Office of International Studies

Re-Entry Shock

Introduction

We at the Office of International Studies would like to welcome you back to campus and let you know that we understand how you must be feeling. Most of you probably enjoyed the best semester/year of your lives at your off-campus study sites, and now may be finding it tough to re-enter the Wesleyan community and educational system. Some of you have apprehensions about course work, or feel that you are being expected to revert to a system that you have outgrown, or feel restricted by the rules and limitations of campus living, or are tremendously excited to be back here – or some combination of all of these. However you’re feeling, these pages provide a guide for what to expect as you settle in and readjust to life at Wes. You’ll be able to relate to much of what is written, and even if you aren’t feeling these symptoms now, you may want to refer to these pages later in the semester when you’ll probably hit another phase... usually the I-want-to-go-back phase. Here are resources to help you begin to cope with, well, everything.

Many students find that returning home is just as difficult as, if not more difficult than, studying off campus. Just as there is culture shock when you go to a place that is unfamiliar, there is reverse culture shock when you return to a place that’s familiar if you have changed. While there is always an element of excitement at getting back into things and seeing old friends, returning students are also keenly aware that they have missed out on what has been going on at home, at school, and with their friends for the past semester or year. This can all prove very disconcerting and sometimes downright depressing. If you couple anxiety about coming home with missing the new friends and the new way of life you found off campus, coming home can be emotionally quite difficult. The more you invested personally in your off-campus culture, the harder you may find it to return.

Below you will find explanations, definitions, tips and resources to help you deal with what we call Re-Entry Shock or Reverse Culture Shock. Even if you feel that you are not experiencing any unusual symptoms, take a peek at the resources and tips for how to bring your worldly experience back to Middletown. And feel free to stop by the Office of International Studies if you have any questions or concerns.

Re-Entry Shock

Now that you’re back home, you are probably observing the minute details of your previous lifestyle and making cultural comparisons in much the same fashion that you did when you arrived at your off-campus study site. The contrast of old and new may come as a shock. You probably changed a great deal while away, and it might be hard for family and friends to accept and understand some of these changes. In addition, you may not have anticipated changes that have taken place at home, and might feel that you need to become “reacquainted” with your own surroundings. As a returnee, you face the difficulty of adjusting to the crowd again while longing for the friends you left behind. Friends and family may not seem as interested in the details of your off-campus experience as you feel they should be. This may cause you to experience conflicts in readjusting to family members and old friends, and you might find yourself frustrated by the inability to describe adequately the depth and nature of your experience abroad. Complications of this sort contribute to the perplexity of the initial re-adaptation process.

Reintegration

As a returnee, you must begin to involve yourself in new activities at home and to plan a life built upon the future rather than the past. This doesn’t mean you should forget your recent off-campus study experience; on the contrary, you should use it as a reminder of how much you are capable of achieving. You coped miraculously with a variety of complex challenges and struggles as you made a niche for yourself abroad. Keep those challenges in mind: independent living, cooking for yourself, using public transportation, adjusting to a foreign culture, learning a new language, meeting new people, experiencing a place built on unfamiliar customs, money management, etc. Once you assess how much you’ve accomplished and decide what parts of your experience abroad you can use to your advantage in the future, you’ll be able to integrate the leassons of the recent past and be productive in the present.

Do you remember the onset of culture shock? Since humans are creatures of habit much more than we realize, transplanting ourselves into another culture results in a loss of those cues that guide our daily actions and decisions. Regardless of your tolerance, broad-mindedness, and empathy for the new culture, the loss of familiar props will result in some degree of frustration. Maybe your return feels similar to the culture shock you experienced when you first went off campus because your expectations for life at home did not account for all of the cultural comparisons you made and all of the personal growth you did while adapting and coping with a new environment.

Exposure to a different culture, different environment, new ideas and unfamiliar behaviors leads you to re-examine your own culture. For most people, study abroad is a unique opportunity to compare various forms of government, systems of education, values and lifestyles. This may result in a changed perception of your home country or city, leading to more critical attitudes, more positive attitudes, or both, and to an altered perception of your own country, hometown and even Wesleyan. (Not only is this natural, but it is an integral part to developing as a human being!

One student who went to Germany noted: I now understand the word “culture.”  Common knowledge isn’t “common” everywhere... No book could adequately describe what it means to have your own cultural identity the way my experience abroad defined it. And I am not talking about the hamburger and cola stereotypes but rather the way I could connect with other Americans without explaining something that I thought was common knowledge and practice. For instance, American humor seems so obvious to me, but to my German friends, well, let’s just say it took a lot to get them to laugh.  

What happens with reverse culture shock?

