Reverse Culture Shock: Expectation Vs. Reality

by Danielle DeSimone

Before you started your study abroad summer, semester, or year, you probably heard a lot about culture shock. You might have even experienced a little of it (along with a healthy dose of homesickness). But, what is too-often overlooked is the idea of reverse culture shock, sometimes known as “re-entry”, the shock of coming home and re-assimilating to your home culture after studying abroad.

Cars on a road at sunset

Your university’s study abroad office or program provider might have discussed it with you before you left, but maybe they didn’t do it justice. Now, you’re receiving reminder emails from their office listing support systems waiting for you on campus. Suddenly, you’re reading all sorts of blog posts about the difficulties of returning home. You’re unexpectedly expected to know how to handle the transition, but you’re not even quite sure you know what that transition will be.

Reverse culture shock symptoms are real, and can look like anything from not wanting to get out of bed, swiping incessantly through photos from your trip, or an adamant rejection against even thinking about putting on your nostalgia-pants. Although everyone’s experiences will be different and dealing with reverse culture shock is never definitive, we’re here to set the record straight on reverse culture shock, what you might be expecting vs. what the reality of it actually is.

Reverse Culture Shock Stages

Before we jump in, let’s review what the stages of reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas looks like. Much like regular ol’ culture shock, there will be a honeymoon period, everything is wide-eyed, exciting, new-yet-familiar, and captures that unique joy that comes from visiting old friends. Eventually, the old sense of regularity will creep in and you’ll look around you and be like, “Say what? I miss my life abroad.” Obnoxious social media posts aside, you might deal with your “homesickness for abroad” by critiquing your immediate surroundings. Living in this negative worldview isn’t ideal, but lucky for you this stage is temporary.

Eventually, you will find a new sense of self in your old sense of place. You’ll determine how your “new you” looks, fits, acts, and lives here. Your friends and family will start to recognize and accept this (loving you all-the-same). You’ll realize your best self is not necessarily attached to your life abroad; you’ll eventually thrive in your old location in conjunction with your new perspectives, not in spite of. #Winning

Painted stop sign on a road

Expectation: Switching back to your native language will be refreshing. 

Reality: If you studied abroad in a country that speaks a language different from your native country’s, the first moment you step off the plane back home, you’ll be assaulted by voices, airport announcements, and cell phones. In your first few hours, days, or weeks of being home you will likely have a throbbing headache while struggling to keep your native language and the language of your host country country separate, slipping in between the two without warning.

In some cases, you might find yourself a little tongue-tied because of an inability to fully express yourself. Not all languages have the same vocabulary, and so the words that you might have once used like you did in your study abroad country could be no longer available to you. It can be disorienting, but if you are struggling, it means that you truly immersed yourself in your study abroad country’s native language, and some of it stuck! 

Expectation: Describing your study abroad experience will be easy.

Reality: Despite your best efforts, the first time you’re asked by a friend or family member to describe your study abroad experience, you might be at a loss for words. How do you summarize weeks, months, or a year in a different country, where you’ve been pushing your boundaries and exploring new cultures and ways of living, into one or two sentences? The quickest response might be something along the lines of “great” or “amazing,” but the people you’ve met and the places you’ve seen are not so easily simplified. It can be frustrating to feel as if you can’t adequately describe your summer or semester abroad to the people who matter most, so be sure to take the time to tell your stories! 

Also, don’t be discouraged if some of your friends are not entirely receptive to you sharing your time abroad. Not everyone will be able to wrap their minds around what you’ve experienced and if you start every sentence with, “When I was in Brazil…” your friends might show signs of annoyance or disinterest. This is not because they don’t care about you or the fact that you studied abroad; it can just be difficult for your friends to adjust to the idea of you having had adventures that they can’t fully grasp, without them. Be open with them and explain why it is so important to you to share your stories, but also how happy you are to be back home with them.

Girlfriends lying on a rooftop together

Expectation: Returning to your old pace of life will be comforting.

Reality: If you just spent six months living la pura vida in Costa Rica, it might take you a bit to get back into the swing of things at home. Studying abroad in rural, remote towns, or in countries who do not depend on technology as much as your native country, can make your home seem too loud, fast, and chaotic. Your daily conversations with friends might no longer be at local cafes, but through the screen of your smartphone.

This sudden change into a new gear can be disorienting, just as it might have been when you first arrived in your study abroad country. On the other hand, if you studied abroad in a bustling capital city, such as Paris or London, it can be difficult to come back to a small hometown. Your home might seem small, but just as you should think of other cultures as different, not good or bad, it is important to remember your hometown is simply different from the life you’ve been living.

