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Returning Home from Study Abroad
Reverse Culture Shock
Readjustment Period
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Reverse Culture Shock

The cycle of overseas adjustment begins at the time you plan to study abroad. You may think that adjustment ends when you have successfully assimilated into the life of your host country, but, in fact, the cycle of cultural adjustment continues through your return to the United States. Culture shock and re-entry shock (more commonly known as "reverse culture shock") are not isolated events but rather part of the total adjustment process that stretches from pre-departure to reintegration at home. The rest of this chapter is designed to prepare you to leave your host country. It is important to read this section now, as well as when you are about to return home.

Change and Adaptation

You have just had the opportunity to live, study and travel overseas. During your stay you have probably assimilated some of the host country's culture, learned new ways of doing things and gained some new views and opinions about certain topics. In short, you have changed. As one returnee explains, "Living abroad has a deep, broadening effect on a person - an effect that I didn't realize until my return."

For some people, living overseas and having those changes occur outside of the United States can magnify those experiences, thus causing the return home to be a bit unsettling. In addition, some of the experiences are specific to being overseas and could not have occurred in the United States. While overseas you may have experienced a greater amount of independence both academically and personally, than you previously experienced in the United States. This independence can help make you more confident in your abilities to achieve your goals. You may have become increasingly more sure of yourself and possibly have gained a more mature or focused attitude about your future. You may even be a bit more serious and directed.

Some of these new views and attitudes may be in conflict with the views and attitudes of family and friends. They may question your new way of thinking and doing things or even pressure you to "reform." These differences may often be unsettling and uncomfortable at first.

New Skills

Along with the new ideas, views, and attitudes that you developed you probably acquired some new skills. These may include discovering a new way to do an old task, a different perspective on your field of study, or increasing your foreign language skills. And, for those of you studying in an English-speaking country, the English language will acquire a new meaning through idioms, lingo, and phrases that are specific to the host country.

These new skills will now become a part of your daily life. Increasing facility with your foreign language will probably have one of the greatest impacts. If you have learned to become dependent on these skills to communicate from day to day, then it may feel strange for you to revert back to your native language. The degree of strangeness is directly connected to the amount of culture from the host country that you have assimilated and will definitely influence your re-adjustment. You may feel frustrated and depressed if you cannot communicate your new ideas, skills or opinions, and this can be distressing. Again, patience, flexibility, and time will be required as it was at the beginning of your sojourn.

Loss of status

In your host country you may have been seen as an informal ambassador from the United States. This gave you a certain status of being "special." When you return home, you are just like everyone else and the loss of feeling a bit "special" can be a factor that you must deal with in your readjustment. One returnee describes it this way: "Being in a foreign country as a foreign visitor, you are to a certain extent a 'special person'; your new views, accent and lifestyle are all interesting to your hosts. As such, you will receive a lot of attention, make friends and, generally, be popular. However, when returning 'home', you become again a 'normal person'. I found it very difficult to make that transition."

Friendships

Now that you have studied abroad, you obviously have a new circle of friends. You most likely saw some or all of these people on a daily basis and they probably became an important part of your life. Leaving your new friends can be, for many, the most difficult part of reentry. Having to abandon intense friendships, girl/boyfriends, and/or cultural supports, frequently brings disturbing feelings characteristic of those associated in a grieving process. Though you may seem to make a good surface adjustment once home, that adjustment may, at times, cover many contained feelings of uncertainty, alienation, anger and disappointment.

Upon your return, friends at home will ask about your experiences and appear to be interested. They will often show a slight fascination for your adventures but this may quickly fade. They will whip through pictures and stories once, but because they have not shared the experience, you should be prepared for them to only have a cursory interest. After a while you may find that your friends are more eager to talk about what has gone on in their lives as opposed to hearing more about your life overseas. If many of your friends have never lived abroad you may also have to deal with feelings of envy or jealousy. When you talk "too much" about your experience, people may accuse you of being elitist even though that may not be your intention.

People are often threatened by new and unusual points of view if they have not had a similar experience. As much as you need to talk about your recent time away from home, it is advisable to be sensitive to the attitudes and feelings of others. (Refer to the section on coping strategies, which discusses other options for support).

As with your family relationships, your relationships with your friends can alter because of the changes that have occurred in your life and the lives of your friends. Former friends may even have found new friendships and have priorities which are now different from yours. Be patient. If the friendship is worth maintaining, adjustment can and will be made. If not, developing new friendships can be as exhilarating as traveling.

Family Relationships

These changes - your new independence, new views and new attitudes, your role as informal ambassador, newly acquired skills and your new friends - all have contributed to making you who you are now. The "changed you" will have to re-adjust to life in the United States, and, for some, this can be difficult. Initially, you may even have to live at home. It can be a surprise to learn that you are not the only one affected by re-entry.

After all, you are the one who has been away and had so many new experiences. Everyone and everything at home should have stayed fairly stable. However, the home that you remember is not always going to be exactly the same as it was when you left.

This feeling of "dislocation" occurs for two reasons.

Firstly, because you are now looking at what was once familiar through a new set of perceptions. Therefore, you will see everything a bit differently. The new experiences and perspectives gained abroad may mean that home is never the same again.

Secondly, like it or not, life at home did carry on while you were away. Things have happened to your family and friends and events have occurred in their lives. These events may have caused changes in their feelings, perceptions, opinions, and attitudes. Granted, these changes may not have affected your life as intensely. However, to the specific individuals their experiences are as important as your experiences are to you. Remember, and be aware, that people at home change too, so expect things to be different.

It is normal for you to desire to hold onto the person who you have become. Your overseas experience and life will now be a part of you and reflect who you are right now. The "new" you cannot be discarded or forgotten for the "old" you. However, you and your family must come to terms with that "new" you and continue to build upon your existing relationship from this point forward. It will require commitment to work toward mutual respect and understanding of each other's views. You may find that you have a totally different relationship with your family.

University/College Life

For those of you who eventually return to a university setting, you may feel you have re-adjusted during the few months at home. However, if you go directly to your home institution without time at home (or limited time at home) you may face a new set of re-adjustment issues upon return to academic life. If you have become very accustomed to a different type of academic system while overseas, you will have to deal with readjusting to your home institution's way of handling things.

For example, some students, while overseas, experience a greater amount of academic independence then they had previously experienced. If you have found that academic freedom is particularly gratifying and challenging then the re-adjustment to a system that is a bit more structured can be difficult. Returning to university life you may also feel a bit "removed" from your major and department. Stop by the office, get re-acquainted.



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