  • You may resist adjusting to your home country because you feel that if you adjust to this place, then you will have to stay here. Not true! Traveling is becoming more and more accessible and affordable. Even working abroad is an option. Both the OIS and the CRC can help with this.
  • Some returnees equate readjusting with a rejection or at least an undermining of the personal and professional growth they experienced while they were away. Instead, remember that your growth can be used to your advantage because it is proof of your courage and adapting skills.
  • Some believe that readjusting would mean that your experience off-campus never happened: that you would revert to the person you were before you went abroad. You’ll eventually find a healthy mix of old and new.
  • Then... you start to admit that certain things about home are rather nice, and if the truth be told, certain things about living abroad weren’t really all that pleasant. (Comparisons are natural.)
  • You begin observing through foreign eyes.
  • You are critical until you get enough hindsight to see everything from a broadened perspective.
  • Some complaints or frustrations you might expect to feel include:
  • The lifestyle off campus was so different from that at Wesleyan.
  • I got used to a laid-back atmosphere and now must adjust to the fast pace of the US.
  • I had so much time while I was off campus and now I have so much to do!
  • I can’t travel conveniently and frequently anymore
  • I can’t go anywhere special or exotic or experience anything completely new in Middletown
  • Americans have so many material possessions
  • Americans waste energy and don’t care about conserving valuable resources
  • I miss my friends from abroad
  • I miss the quality and freshness of fruit and vegetables
  • I miss good-quality products for low or reasonable prices
  • No one from home seems to care; they don’t comprehend my experience
  • My stories from abroad seem to bore people here
  • I’ve changed and grown a lot
  • My experience now seems surreal or as if it never happened
  • I’m not sure if I can cope with the hard-core work load and the heavy duty papers back here

Any one of these reactions is normal and expected.  It is important to realize you are not alone and there are some healthy steps you can take to relieve some of this anxiety and malcontent.

COMING HOME

The word HOME has lots of definitions. Most likely, home has a more profound meaning to you than just a simple referral to a place of birth or your address. For most individuals, home refers to an atmosphere, a set of routines, familiar faces and expectations. It’s a place where you are known and trusted and, conversely, where you know and trust others. And it’s a place where most people and events are predictable without many unexpected surprises, so that you are able to feel safe and secure. At “Home” you are comfortable enough to trust your instincts, relax and be yourself. Maybe your study-abroad site began to feel like “home” after you began to establish routines, developed reliable friendships, and became familiar with your surroundings. But now, even though your home in the States or in Middletown is familiar and you recognize many features that have not changed, you still find yourself surprised, offended or even shocked by other features. You may begin to respond to your home much the way a stranger would.

It is in facing what you expect home to be like that you experience difficulties in readjustment.

So how does it happen that you can become a stranger in your own land? The answer is quite simple: it involves the same adjustments that occur when a person moves overseas and adapts to a foreign country or even a new city in America.  Adjusting to another culture is a process that begins with the encountering of all manners of behavior and living conditions that are different from what one is used to back home. Do you remember some of those emotions that may have floated through your head upon arrival in your off-campus location? They might have included confusion, frustration, disgust, disapproval, etc. Those sorts of feelings can accompany you back home. While abroad, you had to simply concentrate on surviving. Over time, after you established a few routines and thereby rendered certain aspects of your life predictable and controllable, and began to get used to more and more (but not all) of the unusual behaviors and living conditions you found around you. As for the new behaviors and mannerisms that you encountered, you even started to adopt a few. These phenomena, the way people act and the circumstances of daily life, gradually become norms, and you begin to expect-- and therefore, to depend on-- them. In due course, you find yourself judging new behaviors and circumstances using these norms as the standard.  

Dorothy was wrong! It is hard to come home!

If you were off-campus in a place that doesn’t experience extreme weather such as tornadoes, maybe you were able to relax more during heavy storms. Or maybe you expected a dog to obey your English commands even though the dog was used to responding to commands in another language. These situations and numerous other scenarios of your own should prove to you that we all have become accustomed to certain habitual reactions when dealing with our familiar environment. So what happens when you come back home? Wherever you turn, you are confronted by behaviors and circumstances that now seem as different to you as many of those you encountered when you first went abroad. You may find much of your environment confusing, frustrating, disgusting and just plain wrong. Returnees miss the cues and reinforcers they got used to abroad. While there may be a voice in the back of your mind telling you that this doesn’t make sense, that these are the same behaviors and circumstances you once found normal, you still can’t help reacting the way you do even now that you’re home.

You want to tell your stories and show your pictures because you realize that you are now something of a stranger to friends and loved ones. You have been changed rather significantly by your experiences and unless you can tell people about them, how can they know and understand this new person who has come back to them?  And if they can’t know you, then what kind of relationship can you have with them?

When you can’t tell your stories, you are in effect forced to remain a stranger to the people you love...The intense feeling of loneliness many returnees experience upon reentry comes from the perception that close friends and relations no longer know who they are.

