Returning from Living Abroad
Return culture shock is what you experience when you return home and realize you’re actually having to readjust to your own country. It can be a surprisingly difficult adjustment.
First, there are the obvious contrasts. More than one returner has observed that just walking through the airport on arriving in the U.S. was a surreal experience. This shock might be heightened if you’re returning from a lower-income country, perhaps especially if you were there on a service mission.
Then too, there’s friends and family. Many returners have described feeling frustrated in resuming old relationships. You might have changed a lot through your experiences abroad, whereas people at home seem pretty unchanged. While everything is familiar, you feel different. It can be very unsettling to realize you’re feeling out of place at home, with your own family and friends.
Here, the gap between one’s expectations and the reality of being home can be pretty large. In this case, it is all the more important to remain in touch with your peers from abroad, and to discuss with them what you are experiencing in your re-entry.
Often, the better integrated one became in the culture and lifestyle abroad, the harder it is to readjust to home. This can be a surprisingly difficult transition, especially if it’s not anticipated.
Regardless where you went, if you have trouble returning, know that this is normal. For some, it’s more difficult returning than it was going. You can prepare yourself somewhat by considering these observations made by many previous returners:
- Family and friends might show less interest in your stories and experiences than you expect, which can be upsetting.
- You might, if you’re unhappy about your return home, find yourself hesitating to reconnect with family and friends.
- Family and friends might not understand why you feel unhappy returning home.
- Part of your dissatisfaction could be that you’re missing the challenges and excitement of living abroad, where you had to struggle to succeed and there was a sense of achievement in just living day-to-day.
Return culture shock is usually described in 4 stages:
- Initial euphoria
- Irritability and longing
- Readjustment and adaptation
Stage 1 begins before you leave the host country. You begin thinking about re-entry and making your preparations for your return home. You also begin to realize that it’s time to say good-bye to your overseas friends and to the place you've come to call home. The hustle and bustle of finals, good-bye parties, and packing can intensify your feelings of sadness and frustration. You already miss the friends you’ve made, and you are reluctant to leave. Or, you may make your last few days fly by so fast that you don’t have time to reflect on your emotions and experiences.
Stage 2 usually begins shortly before departure, and it is characterized by feelings of excitement and anticipation – even euphoria – about returning home. This is very similar to the initial feelings of fascination and excitement you may have had when you first entered the host country. You may be very happy to see your family and friends again, and they are also happy to see you.
Stage 3 comes with the realization that most people, while happy to see you, are not as interested in your experiences abroad as you had hoped. They will politely listen to your stories for a while, but you may find that soon they are ready to move on to the next topic of conversation. This stage can be very frustrating and alienating. You might find yourself becoming irritated or critical of others and of American culture. At the same time, old restrictions and dependencies tend to reassert themselves. You might feel less self-sufficient, even less mature than you felt abroad. The longing to return overseas is common.
Most people, though, move on to Stage 4: a gradual synthesis of old and new that allows for eventual readjustment to life at home. Many students who study or work abroad go through Stage 4 re-examining their priorities, their values, and what they think of themselves and the U.S. Once this happens, feelings of dissatisfaction or stress tend to subside. Things gradually feel more normal. But the experience remains with you and your outlook on life changes in basic, positive ways.
A few things might make re-entry a little easier:
- Talk to others who have studied or worked abroad
- Keep in touch with those you met abroad
- Use the emotional momentum to continue cross-cultural interactions
- Be patient with yourself and others
- Subscribe to an international newspaper or a magazine from your host country
- Be proud of how far you’ve come and what you’ve accomplished, and think of ways you can apply that to your life back in the U.S. You are now a citizen of the world, and your horizons have permanently expanded.
- Consider visiting the Counseling Center (Humanities 150 – 1 flight up via the turret entrance; 410-617-CARE (2273)) to talk through any concerns.
Positive aspects of your experience will always remain with you:
- A wider outlook, appreciation and understanding of the world.
- Sensitivity to another culture and people that may increase your awareness of differences between people generally.
- Skills that make you a more attractive candidate to potential employers and enhance your career prospects, overall.
- Increased independence, flexibility and ability to cope with new or difficult experiences.
- New friends with whom you will stay in touch.
- Seeing your own culture from a more objective and broader perspective.