool without good reason. Why am I so angry only when I’m in China?

Language Barrier

Even for someone like me who can easily communicate in Chinese, I still believe the language barrier plays a part in my exaggerated temper in China. In my native language I can express anger and displeasure in a variety of different ways, most of which are more effective than yelling or cursing. But it’s not so easy in my second language. Concocting a perfect retort would take some time, by which everyone involved would have probably walked away, assuming I didn’t speak Chinese at all. In hindsight, perhaps that would have been a better outcome.

Built-up Frustration

When I first arrived in China, I often felt irritated with daily occurrences that were unfamiliar to me, such as people smoking indoors, or strangers commenting on my appearance, or the relatively chaotic traffic conditions. Especially for WWAM women, expressing frustrations over such commonplace things in China may not be well understood by our Chinese significant others. Imagine if living in a Western country that practices tipping for services, your significant other often complained about having to tip. Wouldn’t you ask, “Everyone else accepts it without complaint, so why does it bother you so much?” But knowing you shouldn’t be bothered by something doesn’t mean the irritation will immediately subside. I’ve learned not to irk my husband with these kinds of complaints. But as a result, I think those daily frustrations add to each other internally, until they all explode out in one fit of rage.

Cognitive Dissonance

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines cognitive dissonance as a “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”1 Although this affliction is not typically described in terms of culture shock, I think the two are closely related. When I moved to China, everything I knew to be right and wrong, to be normal and abnormal, was shaken up. I couldn’t fully let go of what I grew up with, yet I couldn’t help but begin to accept the ways of my new home. As a result, I ended up holding two separate but different beliefs on a variety of matters.

As I referenced in my story about jogging with my dog, pets are one of the matters that has caused a lot of cognitive dissonance for me in China. In my home country, pets are considered to be members of the family, and are regarded as being generally good for the mental and physical health of their owners. By contrast, in China pets usually occupy a much lower status—they are widely considered to be detrimental to owners’ health, and are believed to be a dangerous liability, particularly in families with babies and young children. Unfortunately, I can rationalize and understand both of these different viewpoints in my head. I’m conflicted! Perhaps the discomfort of cognitive dissonance is why when pushed on this topic, I just blow up.

Do you have a worse temper while living abroad than in your home country? Do you have any other explanations for this phenomenon? 

1 Webster, Noah. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, G. & C. Merriam Co., 1959,

Julia Chen
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  1. I think you should sit down with your husband and communicate your frustrations to him in a honest and rational way. He wouldn’t be able to deal with every frustration in your life but I think he should know about them. I think it sucks if you significant others do not know these obstacles you face and how you feel about them.

    1. You make a very good point, Luke! Like many men in the world, my husband tends to think my complaints are a call for him to fix them. While surely chivalrous, it sometimes misses the mark. I think the problem is that his brain metaphorically explodes when he tries to imagine how he can “fix” the fact that the local people around me act in ways that are normal within the Chinese cultural framework. Usually his response is, “That’s just the way it is”, which is objectively true but not very helpful or comforting. If you have any advice for how to let him know it’s not his job to “fix” anything, I’d love to hear!

  2. Hello, Julia! A fellow Seattle native here! Yes, I totally saw my temperament change after three years in Guangzhou and sometimes I was quite shocked at myself. I think you’re right, cognitive dissonance plays a part for sure. Everything that you were taught as being “not-okay” becomes okay and fairness gets thrown out the bus window along with cigarettes and orange peels. But I think for me, as a shorter girl who doesn’t have a demanding voice and certainly not a commanding presence, I realized at some point that losing my temper was the only way to “get things done” as the saying goes. And when I spoke to other expats, some of them VERY calm guys; they said the same thing. Sometimes, the only way to get people to listen is to shout or make a scene. It’s not something I’m proud of but I’m so glad you wrote this so I could see I’m not the only one who struggled with this.

  3. Romania is split when it comes to pets.
    I notice in the capital city where I live, people generally treat pets as part of the family, while i know that in the country side things are similar to those in China.
    I can only suspect why this is: the countryside is a rather poor place to live in, and agriculture is the main source of food. this leaves little to no time for those people to think about anger, anxiety, or other mental/personality disorders. In their minds these things don’t exist, and if they do appear, then the sufferer must be crazy.
    I would assume many if not most Chinese people -especially of older generations [40years old and more] would have a similar reality and mentality.
    Frustrating? Hell, yes. Wrong? most likely yes.
    Since old dogs are unlikely to learn new tricks, it is best to accept that mentality, but to do as your conscience tells you it’s best. i guess.
    i hope in the future you’ll be more able to control your anger bursts, now that you’re aware of them.

    1. Thanks for the comment! So interesting to learn this about Romania, you are right about the generation gap and ideas towards pets being similar here in China.

  4. Hi, Julie:
    Thank you for writing this article, which helps me to understand why I feel I have become more prone to anger. I have an reverse situation as you, my wife is an American and we live in Seattle! I will ask my wife to read this so she may give some breaks from time to time. Actually, talking about the build-up frustration and cognitive dissonance, I have a much sever case since I had to move my parents to Seattle. They don’t live with us, but I feel I can become so anger so quickly if I spend time with them. Sigh!

    G Chen

    1. Hi Gang, so wonderful you are able to relate to this experience. It’s such a tough thing, I hope with time and communication it gets better for you!

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