Saying Goodbye: Your Guide To Reverse Culture Shock

Stepping off the plane and into the international arrivals terminal, I shuffled along with the crowds to passport control and customs. Standing in the never-ending line, I gazed around and was overwhelmed. Perhaps it was the result of too many hours of travel, but I couldn’t help but marvel at the sights and sounds around me. “American English sounds so strange. And people certainly CANNOT actually dress like that! This culture feels so unfamiliar,” I thought. I was home. The longer I stood in line, the more I missed my host-family and friends from my study abroad program. I realized how foreign America felt. The Homeland Security officer called me forward, and as he took my passport and asked me the customary questions, I was caught off-guard by having to reply in English. Feeling frustrated and a bit alienated, I reached out to take my passport. The officer, handing it to me, smiled, and said, “Welcome home.”

Little did I know that I was not alone in the challenges I faced upon returning to the United States following my study abroad experience. Many students are surprised to encounter feelings of frustration and detachment in the last place they expect: their home culture. This phenomenon, known as reverse culture shock or re-entry shock, is well documented among those returning from extended periods of time abroad. If you are suffering through the re-entry process, take heart. While reverse culture shock can be difficult, the more you know about the process, the better you can navigate the challenges you are likely to face.

Most students experience four stages of reverse culture shock upon returning home. Remember, knowledge is power and the more you know about this, the better prepared you’ll be.

Stage 1: Disengagement

What is it?

This is the “goodbye phase,” and it takes place even before you leave the host country. Disengagement is important because it provides closure and prepares you to step into a new cultural context.

What does it look like?

In the midst of your final exams, projects, and goodbye parties you may not leave yourself much time to process emotions. Even before leaving, you may already miss friends, or the culture, or be reluctant to say goodbye. As you pack your suitcases and prepare to leave you may feel sad, frustrated, or anxious to move back home.

Stage 2: Initial Euphoria

What is it?

The second stage usually begins just before leaving your host country or soon after arriving in back home. The excitement of experiencing all the things you have missed from your home culture often comes rushing forth, leaving you exhilarated and possibly overwhelmed.

What does it look like?

I like to call this the “Buddy the Elf” stage. Picture Will Ferrell’s character in the movie Elf when he first arrives in New York City: Everything around him is new, exciting, and wonderful. You may want to spend lots of time enjoying friends, family, pets, food, and activities you missed, and these things probably seem somewhat novel and exhilarating. Just don’t try to hug any racoons and you’ll be fine.

Stage 3: Irritability and Hostility

What is it?

During your time away, it is likely that you romanticized your home culture and developed some unrealistic expectations. For example, you may not have expected that many people are far less interested in your adventures overseas than you would have hoped. You may also have expected to go back to the same home you left, but your family and friends have continued on with their own lives, and many things have happened while you were away. The dissonance between your expectations and the realities of your home culture brings frustration and a critical attitude.

What does it look like?

You may lose patience with those around you and become irritated with people or your home culture. A lot of students say that boredom, depression, alienation, disconnectedness, disorientation, feeling out of place, and a longing to return to their host culture were big emotions they felt. In addition, it can be difficult to adjust to a lack of independence following a period of time living abroad. You may find yourself falling into a divisive mindset where everything pales in comparison to a romanticized view of your time abroad.

Stage 4: Readjustment and Adaptation

What is it?

Although the third stage of re-entry is difficult, it does not last forever. Eventually, most people move on to a more balanced and well-adjusted state of mind. You will gradually find that it is possible to incorporate the new attitudes, worldviews, habits, and goals you developed abroad into life in your home culture.

What does it look like?

While you may still miss your host country, you are able to function within your home culture with positive and realistic expectations. Rather than dismiss the growth you underwent abroad as a singular experience, you are able to integrate the positive changes and elements from your time abroad into your “normal” life in your home culture.

Three Important Things About Re-Entry to Remember

1. It’s different for everyone. The above descriptions are generalizations. Each person is unique, with different circumstances and experiences that form his or her worldview. You may find that re-entry is not a big deal, but your friend or roommate has a very difficult time adjusting. Each stage lasts for varying lengths of time and manifests with varying degrees of severity, depending on the individual.

2. It’s surprising to the people who were most homesick while abroad. If you spent your final month abroad or even a whole semester or year counting down the days until you returned home, you may be caught off-guard by how difficult the re-entry process is for you. By focusing on how much you would rather be somewhere else, you don’t allow yourself to be fully present and process the changes you are undergoing. Take time to reflect on the ways you have grown during your study abroad experience and appreciate how you can move forward, utilizing your new experiences to be fully present in your home culture.

3. Re-entry is what you make it. One of the best strategies for navigating re-entry is active patience. Rather than passively allowing re-entry to happen to you, you can greatly benefit from actively participating in regular reflection on your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This will help you to process the growth and changes you undergo during the re-entry process. However, no amount of processing can completely take the place of time. As you move forward into new adventures and opportunities following your study abroad, allowing yourself grace and time to make the transitions will help ensure you take full advantage of all you learned during your time abroad.

katie-wigginsAuthor: Katie Wiggins
Katie graduated with a degree in Spanish from Cornerstone University and is currently the Student Ministries Coordinator for Semester In Spain, a program of Trinity Christian College. She is pursuing a Master’s in Counseling for Student Development Administration at Indiana Wesleyan University, focusing on reverse culture shock and re-entry counseling. One of her professional goals is to reform the way the American university system approaches study abroad to include more comprehensive support before, during, and after off-campus experiences

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