by Alice Wu (*)
After three years in the US, a German student returned home and was surprised that her friends either seemed disinterested in hearing about her experiences abroad or were jealous of them. An American student returning home from study abroad missed her friends in Spain and played Spanish music constantly until her roommates begged her to turn it off: they told her to “stop wallowing” and “get over it.”
A British student felt confused and had difficulty communicating after two years in Australia and the US: she would mix-up American and British vocabulary and speech patterns. Her friends and family commented “how American” she sounded and teased her about “putting on” an American accent.
After returning to the US, an American woman who spent two years in Japan had difficulty looking people in the eye: her parents told her to stop hunching over and acting in such an embarrassingly modest manner! A Chinese student returned home after a year and a half in the US, and she was criticized by family and friends for being too assertive and for using too many gestures and facial expressions.
An American student returned home after three years in Sweden and was shocked when a complete stranger struck up a conversation with her in a dressing room at Macy’s. A British student felt depressed and restless after returning home from four years in France and Italy. He wondered if something was wrong with him and felt like just going abroad again.
It’s called reentry shock
What do all of these students have in common? They are all experiencing some form of ‘reentry or reverse culture shock,’ a common occurrence in people returning to their own country after living abroad. Reentry or reverse culture shock is similar to the culture shock and cultural adjustment that occur when someone moves to a new place – the difference is that while people generally expect to have to adapt to a new place, most do not expect that going home will also involve adjustment. Perhaps because it comes as a surprise, returning to one’s home culture can often seem more difficult or complicated than moving to a new culture.
Have you been home after living abroad, or are you planning to return to your country? If so, it may be helpful to consider what often happens when people return to their own cultures after living abroad.
It may be hard to realize how much you may have changed. However, you have had new experiences abroad, met new people, learned new skills, and been exposed to a variety of different attitudes and life styles. You may be very different than you were when you left home, with different tastes, perspectives, and even values than those that you once had. Not only does being abroad give you more of a sense of your home culture, it also allows you to see it from a distance, which may cause you to question some of the values and behavior that you were brought up with. For example, you may have developed different views about your career goals, the roles of men and women, the type of family relationships you prefer, or politics. You may have changed the ways you like to spend your time, your patterns of socializing, or your verbal/nonverbal communication.
Things at home
Although you have probably changed a great deal, in contrast, your family and friends may not have changed very much, and they may expect or want you to be the way you were before leaving home. Your relationships may need to be renegotiated as everyone becomes reacquainted. You may suddenly have difficulty connecting with old friends or family members, and may feel pressure to conform to the norms of your family or society. In addition, those at home have had experiences that you have not shared, and they may have established routines that you are not a part of. In addition, conditions at home may have changed: e.g., there may have been significant changes in the political system, in societal attitudes, or in current trends.
The reentry cycle
While reactions may differ depending on various factors, it is common to have some type of reentry experience when returning home. An estimated 85% of returnees experience some form of reentry shock, and about 15% have a more serious reaction. Similar to the stages of culture shock and cultural adjustment, the reentry cycle usually consists of the following stages: 1) a period of initial happiness and excitement about being home, followed by 2) a realization of differences that may lead to irritation or confusion, then 3) a gradual adjustment, and finally, 4) the synthesis of a more intercultural perspective.
Some typical reactions
Some typical reactions that returnees have may include the following: feelings of restlessness or rootlessness; feelings of isolation, depression or boredom; questions about your identity and values; ‘reverse homesickness’ or nostalgia for the lifestyle or people of the other country; an inability to describe your experiences abroad in a way that can really express them; difficulty or confusion when using your native language; a sense of being an observer instead of a participant in your own culture; negative or critical feelings towards the culture /values of your home country; a desire to return abroad; a more individualistic attitude than you previously had; or difficulty making use of your new knowledge/skills.
So – what can you do to make your return home easier?
- Be patient with yourself and others.
- Don’t expect to instantly be as close to your friends as you were before, or expect your family to immediately and eagerly accept your independence.
- Realize that it is normal to go through some type of readjustment process, and that it may be helpful to share your feelings with others.
- Get reacquainted with your home culture and with those living there – and try to be as open and flexible as you were while overseas.
- Know when to stop talking about your overseas experience and monitor yourself for “foreign behavior.
- Make an effort to find a balance that incorporates both your “old” and your “new” selves; you are creating a synthesis in your life.
- Maintain your ties abroad: write, call, e-mail or fax.
- Plan future trips abroad.
- Consider internationally related work.
- Try to get involved with people who have had similar experiences and join activities where you can use your new skills and knowledge.
- Finally, relax, give yourself time, and enjoy getting to know your home country again while continuing to use your international perspective!
(*) Alice Wu, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, March 1994