Understanding Reverse Culture Shock
The school year is coming to an end, which means that you and other NWSE exchange students in the U.S. and around the world are preparing for your journeys home. It’s difficult to know what to expect at the end of an exchange program. Like most exchange students, you are probably thinking about the homemade meal you have been craving, or about finally seeing your beloved pet again. But once you have survived your 10-hour-long flight, slept off the jet lag, and escaped all of the hugs and kisses from your happy relatives, a different set of emotions may begin to set in.
Students returning from exchange programs are often surprised by how they feel when they return home. Many expect to feel a certain way when they step back into their house – maybe comfort, relief, or pride. After all, it’s something they have been anticipating for weeks. Instead, they have feelings they didn’t expect: boredom, anxiety, or loneliness. In fact, these emotions were the very feelings they experienced at the beginning of their exchange, known as culture shock. It may be no surprise that the feelings associated with returning home have been called reverse culture shock (or re-entry shock).
Robin Pascoe, an American author, describes reverse culture shock as feeling “like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”
Things have changed. For your part, you have gone through a deep, personal transformation you might not even notice yet. Some parts of your home life may also have changed while you were away. Social circles may have rearranged, or someone you know may have moved away. Time did not stand still. This makes returning home especially challenging. Furthermore, after the first day or two, you may find that people are less and less interested in hearing your amazing stories from your time abroad. After months of constant excitement and new experiences abroad, life at home may seem unexciting or even disappointing by comparison.
Like culture shock, reverse culture shock will be difficult for you at first. After adapting fully to a new culture, you must now re-adapt to your home culture. The most important thing for you, your family members, and your friends to understand is that the complicated emotions associated with reverse culture shock are completely normal, and they will take time to overcome.
NWSE has some helpful advice for managing reverse culture shock:
- Start something new: While abroad, you realized just how independent and clever you really are. Now is the perfect time to join a club or a new sports team to keep your momentum. A busy schedule will also help fight off the feelings of boredom or anxiety.
- Keep in touch…and not just on Facebook! Write a letter or send a package to your host family. Make a photo album or scrapbook to send to your friends. These projects will help you process the experience and show you that you can still stay connected even across oceans.
- Stay engaged with your host culture: Just because you’ve returned home does not mean you have to forget everything you learned about your host culture. You can find creative ways to keep your interest in your host culture alive. Try to make a dish you loved while overseas or volunteer to be a language tutor so you can use your language skills.
- Plan for the future: You may not know it yet, but you have learned so much. Now is the perfect time to think about how you want to use your new skills in the future. Perhaps you now want to attend college overseas or even learn another foreign language.
- Tell your story: Most importantly, find a way to share your experiences with others. Send NWSE some of your favorite photos from abroad or share a happy exchange memory with us. Join our Alumni Network and connect with other NWSE exchange students who understand exactly how you are feeling.
Check out some of the links below for more information about reverse culture shock:
Carruthers, F. (July, 2017). My reverse culture shock: Returning from a year abroad is tough. The Guardian.
Cordova, T. (August, 2016). Tips for dealing with reverse culture shock when you return home. Diversity Abroad. Retrieved from:
Expatica. (2018). Reverse culture shock: What, when and how to cope.
Students Abroad. (2012). Study abroad student handbook – Cuba.
US Department of State. (2018). Reverse culture shock.
Wong, A. (April, 2013). 10 ways to overcome reverse culture shock. The Verge Magazine.