Our generation seems like a pretty adaptable bunch. We’re growing up during a time when everything—technology, politics, the economy—is changing faster than ever. I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes I feel like I’m still adjusting to the culture that I grew up with for the past 21 years. Now imagine getting used to an entirely new country for four months to a year, and then being thrust back into American society. It feels like reverse culture shock- like you’re stuck somewhere between the two countries. Coming back from abroad takes some mental and sometimes physical preparation and many times, it’s simpler to get used to life in a foreign country than to life back home.
What To Expect: When Culture Shock Gets the Best of You
Even the most mundane aspects of life at home are bound to stand out more after your abroad experience. For Vanessa Freidman, an NYU student who studied in London last spring, the two countries felt worlds apart. “There’s definitely a feeling of being out of the real world and it feels like everything that happens abroad is separate from real life,” she says.
Being abroad also comes with a certain lack of inhibition and a chance to make a fresh start with new people. But switching back to a more structured home life can bring a shock of its own. Suddenly, you’re back with the friends who only know the old you and the parents who expect you to live by their rules.
Rachel Mathisen, a UPenn student who spent Summer 2009 in Spain, says that the return home came along with a serious readjustment process. The Spanish eat breakfast at eight, lunch seven hours later at 3 followed by a siesta and then dinner eight hours after that at 11. When she came home, Mathisen’s eating habits were completely out of whack. “One day [in Spain] I was talking to my real mom on the phone and she was making dinner at the same time as my host mom,” she says. “The U.S. is six hours behind Spain. Something so basic as food suddenly became a challenge.
For Stephanie Tietz, an American University student who spent this fall in Cairo, Egypt, the switch was more of a personality adjustment of sorts. “They have a very bribe-friendly situation over there so I got used to just talking my way around things,” she says. She learned just how far convincing can go when she tried to get through airport security without boarding information and was denied. “I said ‘no, we don’t need it’ and they let us go.” Afterwards, Tietz felt ill-prepared for the bureaucracy of campus life. Even convincing the school to accept her credits from abroad was a challenge.
Unlike Friedman who embraced her independent side in London, Tietz was encouraged to be dependent on male escorts for safety whenever she wanted to leave her apartment in Cairo. She often stayed inside just to prove she didn’t need a man’s help. Now she’s still adjusting to the freedom of wandering campus alone.
Sure, the transition process can be overwhelming. But all those experiences and changes don’t have to be lost in translation.
How to Deal: Embracing the Culture Shock
Though it seems the easiest solution would be to hop back on a plane and avoid getting readjusted altogether, the majority of us have lives to face in our home country. You’ll need to face this battle head first, but not without some tips from our experienced study-abroaders.
Though Friedman still misses her traveling life, she also continues to use the experience to her advantage, keeping in touch with the friends she made abroad and even looking into grad school or a future career in London. Regardless of what happens, Friedman knows that she will always have a connection to that culture. You spent a huge amount of time abroad and it’s inevitable that a part of that culture is now a part of you. It’s important to share this with your friends back home so they can better understand you. Mathisen says that she loves telling stories of her time in Spain, and even plans to take one of her high school friends back with her in March.
Sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective to make the two countries seem a bit less distant from one another. Mathisen’s biggest struggle when returning back home was leaving behind all the relationships she made with students from around the world. Her coping strategy? Constantly reminding herself how lucky she is that she has a loving home both here and abroad. That, and frequent Skype conversations with her Spanish host mom.
Tietz says that the only true cure for reverse culture shock is time. “I often find myself thinking of those horrible experiences in Cairo as I turn down my friend’s offers to go out at night,” she says. “I’m hoping to get over this soon so I can enjoy life more down here.”
Of Course We Wouldn’t Leave You Without Some Tips:
While some level of culture shock is inevitable when returning home from abroad, studyabroad.com notes that many colleges offer workshops to aid students in the readjustment process. This gives them the opportunity to talk to others who are just as excited to share their amazing experiences. Do a little research to see if your school offers a similar program. Here are some more tips for making the transition a bit easier:
- Keep in touch: You’ll never find someone who understands how amazing your time abroad was as much as the friends who were right there with you. They’re probably struggling with being back home, too and might have some good tips.
- Bring a bit of foreign culture back with you: Cook a meal for your friends, show them all your pictures, or teach them something you learned while abroad. Sharing those experiences with your home friends will make the two worlds seem a bit more similar. Cooking Spanish dishes for her friends was a great way for Mathisen to reminisce about her time in Spain. “Food is such a strong tie to another culture,” she says.
- If possible, make future plans to go back some day: Viewing your study abroad experience as ongoing makes it feel more permanent and more a part of who you are now.
Rachel Mathisen: UPenn ’11
Vanessa Friedman: NYU ’10
Stephanie Tietz: American ’11