RETURNING HOME AND REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK
Some of the material for the following sections was taken from The Art of Coming Home by Craig Sorti.
RE-ENTRY TO YOUR OWN CULTURE
The cycle of overseas adjustment begins at the time you plan to study abroad. You may think that adjustment ends when you have successfully assimilated into the life of your host country, but, in fact, the cycle of cultural adjustment continues through your return to the United States. Culture shock and re-entry shock are not isolated events but rather part of the total adjustment process that stretches from pre-departure to reintegration at home.
CHANGE AND ADAPTATION
You have just had the opportunity to live, study and travel overseas. During your stay you have probably assimilated some of the host country's culture, you have learned new ways of doing things and, perhaps, gained some new views and opinions about certain topics. In short, you have changed. As one returnee explains, "Living abroad has a deep, broadening effect on a person - an effect that I didn't realize until my return." For some people living overseas and having those changes occur outside of the United States can magnify those experiences, thus causing the return home to be a bit unsettling. In addition, some of the experiences are specific to being overseas and could not have occurred in the United States.
While overseas you may have experienced a great amount of independence, both academically and personally. This independence can help make you more confident in your abilities to achieve your goals. You may have become increasingly surer of yourself and possibly have gained a more mature or focused attitude about your future. You may even be a bit more serious and directed. Some of these new views and attitudes may be in conflict with the views and attitudes of family and friends. They may question your new way of thinking and doing things or even pressure you to "reform." These differences may often be uncomfortable at first.
Along with the new ideas, views and attitudes that you have developed you have probably acquired some new skills. These may include discovering a new way to do an old task, gaining a different perspective on your field of study, or increasing your foreign language skills. For those of you who studied in an English-speaking country, the English language may have acquired a new meaning through idioms, lingo, and phrases that are specific to the host country.
These new skills will now become a part of your daily life. Increased ability in your foreign language will probably have one of the greatest impacts. If you have learned to become dependent on these skills to communicate from day to day, then it may feel strange to revert back to your native language. The degree of strangeness is directly connected to the amount of culture from the host country that you have assimilated and will definitely influence your readjustment. You may feel frustrated and depressed if you cannot communicate your new ideas, skills or opinions, and this can be distressing. Patience, flexibility, and time will be required as it was at the beginning of your sojourn.
LOSS OF STATUS
In your host country you may have been seen as an informal ambassador from the United States. This gave you a certain status of being "special." When you return home, you are just like everyone else and the loss of feeling a bit special can be a factor that you must deal with in your readjustment. One returnee describes it this way: "Being in a foreign country as a foreign visitor, you are to a certain extent a 'special person'; your views, accent, lifestyle are all interesting to your hosts. As such, you will receive a lot of attention, make friends and, generally, be popular. However, when returning home, you become again a 'normal person.' I found it very difficult to make that transition."
Now that you have studied abroad, you obviously have a new circle of friends. You most likely saw some or all of these people on a daily basis, and they probably became an important part of your life. Leaving your new friends can be, for many, the most difficult part of re-entry. Having to abandon intense friendships, girl/boyfriends, and cultural supports, frequently brings disturbing feelings characteristic of those associated with a grieving process. Though you may seem to make a good surface adjustment once home, that adjustment may, at times, cover over many contained feelings of uncertainty, alienation, anger and disappointment.
At first, friends back home will ask about your experiences and appear to be interested. They will often show a slight fascination for your adventures, but this may quickly fade. They will whip through pictures and stories once, but because they have not shared the experience, you should be prepared for their cursory interest. After a while, you may find that your friends are more eager to talk about what has gone on in their lives as opposed to hearing more about your life overseas. If many of your friends have never lived abroad, you may also have to deal with feelings of envy or jealousy. When you talk too much about your experience, people may accuse you of being elitist, even though that may not be your intention. People are often threatened by new and unusual points of view if they, themselves, have not had a similar experience. As much as you need to talk about your recent time away from home, it is advisable to be sensitive to the attitudes and feelings of others. (Refer to the section on “Coping Strategies,” which discusses other options for support).
As with your family relationships, your relationships with your friends can alter because of the changes that have occurred in your life and the lives of your friends. Former friends may even have found new friendships and have priorities which are now different from yours. Be patient. If the friendship is worth maintaining, adjustment can and will be made. If not, developing new friendships can be as exhilarating as traveling.
These changes – your new independence, new views and new attitudes, your role as informal ambassador, newly acquired skills and your new friends - all have contributed to making you who you are now. The "changed you" will have to readjust to life in the United States, and, for some, this can be difficult. Initially, you may even have to live at home.
