During the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, I had the opportunity to go abroad and study at Kasteel Well in the Netherlands. I was able to travel all around Europe and meet new people both in the classroom and through my adventures. I stayed in hostels, apartments, and even with a friend’s distant cousin. I tried new food and drinks and even ended up with front row seats at a fashion show. The three months went by in a blur and amidst all of the excitement, I made memories that will last me decades, if not a lifetime.
However, I spent a good chunk of my time abroad feeling homesick. Although not much had changed with my family, it seemed like every time I talked to my friends, there was a new story that I wasn’t a part of. I couldn’t help but feel like there was a disconnect and it wasn’t just because our video chat kept buffering. I reassured myself that this was temporary and that when I returned in January, things would go back to normal as if I had never left.
For the first few days, this was partly true. My friends were all really eager to hear about my experiences and catch me up on theirs. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel awkward talking about Europe. No matter how much I tried to explain something, it seemed like they would never really understand, which makes sense, because I felt changed but I didn’t know how to express that using words.
I was a different person in a familiar place that didn’t feel so familiar anymore. I knew my friends’ lives weren’t going to stop just because I went abroad, but I couldn’t help feeling like I just didn’t fit in anymore. It would take months for me to finally get past this reverse culture shock and readjust to my life as a college student living in Boston.
Defining Reverse Culture Shock
Although many people have heard of the culture shock someone has when entering a new country, a lot less people know about the reverse culture shock someone experiences when they return home after being abroad for a period of time. In an article for Expatica.com, Robin Pascoe sums up this experience best. She says, “[Reverse culture shock] is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.” It’s as if things have changed, but at the same time, not at all.
Students often experience reverse culture shock when they are unable to pick back up where there left off once they return home. This can result from an idealized version of home and the expectation of familiarity. According to StudentsAbroad.com, “A problem arises when reality doesn’t meet these expectations. Home may fall short of what you had envisioned, and things may have changed at home: your friends and family have their own lives, and things have happened since you’ve been gone. This is part of why home may feel so foreign.” This leads many students to feel frustrated, alienated, and misunderstood. It’s these festering feelings that cause reverse culture shock to kick in.
Reverse culture shock can be broken down into four stages: disengagement, initial euphoria, irritability, and readjustment.
- Disengagement: This stage occurs right before the student embarks to return home. They are packing their bags and getting excited to be reunited with their family and friends. For me, on top of packing and preparing, I also had to spend the last few days of my time abroad studying and taking my final exams. As a result, I didn’t fully feel like I savored my last moments in the Netherlands. It all went by so fast and I was on the plane heading home before I knew it.
- Initial Euphoria: The second stage is initial euphoria which is kind of like the honeymoon stage. It can occur during pre-departure when the student is psyching themselves up about returning home and also when they finally get home. They reconnect with their family and friends who are excited to hear all about the stories and experiences they had while they were away.
- Irritability: The third stage is characterized by feelings of loneliness and isolation. According to StudentsAbroad.com, “You might quickly become irritated or critical of others and of U.S. culture. Depression, feeling like a stranger at home and the longing to go back abroad are also not uncommon reactions. You may also feel less independent than you were in the country of your choice.” Once the student is able to work through these emotions, either through outside help or just a gradual transition, they will move onto the final stage of readjustment.
- Readjustment: The last stage is readjustment and it can take up to six months to finally reach. I know for me, I was unable to readjust the entire second semester that I was back at school. It wasn’t until everyone came back from summer break to start the new school year that I finally felt like I was part of the group again. Although, it took me towards the longer end of the spectrum, it may take others only a month or two.
So, How Do You Cope With It?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question and it may just be trial and error. What worked for me may not work for someone else, but here are a few tips that might be worth a try.
Write about it. Whether it’s a blog post, song, or poem, it may help to just put your experience down on paper. Validate your own feelings! It is understandable to feel misunderstood when you return home from abroad. Especially, if you feel like your friends and family are sick of hearing about your travels, this could be a way to share those experiences with others who may be interested. Writing these stories down will also help you remember your time abroad and keep it fresh in your mind. I wrote a few blog posts about my experience and it was great to hear from others who could relate and provide me with honest support, especially about the homesickness I felt while away.
Remind yourself that it is okay that you have changed. It’s very likely your values and views of the world have changed during your time abroad and that’s okay. Learn to accept this and also learn to accept that it may mean that some of your friendships have changed as well. Remain true to yourself and be open to continuing the friendships you forged while abroad and on that note…
Keep in touch with your friends from abroad. If anyone can relate to what you’re going through, it’s them! This doesn’t mean you have to ditch your old friends, but it may be nice to reconnect with friends who recognize “this different you” and will most likely not get sick of hearing of your stories from abroad. Although, I can’t guarantee anything about that last part!
Stay international and stay curious. It may seem like your adventure is over and it may be boring being at home, but don’t forget that adventures can be had even in your small town or city. Explore a part of your state you’ve never been to or take a trip to a different state entirely. There’s plenty to discover in your own country. Adventure doesn’t always mean going to a new one. So try to find excitement in the little things and see them in a new way.
It’s Going to Be Okay!
Reverse culture shock sucks. On top of feeling isolated and just downright sad, there’s also a feeling of guilt that comes with it. There were many nights I simply felt like it was wrong to be having all of these negative feelings. Was it my fault? Was I just not trying hard enough? How would things be different if I never went abroad in the first place? I thought it would never get better, but towards the end of last semester I began seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and now I finally feel like part of the group. It’s as if I had never left.
I am so thankful for my time abroad and although readjusting has been its own journey in a way, I know if I had the opportunity to do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing. That being said, let’s start talking about reverse culture shock, because there is nothing shameful about struggling to get back into the routine of home. And perhaps, if we prepared students a little better, it wouldn’t even be as much of struggle in the first place.