The University of San Francisco: Center for Global Education

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Transitioning Home

Defining Reverse Culture Shock (from USF's Counseling & Psychological Services Center)

So what is reverse culture shock? First, let's examine typical experiences of students returning from studying abroad. For many of these students, re-entry is often shaped by two assumptions:

  1.  An idealized view of home
  2. The expectation of total familiarity (that nothing at home will change while you are away or expecting to pick up exactly where they left off)

A problem arises when reality doesn't meet these expectations. Home may fall short of what you envision, and things may change back at home: your friends and family will have their own lives, and things will have happened while you've gone.

Also, you may not realize how much you will have changed after being gone. In adjusting to life in a new culture, your perceptions, habits, and maybe even values will change (perhaps without your awareness) to fit in with the cultural context of your host country. At the same time, you may carry around in your head a set mental picture of your home environment and/or of American culture, in general. All of a sudden, when you get home, reality just doesn't measure up to that picture.

If you have a full experience living and learning overseas, you are likely to change some, while you are away. As your perceptions change, the place you return to may appear changed as well.

I returned form my one-year study abroad in Germany to an America that was amazingly ignorant and indifferent about the rest of the world; an America that thought its way was the only way; an America of superficial, plastic people who couldn't carry on a political discussion to save their lives; an America that was unbelievably wasteful and careless with the environment. This wasn't the same country that I had left just one short year ago, was it? What had changed?
-from the Study Abroad Handbook. Bill Hoffa, 1998

Family members and friends are often surprised by the behavior of returnees. Their expectation is that the same person, who boarded the airplane 6 months or one year ago, will return. If they have never been abroad, parents and friends often don't understand the magnitude of the study abroad experience and the changes it can cause in a person.

You may also hold unreasonable expectations about the degree to which your family and friends are interested in your experience abroad. Subsequently, you may experience or feel that “nobody really cares about all of your "when I was abroad" stories”, and feel frustrated, disappointed, misunderstood, or alienated:

Friends of mine are always asking, "So, how was France?" How should I answer that question? When I try to talk about my life abroad, they start to look bored after a short time and then change the subject to talk about who is dating whom, or whatever. Nobody is interested in my experiences.
- from the Study Abroad Handbook, 1998

Stages of Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock is usually described in 4 stages

  1. Disengagement: Before you leave host country, as you begin thinking about reentry and making preparations to return home, you’ll realize that it’s time to say good-bye to your friends abroad and to the place; you had come to call home for a semester, a year, etc. Not surprisingly, you may begin to feel sad as well as anxious about the upcoming transition.

    At the same time, you may be going through the hustle and bustle of finals, goodbye parties, and packing, which may intensify any feelings of sadness and frustration you feel at that time. Or, maybe your last few days will flow by so fast that you won’t have time to reflect on your emotions and experiences.
  2. Initial euphoria: Shortly before departure, you may experience feelings of excitement and anticipation - even euphoria - about returning home and seeing your family and friends again – and no doubt, they are looking forward to seeing you again, too. The length of this stage varies, and for many, often ends with the realization that many people are not as interested in your experiences abroad as you had hoped.
  3. Irritability and hostility: Often consists of feelings of frustration, anger, alienation, loneliness, disorientation, and helplessness, while simultaneously, not understanding exactly why. You may find, for example, that you feel depressed, or are less independent than you were while abroad, or quickly become irritated or critical of others and/or of U.S. culture; or possibly feel like a stranger at home – and, as a result, long to go abroad again.
  4. Readjustment and adaptation: Gradually, you will readjust to your life back at home. Things will start to seem a little more normal again, and (fortunately or unfortunately) you will probably fall back into some old routines…

    Keep in mind, however, that things won't be exactly the same as how you left them. You may develop new attitudes, beliefs, habits, etc., as you come to see things differently, that may impact your personal and professional goals.

    Recognize and honor the changes that occur in you and the new skills you most likely will learn as a result of your study abroad experience. These skills will serve you well as you reintegrate into life at home, campus, and in your future.

Study abroad can make you:

More independent. You will learn to fend for yourself in a foreign culture and adapt to a new ways of doing things.

More aware of international issues. You will step outside the protective comfort of home to see or understand the different concerns of other people and other cultures that that many Americans are not aware of or understand. You may also find that you’re better at determining the comprehensiveness and objectivity of news reports, which are often steeped in cultural bias, as a result of spending time in a new culture.

Sensitive to differences in people. Having immersed yourself in a different culture, you will see that there are very different ways of doing, thinking, feeling and communicating. This can help you in relationships with people at home, especially people whose values and customs might be different from yours, but not any less valid than yours.

Competent in another language. If your studies were in a language other than English, you will greatly increase your proficiency in that language. People with foreign language skills are still rare in this country, and help to set you apart.

How to make the transition back smoother

  • When asked about your time abroad, keep your stories brief and general. Avoid going into too much detail about the people you met or about complicated issues which people who haven't been to the country probably would not know about.
  • Avoid excessive comparisons between the U.S. and your host country/culture.
  • Arrange your photos and slides so that people can get a good overall idea of your experience and show them if asked.
  • It may become necessary to find new friends. Seek out other students who have studied abroad. They will be able to relate to your experience and provide you with the support you need to get through re-entry.
  • Interact/Work with international students
  • Continue to learn or brush up on the language.
  • Continue to learn about your host country.
  • Integrate the best of both cultures. Don't feel you must give up one at the expense of the other!