The first time I heard the term “culture shock,” (before I had actually experienced it) I thought it had a glamorous and slightly self-indulgent ring to it. Those of us who have spent any extended amount of time abroad know that that culture shock exists and can thoroughly throw a person for a mental and emotional loop. For a more in-depth discussion of what to expect when experiencing initial entry culture shock, check out our culture shock section. The highs and lows of culture shock are well-documented and something many study abroad programs introduce their students to, but the shock of returning home can be just as trying and is often overlooked.
Returning home from living or studying abroad in a foreign country is an undeniably bittersweet transition. The bitter: leaving a place in which you have attempted to create a home for yourself. The sweet: returning to a place that is already a home. But how do you reconcile the two? How do you reintegrate yourself into a place which may have become foreign while you have been trying to adjust to another? What if the place you’ve been so homesick for isn’t as you remember it? One of the main reasons why reentry is so difficult is because we don’t expect it to be difficult. We expect home to be home. However, the home you are returning to may have stayed the same, but (even if you haven’t noticed it yet) you have not. What results is a lot of confusion, melancholy, and stress.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Reentry Shock:
The metaphor of a space shuttle is used by Gary Weaver, a professor of intercultural communication, to illustrate the processes of culture and reentry shock: high stress upon entering the new environment, and equally high stress upon exiting it and reentering the old environment. Some of the stresses a person might experience upon reentering his or her old environment include confusion with regards to nonverbal messages, personal space, and appropriate greetings. More tangibly, changes in lifestyle also contribute to the shock of reentry, such as differing costs of living, modes of transportation, or even methods of payment. Relearning to drive after taking the Tube everywhere can be a strain on the system. So can having to readjust to a credit economy after having lived in a cash economy. Dealing with stressors like these can lead to subconscious reactions, such as sleeping in excess, fantasizing about returning abroad, and withdrawing from people.
Dr. Weaver also emphasizes the problems that romanticizing about one’s home culture can cause during reentry. While abroad, we remember things brighter, shinier, prettier, and better than they actually are. We distort the reality of home out of homesickness, and end up disappointed when we return to it. That hamburger from your favorite greasy spoon you fantasized for months about isn’t as delicious as you remembered, and you find yourself craving a new favorite dish acquired while abroad. This disillusionment can lead to hopelessness, misdirected anger, and depression.
Another difficult aspect of reentry is the inability many people find in explaining their experience to their loved ones. How do you quantify or describe a year of living when your Aunt Ida asks you, “So… how was it?” It is a question you’ll be asked ad nauseam, and it is a one without a concise answer. Being unable to articulate the complexity, intensity and nuances of a year of living abroad is one of the communication failures that make the reentry process so frustrating.
However, have faith: the process of reentry is not all about being confused and lost at sea. Being exposed to another culture while abroad can teach you what aspects of your native culture matter most to you. Going through the initial culture shock will teach you how to cope with this sort of transition. Also, know that reentry shock (like initial culture shock) is temporary. Just as culture shock entails a honeymoon period, a bottoming out, and then a recovery stage, so does reentry shock, as illustrated above.
Finally, knowing that reentry shock is coming is also a big part of overcoming it. Anticipating the fact that your home may not be as you remember or expect it plays a huge role in readjusting more easily. Keep in mind that, as with the transition and ultimate recovery of the culture shock experience, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: final adaptation and recovery.