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Reverse Culture-Shock: Coming Home After Studying Abroad

airport, home, boarding gate

We’ve all heard of culture shock - and the emotional difficulties that come hand in hand with immersion in another culture. But coming home? That must be a refreshing welcome to all that is comfortable and familiar... right? Or is it?!

Boom. Reverse culture shock.

Just as studying abroad demanded a number of lifestyle changes, so too does returning home. Ideally, the person you are now returning from abroad is not the same person who left in the first place. You have been transformed intellectually and personally, and have successfully functioned in a culture entirely different from your own. You have new habits, values, and ideas, sometimes without even realizing it!

Family, friends, and neighbors may find it difficult to comprehend the changes you have been through, and may expect you to be the same person that left. It can be difficult for them to understand your whole trans-formative experience, and you may find it hard to balance fulfilling old roles and breaking in new ones. This strain and stress can sometimes invoke a sense of helplessness or a loss of identity.

It's not all as bad as it sounds. As long as you have an understanding of what you're going through, it's safe to say that not only will you push through these confusing and difficult times, but will in fact come out on top!

Meg's Stellar take on Reverse Culture-Shock
Meg's Stellar take on Reverse Culture-Shock

It's funny how people often call it "reverse culture shock," when my research has found it's really more of a "culture shock... again!" Let's try to pinpoint and understand the different stages that you're likely to experience if you decide to study abroad (and come home again!).

The Stages of Culture-Shock

Stage #1: Pre-Departure

The study abroader is generally a bundle of nerves, overwhelmed with feelings of joy and anxiety concerning the commencement of their great adventure. This is all perfectly normal. Who wouldn't be nervous on the eve of spending an entire semester abroad in a foreign country!

Stage #2: Honeymoon

The study abroader is on sensory overload: Everything in the new culture is fresh, different, exciting, and somehow perfect. Those first few days and weeks are spent exploring, meeting people, enjoying new food, and seeing local sights. Pictures and souvenirs are taken and purchased.

You will note, in 2A, the returnee is also on sensory overload: After being away for awhile, everything in the home culture is fresh, different, exciting, and somehow perfect. The high before the fall..

Stage #3: Initial Frustration

The study abroader will begin to question and confront the different values and behaviors of the people in the new culture. A sharp sense of self may sink in, and things may seem utterly confusing, causing the study abroad to possibly reject the new culture. Homesickness sets in.

In stage 3A, the returnee will begin to question and confront the different values and behaviors of the people in the a once-familiar culture. A sharp sense of self may sink in, and things may seem utterly confusing, causing the returnee to possibly reject the new culture. Homesickness for the experiences abroad sets in.

Stage #4: The Morning After

A general low point for the study abroader as they have reached their maximum tolerance for the differences. The study abroader may begin to question their decision to study abroad in the first place. The study abroader may have strong feelings of being a "foreigner."

Stage 4A is a general low point for the returnee as they have reached their maximum tolerance for the differences. The returnee may begin to question their decision to return home. The returnee may have strong feelings of being a "foreigner."

Stage #5: Relapse

Study abroaders will ascend and rebound on their path to total adjustment. Some days are better than others. In stage 5A, returnees will ascend and rebound on their path to total adjustment. Some days are better than others.

Stage #6: Acceptance and Engagement

Study abroaders develop strategies to adapt and cope with the host culture. Instead of being angry, they accept and appreciate the cultural differences. A good sense of humor comes in handy here.

Similarly, stage 6A sees returnees develop strategies to adapt and cope with their home culture. Instead of being angry, they accept and appreciate the differences. A good sense of humor comes in handy here.

Stage #7: The Break Through

Study abroaders are comfortable in their surroundings by stage 7, and truly adjust. They begin to see the host country as less restrictive. They find solace in a dual cultural identity.

Returnees are comfortable in their surroundings by stage 7A, and truly adjust. They begin to see their home as less restrictive. They find solace in a dual cultural identity.

Stage #8: Onwards and Upwards!

Stage 8 is achieved after a student has successfully reintegrated with their home culture. The student actively participates in activities that complement their experience abroad and connect their experience with their lives back home. A full re-engagement in the home culture does not mean embracing everything carelessly, but instead embodies the spirit of relating with others while maintaining new values.

The "Now What?!" Factor

Just as when you entered the new culture, inflexibility, intolerance towards uncertainty, impatience, and other negative attitudes are cause for a slow re-adjustment to life's new challenges during reentry. Instead of moping around, it can be a fun growing experience, full of new and exciting opportunities to build on your study abroad experience!

Culture, then, is a study of perfection, and perfection which insists on becoming something rather than in having something, in an inward condition of the mind and spirit, not in an outward set of circumstances. ~ Matthew Arnold, British poet and cultural critic

Put your global knowledge, overseas experience, and intercultural skills to use! Many of the most successful social, ecological, peace, and political movements have begun on college campuses. Your idea could be the next one! The environment of bountiful educational resources and enthusiastic like-minded peers allows the college setting to create many opportunities for taking action in local communities in support of some of the world's critical issues. You just need to seize them!

Get published and share your experiences:
  • Contact me to learn how you can be featured on the Go Overseas website!
  • Participate in campus magazines or photo contests related to study abroad
  • Get involved with the international community on campus:
    1. Interact daily with international and exchange students
    2. Connect with prospective study abroad students.
    3. Take classes with an international emphasis
    4. Join an existing language club (or start your own!)
  • Join one or more internationally-minded student groups: Search campus for opportunities to connect with other students interested in global affairs
  • Get involved with the local community: Research local opportunities for engaging with local immigrants, intern with internationally-minded companies, volunteer with organizations that emphasis global citizenship!
  • Study abroad again: It's never too early to start planning a return or new trip!

The W is for WIN!

Because feelings of loss and sadness are natural consequences when leaving positive experiences, beautiful people and interesting places, it is totally normal for these feelings to come and go throughout the transition process. If only it were as simple as to wake up one morning and suddenly not feel a longing for the adventures of yesterday/month/year!

While it may be really hard to peel yourself off of the couch, away from the bowl of rice and Mulan reruns after a semester in China, it's important that you don't let the adjustments hold you down, or hold you back! While this may be a loose application, it is my hope that my graph portrays the letter "W." It is a modification of the typically accepted "W theory" that is commonly attributed to cultural adjustments - except in my graph, this "W" stands for "WIN!" As you can see, my stellar graph allows for ultimate success/happiness/good tidings - because after a trip abroad, you're only going to keep movin' on up! And out! And further out!

Additional Resources:

Have more questions? Ask a question on the study abroad forum.

Photo Credits: Alan Levine
Megan Lee

Megan Lee is an international educator, traveler, and writer. She currently leads study abroad programs in China and the South Pacific. Keep up with her on Twitter @peglegmeg and Google+.