Uncle Laowai's Culture Shock Prevention Tip #26: Orientation (no, not that)
The first thing that comes to mind that I hadn't thought about before arriving is physical or geographical orientation. There are many factors that make a person feel disoriented in a place like China, such as language and culture barriers, and one of the fundamental sources of culture shock is the pressure put on a person by the lack of familiarity with their surroundings in every possible sense: food, customs, media, and other day-to-day activities.
Obviously, going to a new place and seeing unfamiliar sights is at first interesting or even exhilarating and intoxicating, which is the positive effect that tourists enjoy. However, once the other factors involved in culture shock begin to put pressure on someone, lack of familiarity becomes physical or geographical disorientation.
Whether or not this adds to the culture shock load probably depends on the change in an individual's sense of orientation from their previous home to their new one. Some people really feel normal in a state of physical disorientation, so much so they are generally unaware of the extent of it, but it is unpredictable if it will become a problem in their new locale.
In China, for example, the most basic clues for physical orientation, such as readable street signs, store front signs, etc., may be completely absent. Most people will determine some knowable boundary of their physical surroundings in order to have a sense of familiarity, and will stay within, which can increase a sense of isolation if there are not sufficient people connections and resources within that relatively small boundary, such as the campus of your school and its immediate surroundings.
I can think of three ways to prevent physical disorientation:
1) Get a very small compass, some attach to your watch band (about 5-10 RMB in China) that you can easily carry. This is standard advice for backpackers who need to know which way to walk when they emerge from an unfamiliar subway exit in a strange city. If you don't know how to use a compass, I would suggest before moving to a strange land learning how to do so at a basic level of simply understanding the four points of the compass as they relate to simple city maps.
2) Look into getting some maps of China and the city you plan to go to. There are plenty of such maps in China that are dirt cheap, but their quality is "barely good enough" and sometimes do not have any pinyin (Roman characters). If you don't live inside the proper boundaries of the city, there will likely be no maps that cover your area printed in China. Shopping online for these things from your home country can get you a wealth of info. for very little money. I would expect to spend about $20 USD for a few useful maps.
3) Be ready to go online for map and GPS information. You don't have to be a tech wizard to benefit from one of the greatest features of mobile phone technology: online maps and GPS. Get familiar with it in the US, get a GSM phone that can do it, and bring that phone with you. You will be able to use that GSM phone almost anywhere in the world (some countries' standards vary and your phone may not always be compatible).
While online mapping software is readily available in Chinese web sites and also across the Gr@te F1rew@all of China, I have always had problems using the most popular English sites until I got my Veeeeee Peeeeeee Nnnnnnnnnnnnn, so get one before you come. It is a separate reality using the internet from inside China with or without one.