Module 11: Reverse Culture Shock

 “What could be easier than going home? After all, you grew up in that culture, speak the language(s), understand how the system works, are familiar with how to cope with daily living, and have a ready-made support group. However, the reality is that returning home after a significant overseas experience is not without its stresses.”(1)

Culture shock is triggered by a sudden, drastic change in environment, so it makes sense that travelers will experience a second wave of culture shock upon returning home. The phases of “reverse culture shock” parallel the phases of “normal” culture shock, though they differ in length and intensity.

Upon returning, you can expect to experience an initial stage of euphoria and excitement. It will be a relief to come back, and invigorating to be surrounded by the comforts of home and people who are thrilled to see you. It won’t be long, however, before you realize that both you and your home environment have changed, and the honeymoon phase will come to an end. The symptoms you experience during the crisis phases will parallel those you went through abroad; frustration, dejection, irritability and loneliness are just some of the emotions you may face. Many factors contribute to this most difficult phase of re-entry:

Realities of home: Home may not be what you expected it to be. While experiencing culture shock and homesickness abroad, you will likely idealize and romanticize your home environment. Upon returning, the imperfections and annoyances that you had forgotten about will no longer be invisible, which can be disconcerting.

Reverse homesickness: While abroad, you will have developed a routine, adapted to a new way of living, and formed significant friendships. Leaving this behind will be difficult, especially if you don’t know when you will return.

Changes in you and others: Life doesn’t stop while you’re away, and things at home will be different when you return. The changes in your friends and environment may be subtle, or they may reveal themselves only under certain circumstances. It may be unsettling to witness these unpredictable changes.(2) Because the home you left is not quite the home you are returning to, you may find yourself confused and anxious.

“I had a very hard time readjusting to the US. I had changed so much and seen so many things, and I had a hard time relating to others and realizing that they had also changed during the time I was away. I was surprised that my friends didn’t really want to spend much time looking at my pictures and listening to my stories.”(3) -- University of Pennsylvania Student, Study abroad in Russia

Blindness to culture shock: When you travel abroad, locals recognize you as a foreigner. People are understanding of your disorientation and are quick to offer help. At home, on the other hand, you will be expected to be a fully functioning member of society. Because you look like you fit in, people will see no reason to reach out to you, and because reverse culture shock is not a well-recognized phenomenon, they will likely be less sympathetic to your adjustment needs.

“People will assume that, because you come from the same place as they do, you know how everything works. In fact some things may have changed in your absence. Because you look and sound as if you ‘belong,’ people will be unaware that you are somewhat disoriented.”(4)

Recovery and Adjustment

Just as you will have recovered from your initial culture shock, you will begin to settle back into your native culture. Friendships may shift, and you may form new friendships with others who have had experiences similar to yours.(5) Most importantly, you will incorporate the changes that have occurred within you into your daily life at home. You will view the world through a slightly different lens, and will learn to appreciate aspects of your culture you never noticed before traveling abroad.

Coping with Re-entry:(6)
Coping with culture shock abroad will have provided you the tools for dealing with the challenges of readjustment. For this reason and others, your reverse culture shock will be shorter lived than your initial adjustment abroad. That said, there are still some steps you can take to minimize hardship, and to maximize the positive impact of your time overseas:

Before you come home, prepare:(7) Reverse culture shock doesn’t have to catch you by surprise. Plan to experience boredom, isolation, disorientation, and annoyance when you arrive home. You should also gather the contact information of friends you would like to stay in touch with abroad. If you nurture a connection with your host country while you are at home, you will be less likely to compartmentalize or “shoebox” your abroad experience. Along the same lines, you should spend some time reflecting on meaningful aspects of your trip to help integrate your experience abroad into your identity. What did you learn? How have your changed? Answering these questions will help you process the meaning of your trip as you reintegrate yourself at home.(8)

Talk with people who can relate to you: Keep in touch with people from your program in addition to your hosts; they understand the experiences you went through and may share your difficulties readapting to their homes. Friends who have had other significant experiences abroad are also great resources and are likely to be interested in your trip and easy to relate to.

Stay international: Keep up-to-date with current events in your host country, join an international student organization, study a foreign language, and attend multicultural festivals. Anything you do to maintain your connection with the world at large will solidify the significance of your trip. Also remember that you can maximize your impact as a volunteer by inspiring others once you return home. Writing articles for a local newspaper, creating a photo exhibit, speaking at student events on campus, and organizing fundraisers are just a few of the ways you can increase awareness and galvanize others to help those living in poverty abroad.

Footnotes

(1) “Back Home: Neither Here nor There.” Module 2.3 in What’s Up With Culture? University of the Pacific. Accessed on 6 January 2009.

(2) “Back Home: Neither Here nor There.”

(3) “Beating Reverse Culture Shock.” 2003. Natavi Guides: Students Helping Students. Accessed on 6 January 2009.

(4) “Culture Shock – Canada.” British Expatriot Wiki. Britishexpats.com. Accessed on 6 January 2009.

(5) Ibid.

(6) “Reentry Shock.” Northeastern University Office of International Study Programs.” Accessed on 6 January 2009.

(7) "Back Home: Neither Here nor There."

(8) Ibid.