2.2.1 - Returning Home


Returning Home


The reality is that returning home after a significant overseas experience is not without its stresses. There are many reasons why this is so, but the major contributing factors seem to be:  

It Is Largely Unexpected

Few people prepare for the return because they expect it to be easy and are surprised when it is not. 

The Reality of Home Differs from Reality

When you are abroad, images of home life can become idealized or romanticized. It is easy to forget or minimize the problems or issues that once were sources of stress in your everyday life. Re-encountering them can be disconcerting.

Change Has Occurred to Everyone

However major or subtle, things are different. You, the people around you, and your culture have changed. Sometimes this is obvious and immediately observable, sometimes it is "hidden" and only comes out under certain circumstances-which are usually unpredictable and therefore unsettling.

People May React to Returnees in Ways They Consider Inappropriate

People generally expect you to be the same person you were when you left and usually attempt to treat you that way. They often have little patience for a returnee who seems to be significantly "different" or who exhibits behaviors or attitudes that, to them, seem odd or uncharacteristic of that person.  

Reverse Culture Shock Is Neither Recognized nor Understood at Home

Few people in the home culture are likely to be familiar with the concept of reverse culture shock. Therefore, people often respond to a returnee having difficulty readjusting by bluntly suggesting they "get over it" as though it were a conscious act on their part or that they could control their emotions if they wanted to. Unlike undergoing culture shock while abroad where program directors and fellow students are likely to be at least sympathetic, upon reentry the pressure to conform quickly and substantially can be intense and tolerance can be in short supply.  

Thus, although there are always lots of reasons for looking forward to going home, reentry into your home culture can seem both as challenging and as frustrating as living overseas. Contrary to the expectation that going "home" is a simple matter of resuming your earlier routines and reestablishing prior relationships, reentry has its own set of special social and psychological adjustments.

Just as initial Culture Shock has definable stages (see Section 1.7.1) and a relatively predictable progression, so does Reverse Culture Shock. The "Honeymoon" phase of initial euphoria or at least relief at being home is often present for some period, followed by some degree of irritation and alienation, with an eventual readjustment.  


As the graph shows, the "U-shaped" adjustment curve that roughly illustrates the adjustment to being overseas and culture shock can be modified to a "W," showing the transition process through reentry. While the phases may be quite similar, the timing and duration of them is not. For example, the honeymoon phase overseas might last a matter of days or weeks (even months), but at home the elation of return can dissolve rather quickly. Returnees can find themselves slipping into deepening hostility or withdrawal in very short time. While the onset of culture shock abroad usually takes many weeks or even months, reverse culture shock can take hold within hours of arriving home. There are many contributing factors that might intensify and accelerate the process during reentry.

Challenges and Intensity Factors in Coming Home

R. Michael Paige originally developed a list of cultural circumstances that have been proven to have a strong psychological impact upon individuals participating in cross-cultural educational experiences. He called them "intensity factors" because they can heighten the psychological intensity of the adjustment process. These same intensity factors appear to be equally influential and applicable during the return home, particularly for individuals coming back from international educational exchanges.

He lists the intensity factors as "degrees of":

Cultural Difference- Prior Intercultural Experience-
Ethnocentrism- Expectations-
Language- Visibility and Invisibility-
Cultural Immersion- Status-
Cultural Isolation- Power and Control-

(Click on each for information about these factors.)


Applying these intensity factors to the reentry process requires very little alteration. You should give some consideration to these factors because each one can contribute to reentry stress. 


1. The degree of cultural difference between the home culture and the host culture is likely to be a source of discomfort to the degree that the value systems, level of economic development, and behavioral standards of the host country were significantly divergent from home. Coming back to the United States from England or Chile will be different from returning from an island Pacific culture, India, China, or Africa. The greater the cultural, political, economic, social, and religious contrasts between the home and host countries, the greater the likelihood of reverse culture shock.

2. The degree of cultural immersion (or cultural isolation) the students experienced while overseas will play a major role in their positive or negative evaluation of their time abroad and impact significantly upon how they view their return. Although there is great variation, in general, the greater the success students have had in appropriately fitting into another culture, the more difficulty they have in coming home. 

More accurately, the physical act of coming home for an individual who had made deep friendships abroad and participated fully in the community is much harder than a sojourner whose overseas stay was less intense or more isolated. The irony is that great success in adaptation overseas may be followed by a much lengthier and rocky period of readjustment at home.

3. Contrast between an individualís status in the host country and status at home can have a large influence on how he or she views the return. Related to this factor is the degree to which students were "visible" or "invisible" in the host country and how they evaluated either state. The loss of being "special" abroad can be offset by the comfort of returning to familiar people and places, but it can also be perceived as a profound loss.

4. Those students with prior intercultural experience, including reentry, are likely to be better able to cope with the transition experience of coming home, while the first-time returnee may exhibit a wide range of reactions during readjustment. Although this is generally true, it is possible to have no reverse culture shock returning from a first stay abroad but suffer severely from it after a subsequent sojourn.

5. A significant variable in reentry is the motivation for returning. A forced return can lead to resentment (issues of power and control also play a role here). If you returned home for academic, medical, or financial reasons before you were ready, there can be feelings of dislocation, unfinished business, failure, and loss. A voluntary early return due to inability to adjust while overseas can have similar impacts. Successful overseas sojourners will see the return as completion, opportunity, and reunion. A reluctant returnee is likely to be at least temporarily dysfunctional.

6. The question of the expectations of the returnee (closely linked to #5 above) is complicated by the degree to which those expectations are realistic or idealized. Whether they were realistic or not, if the expectations are not met, it will strongly impact the reentry process. 






In addition to these general intensity factors, research on returning students suggests that there are at least six additional specific variables that may contribute to the difficulty of the reentry process. They include:

(Click on each for information about these variables)



Although the intensity factors can be profitably applied to both initial entry and reentry, there are other important differences between the two kinds of transition shocks that are useful to be aware of. First, most culture shock experienced as part of an overseas adjustment rarely lasts more than a few weeks or months. If a student does not prematurely terminate his or her study abroad and return home (and this rarely happens), the very act of continuing to live and study and interact with the local culture seems to eventually result in individuals achieving a satisfactory level of cultural adjustment and daily functioning. In other words, culture shock is, for most people, a transitory situation that usually gives way as intercultural skills improve and small successes accumulate.

Reverse culture shock can be more persistent. Some students report that it took them up to a year or more to gain the necessary perspective on their experience to allow them to feel completely at home and fully functioning. Someone once remarked that, "Culture Shock abroad was a short term thing, reentering home seemed to take forever." Another returnee with a semi-macabre sense of humor described reverse culture shock as "The gift that keeps on giving!" 

The important wisdom imbedded in these aphorisms is that not only is reverse culture shock a surprising consequence of return from study abroad, but that its effects might linger considerably longer than one might expect. For most students a reasonable readjustment home takes about the same amount of time that working through culture shock did while abroad, a few weeks to several months, but for some the process is uncomfortably prolonged.