It can be a surprise to learn that you are not the only one affected by re-entry. After all, you are the one who has been away and had so many new experiences. Everyone and everything at home should have stayed fairly stable. However, the home that you remember is not always going to be exactly the same as it was when you left. This feeling of dislocation occurs for two reasons. One, because you are now looking at what was once familiar through a new set of perceptions, you will see everything a bit differently; the new experiences and perspectives gained abroad may mean that home is never the same again. And two, like it or not, life at home did carry on while you were away. Things have happened to your family and friends and events have occurred in their lives. These events may have caused changes in their feelings, perceptions, opinions, and attitudes. Granted, these changes may not have had an intense affect on your life. However, to the specific individuals their experiences are as important as your experiences are to you.
Remember, and be aware, that people at home change too, so expect things to be different.
It is normal for you to desire to hold on to the person you have become. Your international experience and life will now be a part of you and reflect who you are right now. The "new" you cannot be discarded or forgotten for the "old" you. However, you and your family must come to terms with that "new" you and continue to build upon your existing relationship from this point forward. It will require commitment to work toward mutual respect and understanding of each other's views. You may find that you have a totally different relationship with your family.
UNIVERSITY AND COLLEGE LIFE
For those of you who go directly to your university without time at home (or limited time at home) you may face a new set of readjustment issues upon return to academic life. For example, some students, while overseas, experience a greater amount of academic independence than they had previously experienced. If you have found that academic freedom is particularly gratifying and challenging, then the readjustment to a system that is a bit more structured can be difficult.
LEVELS OF READJUSTMENT
As stated earlier, no experience is the same for everyone. You will go through re-entry much differently than someone else. Research on readjustment to life in the United States after a prolonged stay abroad suggests that there are several variables that may affect the degree of difficulty faced by individuals during re-entry. Some of these variables include:
Age and academic level
Older students or professionals who were well established in their field before their sojourn sometimes experience a less troubled re-entry than younger students do. Younger students, anxious to discover new attitudes and explore new ways of living, may be more likely to adopt the host culture's way than to selectively integrate it with their own cultural or personal beliefs. Once home they may constantly compare home country traditions and practices unfavorably with their host country experience, increasing the feelings of alienation.
Previous cross-cultural experiences
Students who have previously been away from the United States tend to have less trouble adjusting. A student who expects to experience some difficulties on return is better able to
manage re-acculturation challenges.
Length of stay in the host culture and degree of interaction with the host culture
The longer a student stays in the host country and the greater the degree of interaction and empathy with the host culture, the more difficult re-entry to the home culture environment may be. Some observers have noted that students who are able to afford vacation visits home during their study sojourn seem to experience fewer problems upon returning home for good, due to a lesser shock. The reverse, then, may be true of those who are immersed in the culture without a break.
Readiness to return home
It has been hypothesized that students who strongly desire to return home at the end of their study sojourn are most likely to return home with a high motivation to re-socialize, while those who strongly desire to stay on in the host country will seem alienated upon re-entry. Those who are moderately looking forward to returning home are expected to have the healthiest re-entry.
Degree of similarity between the home and host culture
The greater the differences between the host culture and the home culture, the greater the re-acculturation difficulty for the student. An Australian or British student returning home from the United States might expect an easier transition than a Thai or Saudi Arabian student. However, the less a returnee expects to experience reverse culture shock, the more likely it is that adjustment difficulties will cause alarm.
Changes (or lack of) in the home environment
This variable can work in several ways. A returnee may expect everything to be the same at home as it was when he or she left. During the student's absence, there may have been subtle or dramatic changes in political, economic, environmental, or social factors on a national scale. Family relationships or the standard of living may have altered in ways not anticipated. Such unexpected changes may be stressful psychologically. Conversely, a student may return home to find nothing seems to have changed. This can intensify the student's feeling that there is no one there who can understand what he or she is going through.
Job situation upon return
Graduates who have difficulty finding an appropriate job, or any job, upon their return can be expected to experience more stressful re-entry than those who return to a past position (or a promotion), or who are able to make a new start at an appropriate level. Sometimes, those returning to previously held positions feel they have outgrown them, or that superiors and colleagues do not appreciate their contributions. Others may find that their host country’s program of study did not prepare them to deal with real conditions and resources in the home environment.
Even the most aware individual is not immune from reverse culture shock or re-acculturation bumps, but the returnee should be able to understand what is happening and why. Ideally, the student will be calm and capable of focusing on what he or she can do to ease the transition process, will look for ways to assimilate the host cultural experience, and will translate it so that family, friends and colleagues can understand and share the benefits.
Availability (or lack) of a support group
Being able to share concerns and coping strategies with other recent or more established returnees can help reduce the panic, depression, frustration, and sense of helplessness that can accompany re-entry. Students who return to places where few people have studied abroad may feel very alone since there is no one with whom they can discuss their concerns. It helps to locate even one other person who has shared this experience and to see that one can successfully overcome reverse culture shock.
