Where do I belong?! Thoughts on reverse culture shock

Guest post by Shelly D. Lane, Ph.D

“Where once I had beauty, I had the stark walls of the house closing in on me . . . where once I had joy, I felt only anger.”

These sentiments describe my feelings after returning to the US from studying abroad at the University of Stirling in Scotland.  Without knowing it at the time, I was experiencing “reverse culture shock.”  According to the Marquette University Office of International Education: Study Abroad website, reverse culture shock  is  “an emotional and psychological stage of re-adjustment, similar to your initial adjustment to living abroad.”   The chance of experiencing culture shock increases the longer you’re away from your home culture and the easier you adapt to your host culture.

“In truth, it is memory of Stirling that gives me strength and hope for better times ahead. Although I can’t recall what happiness feels like, I remember that I once was happy.”

In addition to emotions such as depression, disorientation, and helplessness, symptoms of reverse culture shock include increased irritability with your home culture and a longing to return to your host culture. You may no longer feel at home in culture into which you were born.  Similarly, your new global perspective may cause you to experience insights about your home culture that are not shared by your friends and family.  You may even feel more connected to your host culture than your home culture.  Although consequences of culture shock include confusion, loss, and anger, preparing for reverse culture shock can help you contend with its debilitating effects.  The same skills that helped you adapt to your host culture — adaptability, flexibility, and knowledge that “this too shall pass” — will help you readjust to your home culture.

Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock

“Where once I was surrounded by friends, I now had to make ‘appointments’ to see them. When I did meet my friends, it was clear that their lives had veered in a direction totally opposite from mine . . .”

•    Reconnect with old friends.  While it’s true that you may not have as much in common, meeting with old friends can help you contend with loneliness and alienation.  Although you will want to talk about your study abroad experiences, ask your friends about their lives.  Just as you have changed, you friends have likely changed as well and may not be accepting of lengthy detail-laden descriptions of situations experienced abroad.

“The International Students’ Association was looking for volunteer counselors and I immediately knew that this was something I wanted to do and could do well. The volunteer counselors participated in training sessions and an overnight camping trip at the beach before the international students arrived. The fun began once people from all over the world gathered at the Association meeting place.”

•    Make new friends.  Avoid the temptation to lose yourself in isolation; join new clubs, take classes, and go out of your way to be in the company of others.  You may also want to work with international students who are studying in your home culture.  Your experiences and wisdom may help international students contend with their own feelings of culture shock.

“Once while driving down Sunset Blvd., I gazed up at the multi-storied buildings and modern skyscrapers. I thought to myself, “How unlike Stirling!” My date sneered, “You’re still obsessed with your old boyfriend; I can tell!” He didn’t speak to me for the rest of evening despite my protestations.”

•    Realize that there will some who will neither understand nor empathize with your study abroad experiences.  You may be characterized as “anti [insert your home culture here]” or a person who has changed . . . for the worse.  Remember that the person you’ve become is most likely more culturally sensitive and possesses a global awareness that may not be common among members of your home culture.  This is what personal growth is all about.

“I recall [in the grocery store] being surrounded by rows and rows of food. Not only was there every type of food imaginable, the food was fresh, frozen, and canned. There were even different brands of the same type of canned food! There was so much to look at and choose from that I found it difficult to take it all in. I literally stood in awe; the abundance was overwhelming.  How unlike Stirling.”

•    Be prepared for “consumer overload.”  You may have gotten used to limited quantities and varieties of food while living in your host culture.  You may have even congratulated yourself for creating good-tasting meals with few ingredients.  It may therefore seem overwhelming to shop in a Western grocery store because of the daunting array of choices.

“Someday I will again experience fields of daffodils that sway in the breeze, steaming hot tea on cold winter mornings, and the laughter, love, and friendship of the warmest people on earth. I vow to return to Stirling an independent and successful woman.”

•    Most importantly, be good to yourself.  Allow yourself to feel confused and give yourself time to transition to your home culture.  You most likely became a “new person” because of your study abroad experience, and now this new person must adapt to a new culture (“new” because it is being perceived by a person who has changed).  You may have also developed new personal and professional goals; give yourself breathing room and don’t chastise yourself if you can’t meet your goals within your desired time frame.  Have faith in yourself, trust yourself, and know that just as you successfully dealt with culture shock, you will also successfully deal with reverse culture shock.

Shelley D. Lane, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education in the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.  Excerpts in this blog entry are printed with permission from her study abroad memoir, “A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-of-Age” (http://www.astirlingdiary.com).

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Comments

  1. Jeramy Johnson says

    Thank you Dr. Lane for sharing your story and wisdom with our students! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the insight into reverse culture shock! I think it is also important to note that the more frequently you go abroad, the easier it becomes to reintegrate afterwards. While I remember feeling depressed just listening to the radio and realizing I had missed all the “summer jams” after my 2005 trip to France and Portugal, my true friends at home all acknowledge that when I return from each subsequent trip, it seems that very little about our relationship has really changed!