Why aren’t people more interested?

Part of the problem is the sheer amount of catching up that’s needed. Most people can sit still for half an hour or so of listening to your stories, but then they get antsy. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about you anymore, only that their attention span, even for listening to you, is limited. Do not take this personally. Take a moment to think of how friends and family may perceive you now that you’ve returned:

  • You may have left the impression that you were the only one leading an interesting life.
  • Those who stayed behind might feel threatened by you or jealous of your experience.
  • They may resent that you had an opportunity that they didn’t have.
  • They may regret passing up a similar opportunity.
  • They may feel inadequate or inferior in comparison to you, given all you have seen and done.
  • Friends and family may feel rejected and unappreciated if you carry on about how wonderful everything was abroad.
  • They may not respond the way you would like: if they have not had a particular experience, especially one that is out of the ordinary, they can’t always understand what you mean, or appreciate what the experience meant to you and feel what you must have felt.
  • They question you, but when you reply, they see it from such a different point of view that the event as you viewed it is incomprehensible to them.

Being back home means trying to get used to not being abroad.

You miss the friends you made off campus, some of whom you may feel closer to than any of your friends back home right now. You may also miss the climate, the food, favorite amusements, and favorite cafes. Maybe you went to Venice or the ocean or to a forest or a bustling city for the weekend, whereas now your choices are somewhat limited to the movies, movies and the Americanized international cuisine of Tuscany Grill and Thai Gardens. Life isn’t as exciting as it used to be. 

Perhaps what returnees miss most about being off-campus is the sense of adventure and excitement, the stimulation of being surrounded by everything that is new and different.

Daily life sparkled with exotic sights, out-of-the-ordinary experiences, new and sometimes profound insights into yourself and your own and host culture, and the countless small triumphs that are part of learning how to function in a new country and city, a new culture, and perhaps even a new language. There was always something striking or unusual happening, and you felt everything with an intensity absent in normal life. Experiences sometimes demanded of you strengths or qualities that you didn’t know you had, or had to that degree, or were obliged to develop on the spot. You could feel yourself growing. Life back home can’t match the intensity of life off campus and you will miss that intensity, satisfaction and those mind-blowing experiences that you had while away.  

Back home you melt into the crowd; you are anonymous again. No one turns to look at you, thinks your accent is remarkable, or marvels that you have traveled a great distance to be here. People don’t find you interesting merely because you are from America. And you don’t dazzle people with your command of French, Swahili, or Chinese.

Give yourself time to adjust. This is a transition. Remember how long it took you to adjust when you first arrived at your off-campus location? Expect the same readjustment period now.

You wouldn’t have to reenter if you hadn’t gone off campus... but if you hadn’t gone abroad, you would never have had the wonderful adventures and experiences that you now sometimes long for, never have met the people you now miss, and never have learned those invaluable lessons about yourself and the world that have changed both you and home forever.

Readjusting is a process that takes time, patience and some active participation.  With enough hindsight and perspective, you will see, to your great relief,that you can readjust and still hold on to many of the new values and attitudes you acquired off campus.

Humble Further Suggestions

Have you noticed that your friends and family don’t seem to appreciate photos of people they have never met as much as you do?

I separated photos of my friends from other pictures after I realized that people at home flipped carelessly over my off-campus friends without ever realizing how significant my friendships with these people had been. People looking through my pictures seemed only interested in the breathtaking scenic views, the uncommon architecture and the monuments. Everything else that was significant to me, like a photo of the disgusting bathroom or my kitchen facilities or the bus station that I frequented or the not-attractive university buildings/dormitory/job site. Well, I made a collage of those significant things plus all the pictures of my friends. That way, I can look at these places and people daily, and my guests can ask about the one or two pictures that catch their eye from the collage hanging on the wall. And then I can give a lengthy explanation about why these certain pictures were so significant to me. As for the rest of the pictures, they have a place in a scrap book full of written descriptions, tickets stubs, and information, all of which is no less significant to me, but is definitely more geared towards the person who wants a quick overview of what I did and saw while abroad.

Do you feel out of touch with people that you left behind?

Don’t wait for them to contact you. They’re probably waiting for you to send word of your safe arrival. So go ahead and take the initiative. Let them know you miss them. Tell them about all of the unexpected differences you are encountering. Buy a telephone card. You can also find competitive international rates online. Check out online newspapers from the place you left. Sometimes even the campus newspaper has a web address so you can even find out what’s being served for lunch in Japan from your computer at Wes. I had a favorite TV series that I followed obsessively. Even from home, I can access a summary about the show each day so I can keep up with it. If you had an employer who you were fond of, let them know how you are doing and your plans for the future. If you’re hoping to return to your off campus location someday, go to the Career Resource Center for advice or look into job offerings on the web. Don’t wait!!