Length of the readjustment period
The length of time that the re-adjustment phase lasts will, of course, vary from person to person and depending on the variables of your unique situation, which have been discussed previously in this section. As a general rule, the readjustment period is more or less equal to the time you spent away.
The good news is this period of readjustment does not last forever! Following are some suggestions to make this transition a bit easier on you and your family and friend.
Acknowledge your adjustment
First and foremost, acknowledge the re-entry phase as part of your total study abroad experience. Just as you had to give yourself time while going through the culture shock phase (if you did experience culture shock) so, too, must you give yourself time to go through the re-entry phase. Acknowledging that reverse cultural adjustment is real will help you avoid feelings of guilt that might occur if you are feeling depressed or unhappy about being home. As one returnee stated in the survey, "Don't blame yourself, give yourself time . . . I'd have felt less guilty and peculiar if I'd realized it was a common phenomenon."
Share your adjustment
Educate your family and friends about this phase of adjustment. Many people have never heard of “reverse cultural adjustment” and are not aware of its existence. If the people around you know a little about what you are experiencing, then, hopefully, they will be a bit more patient and understanding. If you have difficulty communicating your feelings, share this manual with your family and possibly your friends. Remind those around you that you cannot unlearn what you have learned and that you need time to re-integrate those conflicting components within yourself.
Stay in contact with your host culture
Keep in contact through letters (and, if possible through telephone calls or e-mail) with the family and friends you made in your host country. Build upon your newfound interests and knowledge by reading the local newspaper from the area where you studied, and continue to nurture your language skills whether it be at home, with a friend, or in a formal class setting. Some returnees have the feeling of never having been overseas after their return to the home country, so this will help you feel that what you experienced was real and not one big dream. Furthermore, you will further develop, and continue to use, the very valuable skills that you have been in the process of acquiring.
Seek out others and get involved
If possible, seek out other returnees that live nearby. If you return to your university, find others who have also studied abroad. The fact that they have gone through (or are going through) re-entry adjustment and can offer support and advice about how to cope will be helpful. Other returnees often want to hear your overseas adventure because they have a multicultural and international perspective, which allows them to more fully appreciate your experience. Participate in study abroad fairs, and talk with students who are interested in participating in your program.
Take a course in the foreign language that interests you
If you cannot fit this into your class schedule then think about contacting your university’s ESL department about becoming a conversation partner. Think about starting a language table, where a group of students interested in improving foreign language skills in a specific language can meet one to three times a week during either lunch or dinner and only speak that language. The topics of discussion are irrelevant; the purpose is to get a group together that has a common interest in a specific language and/or a specific region of the world.
Join a cultural organization or volunteer (at your study abroad office)
Seek out other captive audiences that would have a natural interest in your international experience. Part of readjusting is being able to tell your story and describe the experiences that you have lived through. Such audiences include cultural organizations (you may want to consider becoming a member), civic groups that have an interest in the part of the world where you lived, school groups studying the part of the world where you lived, and, most importantly, prospective study abroad candidates.
Being a volunteer at your study abroad office can help you affirm the importance of your experiences while helping students learn about international opportunities. You are the perfect person (if you had a positive overseas experience) to be an advocate for the office and the program.
Set goals for your future
Now is the time for you to look towards your future. You have finished one phase of your life and are ready to move ahead. Think about your next challenge or goal. Begin to make plans for that goal and put those plans into action. Even if you are returning to your university to finish a degree, you can develop goals for that period of time so that you will feel you are moving ahead rather than regressing. It is common for students who do return to university to feel they have gone 10 steps forward (their experience abroad), and now are going 11 steps backward (the return to university). It is up to you to get the most out of that time by giving yourself new goals and challenges. Take the influence of your international experience and use it positively to help plan the next phase of your life.
Keep a journal
Keeping a journal, or continuing the one you kept while abroad, can help you work through many of the emotions that you’re experiencing. It’s a wonderful tool with which to reflect upon all you’ve learned and how you’ve changed during your time abroad. People continue to gain perspective and insight on their time abroad long after they’ve returned to their home, so take the time to reflect within the pages of a journal.
Here is some advice from other returnees:
• "I think one of the best steps to take is to give yourself and your friends and family time. It was good to visit with people and catch up on their news and listen to them. Listening is important."
• "Try and reflect on the positive aspects of your stay away and the positive aspects of your here and now and how they compare and contrast."
• "Don't be surprised¬ it will take time to readjust, but you'll feel at home again in time. Don't expect to view/see people or things as you did when you left. Try to look for the positive things in returning home, not the negative."
• "First of all, realize it is very natural to experience such. Secondly, try not to take yourself too seriously (if possible) . . . Keep up your ties with your friends in the 'foreign' country by letters and phone calls."
• "Be patient with yourself and your mood swings. Keep in touch with friends you've met, but don't forget to build new bridges at home."