Many of our student returnees say that readjusting to their home cultures is more difficult than initially adjusting to the United States. Challenges associated with returning home and readjusting to one’s home culture are referred to as reentry or reverse culture shock. Here, NWCCI Associate Director Amanda Fletcher writes about her reentry experience and what she learned from it. We hope it is useful for all of our alumni, from those who have been home for one week to those who have been home for five years.
Returning from a year abroad, my reverse culture shock started before I even crossed through U.S. customs. It seemed like there were more people in the airport than in the whole country of New Zealand. Everyone was loud and moved faster that I could process. The U.S. dollars seemed too small and the portion size at the airport Chili’s was too big.
I wrote 17 pages in my journal on the two-day trip home. I questioned whether American accents had always sounded “nasally and flat” and if my traveler identity could peel away in one long, east-bound flight.
Stepping off the plane into an August North Carolina day, still accustomed to the mild southern hemisphere winter weather I was leaving, I had to gasp for my first few breaths. The hot, humid air was so heavy with water I felt like I was drowning. I was thrilled to see my parents at the airport and to stop for barbecue and sweet tea on the way home. I had a series of panicked moments feeling like the cars driving on the right side of the road were going the wrong way.
The first night I was back in my childhood room I stayed up long enough to see the sun come up. The walls seemed too big and the familiar was frightening.
My family was glad I was home and spent the first weeks stuffing me with all of my favorite foods. They asked questions about my time abroad, but I couldn’t find words to explain how I was different. Living abroad had given me opportunities to realize who I was away from my family. In New Zealand I created my own community, challenged myself and figured out who I was in a world that did not confine me to past roles or actions.
The first month home I only wanted to sleep and eat.
Then I ordered dozens of Kiwi books and movies and returned to my adopted country for hours each day.
I emailed with the people I’d left behind. Sometimes it made me feel better, but mostly it made me aware of all of the things I was missing.
I woke up out of breath from dreams about unfinished business in New Zealand. I dreamed I forgot to close my bank account, that I’d left the stove on, and that I left without saying goodbye.
I would be laughing with my friends, feeling completely normal for hours at a time and then I’d experience a nagging sense that I didn’t fit in here.
I missed the constant learning that took place when I was struggling to understand a new culture. I missed standing out and being asked for my perspective. I missed travel conversations and being able to share thoughts about things I was just figuring out with people I knew would not be in my life long enough to hold me to my changing ideas. I missed changing, redefining who I wanted to be.
I got sick of starting sentences with “In New Zealand…” and feeling like everyone was secretly rolling their eyes.
Days and week started to stack on each other and I started wondering what I should do next. I dreamed travel dreams and considered moving to Australia, taking a job on a cruise ship, or becoming a flight attendant.
And then I realized that a career in international education would allow me to help other people have experiences like the ones I had in New Zealand. And I continued on the only path I could imagine, studying international education and writing a master’s thesis on reverse culture shock.
Ten years have passed since those early, tear filled days. I cannot say that I’ve been cured, or that I don’t still have days where I miss my traveling self.
But more and more I realize that I’ve been able to integrate what I learned about myself abroad into my life and career in the United States. Those initial challenges gave me opportunities to reevaluate my life and think about the type of work I wanted to do. And now I know that is the point of studying abroad. Traveling is about more than taking pictures with monuments and eating good food. Stepping away from our homes gives us something to compare home to and makes us better able to understand the places we come from. Time spent abroad has the power to change your attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives.
The challenges faced adjusting to a new culture are opportunities to develop communication and adjustment skills. And these are the same skills that are useful when returning to the place you call home. These changes can be embraced and integrated into your life in a way that makes it better. While the experience of reverse culture shock can be unpleasant to experience, it is an opportunity for learning and growth.
Everyone’s story is different and no one else will have the same experiences returning home. But if you are experiencing reverse culture shock, look for ways to pursue your international interests and meet people who have had experiences similar to your own. Stay connected with each other and with the NWCCI program – use Facebook, email, Skype, etc. to communicate with the people who are having some of the same experiences. Know that it is normal to experience challenges when returning to your home country after an extended time abroad and celebrate all the things your time abroad has taught you about yourself.
The NWCCI program is part of the Community College Initiative, an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The opinions expressed in this blog by writers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Northwest Community College Initiative program, Edmonds Community College, Whatcom Community College, Pierce College, the United States Department of State or any employee thereof. NWCCI and Edmonds Community College are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied by the student bloggers.