Are you missing certain activities or places or a particular atmosphere?

Maybe you can find a place in Connecticut that seems somewhat similar. It’s not that you’ll find something to replace your unique findings abroad, but if you’re looking for a cafe, a club, a disco, an ice cream flavor, a park, a forest, a mountain-- look around. Create your own lively dancing atmosphere with music that you brought home from abroad. Walk more and bring your friends along. Use the university lawns to sit under a tree and relax. Plan to take some friends on a weekend to experience the outdoors. Go canoeing or horseback riding. Hunt for Connecticut’s scenic and historic places. Pretend that you are a foreigner in America... you practically are. Keep observing with the same open-mindedness that got you adjusted to your off-campus site. Try new things just like you did abroad. And remember that foreign films are available at both the Sciences Library and Russell Library.

Looking for people who you can talk to about the way you are feeling? 

Try telling your tales to a professor interested in your host country or a subject you studied there. Establish a weekly lunch in the language you learned. Choose courses that will allow you to expand on research you did abroad. Spend time with the international students at Wesleyan this year and try to see Connecticut and Wes through their eyes. Help the Office of International Studies by talking to students interested in studying abroad. Find kitchens in which to cook the food you miss. Invite your friends so they can share in the tasty experience. Check out books from the library or through interlibrary loan about your country or in a foreign language.

If your friends and family are not showing you their attention the way you would like, maybe you need to focus on how you are presenting your stories. 

They may not be able to comprehend what you went through or how it felt. Explain the transitions you went through in terms that they can understand or make comparisons to how it felt to leave everyone behind after high school and come to college. The more comparisons to your friends and families’ lives that you can make, the easier it will be for them to understand. I used to assign nicknames to the friends I met abroad-- descriptive nick-names like Captain Future (to describe my bizarre, sci-fi friend) or simply "Iceland" to refer to my friend from Iceland whose name was too hard to spell. When you are describing events or people, try to relate them to events or people that your friends from home can understand. Again, compare and contrast to give your home friends a way to understand what you went through. It doesn’t help them to say, "I had a really good time abroad, everything was really different, you had to be there to understand." Explain Explain Explain! The more details you can provide, the clearer the perception of your story will be. Describe a food or flavor or atmosphere saying: it was a cross between this (familiar thing) and that (familiar thing) or it reminded me a little of that one time when we.... or every time I did this, I thought of you because.... Pull your listeners in by involving them and making them ask you more questions. And remember that your friends have grown a lot too during the last year. Make sure you are interested in hearing their tales too.

Sources and Other Useful References

Austin, Clyde, ed. Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Abilene, TX:  Abilene Christian University, 1986.

Bennett, Janet. "Transition Shock: Putting Culture Shock in Perspective." International and Intercultural Communication Abroad IV. (December 1977): 92-93.

International Studies Handbook. Greencastle, IN: DePauw University Press, revised March 2000.

Kauffmann, Norman L, Judith N. Martin, Henry D. Weaver with Judy Weaver. Students Abroad: Strangers at HomeEducation from a Global Society. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1992.

Storti, Craig. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1997.

From an article by Thea Miller, a freelance writer

Some participants returning from extended international study find no one willing to relive those fascinating, cultural memories. Family and friends are waiting to greet you open arms, but not always with open eyes.

Facing the unbelievable "newness" of home and the unwillingness of friends to listen leaves returning participants feeling more like strangers in their own country.

According to Judith Martin, an associate professor of intercultural communication at the University of Minnesota, it is more difficult to come home. When you go abroad, she says, "you expect it to be different; when you come home, no one expects you to have changed."

Some universities have begun to offer classes to help students make sense out of their experiences abroad and recognize the impact it has on them. The differences between cultures and the changes you undergo will affect you the rest of your life, your future academic work, and your career.

Integrating the study-abroad experience into your life is the most important step to overcoming the culture shock. You sought international study to broaden your understanding of the world - now use it to help others achieve that understanding.

If you feel a need to work through some re-entry shock, or just want to share your foreign experiences with others, here are a few suggestions:

  • Ask high school foreign language instructors if you can give short guest lectures, illustrated with photographs, slides, or videos.
  • Many local civic and children's organizations enjoy speakers who share their foreign travel anecdotes. Audience members often add their own stories to the conversation.
  • Kiwanis, Rotary clubs, Girl and Boy Scout troops may be able to utilize your experiences through presentations.
  • Talk about your experiences with others who have recently traveled abroad and who may be experiencing the same feelings you're having. They may be able to share some tips with you on how they learned to deal with their feelings.

Solutions to re-entry shock are numerous and unique to each individual. Most important, remember that the time, energy and expanse spent studying abroad was well spent.