  3. A fabulous post! Not to mention, I love that you studied at Stirling–I spent a year abroad there as well!–and I found it so much harder coming home than leaving for my study abroad experience. The nostalgia can creep up on you when you least expect it, and it’s often overwhelming. Your tips are really helpful in making readjustment an easier process. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • I understand what you mean about nostalgia. Even today,
      over 30 after I studied in Scotland, a certain aroma, song, or
      taste brings me back to Stirling. Thanks for your post!

  4. Great post! I still struggle with reverse culture shock after all my time abroad. Living in another culture makes even the most mundane tasks all the more interesting, and now I feel like coming back home is the hardest part!

    Friends and family definitely help though, so let them know what you’re going through and they will be there to support you.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • Jeramy Johnson says

      Thanks Andrew! It’s true, everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, don’t they?

    • Research suggests that the better you adjust to your host
      culture (and the experience of low level culture shock), the more
      difficulty you will experience when you return to your home culture
      (and the greater experience of reverse culture shock). Speaking for
      myself, I had no idea that readjusting to my home culture would be
      more difficult than adapting to my host culture.

  5. Very interesting article, lending us the power to keep on going forward and avoid a reverse, no matter how hard that sometimes could be…

    Nice one!!!

  6. Thank you so much for posting this article. I have recently
    moved to University in Edinburgh after spending half my life living
    in Asia. I was born in Britain, and although I have British parents
    and a British passport, I don’t feel like I’m British at all! I
    thought moving to University in the UK would be easier than
    elsewhere as it is technically considered my ‘home’, but instead I
    have found it hard to settle. I have been wondering what is wrong
    with me since moving, and you’re article has finally cleared things
    up! Thank you again – you have really put me at ease and I feel
    like I know how to move forward now, and with my friends and family
    by my side, hopefully Edinburgh will soon feel like home!

    • Shelley D. Lane says

      Hi Hannah:

      Enjoy Edinburgh and let me know how you’re doing (astirlingdiary@verizon.net).

      Shelley

  7. suzana dado says

    this is so much true ..
    I lived in Germany from 1990-1995 reentry was tough …five years later I moved to the states where I was homesick all the time could not wait to go back…another reentry 2011 in Albania and I feel mentally ill ..
    If I did not read this article I might have thought of seeking help at a psychiatrist …
    All people look weird to me with three heads …as I am in wonderland …
    My old friends find my very irritable and not a lot of things to talk about….

  8. I just want to ask how long it takes a person to overcome culture shock. I’ve been back home for almost two months now after spending a year in Malaysia, but I still feel like packing my bags and going back abroad. I guess I miss the sense of adventure (there’s always something to do even on weekends) and I miss the diversity. It was a good feeling having to mingle and getting to know about people with different cultures. Back home, I don’t get that much exposure. I miss the food and friends I’ve made in Malaysia. I’m back here at home but it feels like I’ve changed or that my relationship with my friends here have changed… and it’s kind of depressing really. Sometimes I get to thinking that I’m more fit to be living abroad, or is it just part of the adjustment phase?

  9. Thank you Dr. Lane. Thank you so much for this article. It is crazy but I cannot seem to tell you how much I identify with this phase. I spent the past year working/studying in France and travelling on my fancy. Coming back home to India was more of a cultural shock than it was leaving India and heading to the west. I can’t seem to find my place. It has been 6 months since I came back home. I met my old friends but they seemed so petty. I enrolled myself in a Masters program that I am currently pursuing, I am up to the neck with all my extra curricular’s as well. Then why do I still feel so disoriented? Like I may never find my place here, back home?

    • Rebecca says

      Hey I just came back from an study exchange from France and another couple of months traveling and doing volunteering in different countries. When I came back to my home country and restarted my new semester here, at first I felt so excited to meet my new friends and families. But then I got into a phase of depression, with all my courses cramming up, friends changed and a sense of disorientation. I miss the friends I made during my stay abroad and more I found myself fell in love with a guy and then I messed up and lost that relation . I felt sad actually. My friends also secretly told each other that I have changed as well. I’m so perplexed about my status quo and really at a loss now… Then I learned about the term reverse culture shock and was hoping it might help somehow 🙁

  10. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon every
    day. It will always be exciting to read articles from other writers and practice something from their sites.

  11. I really wish I had read this earlier,I have been feeling so confused ,lonely and like a complete misfit after returning to N.Z having spent 24 years in the U.S,turns out I am making all the classic mistakes you advise against,self alienation being the main one,I’ll take some strength from knowing other people are going through similar feelings and I may not be a complete weirdo after all!!!

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