Expectation: You can’t wait to be reunited with all of your favorite foods.

Reality: How many times when you were studying abroad did you groan and loudly yell, “I just want a _____”? You’ve been craving that burger and fries, or your mom’s signature dish for months and now you can finally have it! Those first few meals might be #TheBestEver, but after a couple of weeks, you’ll probably start wishing you still had your local, late-night kebab shop or your host mom’s paella.

When you go out for “Thai food” with your friends at home, you’ll quickly realize that it’s nothing like the food in the country itself. Try not to grumble too much about how this is not as good as when you were in [insert country name here]. Use this as an opportunity to explore your neighborhood and find the most authentic restaurants out there! 

Expectation: Everything at home will be the same. 

Reality: At the end of a long summer, semester, or year abroad, you’re finally coming back to the familiarity of your friends, family, and home. Everything’s the same, and you’re back to your old ways…right? Actually, no. While you were away having incredible experiences, learning new languages, and exploring different ways of living, things at home have also been changing. While perhaps not on as grand a scale, lives were still being lived even though you weren’t necessarily there to witness it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything will be the same. People have had to live for an extended period of time without you, so it might be hard for you to immediately fall back into your place.

Take your time getting used to these new developments, and know that although things are different at home, so are you, and you’ll find your rhythm eventually.
Male friends talking in a snowy park

Expectation: You’ll never see your study abroad friends again.

Reality: Those who study abroad and travel often have the advantage (and disadvantage) of having friends all across the globe. When you are entire continents away from some of these friends, it can seem as if the probability of you seeing them again is nearly impossible, and navigating time differences can be exhausting. But after months of exploring other countries and forging friendships despite cultural boundaries, you will find a way to stay in contact and see one another again.

Skype, social media, Whatsapp, and other apps that allow free, international texting are an excellent way of staying in touch. Friendships forged during exploration tend to hold strong, and you’ll be surprised by how easy it will be to reunite via car, train, or plane, or whatever it takes.

Expectation: You can’t make your experience a part of your life back home. 

Reality: Obviously, you might not be able to build a siesta time into your daily schedule back home, like you once did in Spain or Greece, but you can carry your study abroad experience and country with you. It can be as simple as watching movies or reading books on your host country, celebrating traditions and holidays, or trying your hand at the country’s authentic cooking. You can also practice your study abroad country’s language by incorporating it into your studies, your reading, or trying out language exchange programs.

If you really want to connect your international self in your old communities, seek ways to get involved in organizations that support education and travel. Volunteer in your study abroad office, write for travel blogs, or mentor prospective students. Start a weekly dinner club with your friends that celebrates cuisine from someone cool and foreign. Get creative and be proactive in establishing these ties, as there’s serious potential for your worldly passions to lose their kick once you’re living back home.

Expectation: No one will understand what you’ve experienced. 

Reality: When you first return from being abroad, you might feel as if no one understands the experiences you’ve had and how you’ve changed, but guess what? You’re now a part of a community that has seen the world and wants, or rather, needs, to see more of it. Meet up with the study abroad alumni at your university, reach out to international students on campus, or participate in intercultural events.

Does your university have a study abroad or international community club? Join it. If one doesn’t already exist, make one! In these people, you’ll find others who have had their worldview completely altered through the experience of living in a culture other than their own. 

A girl giving her friend a piggy-back-ride in a forest

Expectation: You’ll never travel again. 

Reality: So you’re settling back into the rhythm of your "Life Before Study Abroad", and you’re beginning to feel slightly trapped. You might have left your study abroad country with grand aspirations of travel and further international education, but the longer you’re home, the easier it becomes to return to your old ways. One of the biggest fears that emerges in reverse culture shock is what if I never travel again? But don’t worry, there will be a "Life After Study Abroad."

Once you’ve caught the travel bug, it never really goes away, and you will travel again. Studies show that nearly 50 percent of students who study abroad will later go on to work or volunteer internationally. There are a number of ways to return abroad, either by solo-traveling, completing a master’s degree abroad, teaching English in another country, interning, or even volunteering. If you have the drive and passion for travel, you will make it happen.

After months of travel or studying abroad, it can difficult to come home. You might struggle with feeling lonely, or a sense of restlessness that keeps you up at night. It can be uncomfortable and, well, weird to feel out of place in your own home, but this is what happens when you leave pieces of yourself throughout the world.

Regardless of what you expected from your time abroad and the inevitable reverse culture shock, there is no denying that you have been changed, for the better, through study abroad