Studying Abroad? Prepare for Reverse Culture Shock!

Family dinner

When we travel to another country, we are expecting to be immersed in a totally different culture. When we purchase travel tickets and plan the details of our trip, we prepare ourselves mentally as well. We may practice the language or plan places to visit as a tourist. In this situation, we may experience difficulties on our trip that are often chalked up to cultural differences or “culture shock”, such as communication issues or a bad restaurant experience. But we know that we can always return home at the end of that trip, back to the familiar world from whence we came. If the language, local cuisine or native people prove to be too stressful to us, we always know that our trip will come to an end– “Home Sweet Home” as they say.

However, if you are going abroad to study or live abroad for any length of time, there seems to be no end to these difficulties and cultural differences. In fact, the more time we spend in a foreign country, the more challenges we face. Learning a new language, adapting to a different type of food, dealing with red tape and finding a place to live, starting a new job or academic program, and making local friends can be extremely trying for the average person, especially in the beginning.

The truth is, living abroad and accepting these challenges as part of your new daily life can be extremely rewarding. It forces us to grow as a person, and acquire new information that helps us broaden our perspective on the world, and ourselves! We begin to understand that people can evolve, that even we can evolve, that the world is a big place, and that diversity is a wonderful thing. And we learn that we are capable of so much more than we ever imagined in terms of language and even survival!

But… what they DON’T prepare you for is what happens afterwards. Several weeks or months after you have been learning the language, eating the local food, doing the paperwork, working or studying and making new friends, something happens. And you might not realize it until your first trip home, when “reverse culture shock” sets in. 

For many people, reverse culture shock happens for the first time on a trip home for the holidays or for a special occasion. We have been waiting for this moment for many months, living in a foreign country and dreaming of all the things we miss about our own culture, such as our favourite foods, television programs, general lifestyle, or our family and friends. The anticipation often results in a frenzy of gift-buying  for our loved ones, especially local delicacies and things you have discovered while living abroad– wine and chocolate come to mind!

But what happens when we return to our homeland is a very strange thing. And for many, this long-awaited trip back to our home country doesn’t quite feel the way we thought it would. Because, while we were struggling and learning and challenging ourselves in a new environment, we changed. Just a little. And we got used to our new home. And now…going back? It gets complicated!

Have you ever experienced these symptoms of “reverse culture shock”? : 

Your family and friends aren’t interested.  One common complaint of world travelers and ex-pats are that their family and friends seem resentful or uninterested in their experiences. All the wonderful photos and stories will not be appreciated by those who have not changed in the same way that you have, or seen the same things you have. They may even seem ungrateful for the gifts you have brought for them. Don’t take it personally– it’s a universal phenomenon!

Communication is difficult. All the work you have been doing to learn a second (or third) language during your time abroad has not gone to waste. And this is never more evident when we try to speak our native language with other native speakers. Suddenly, vocabulary escapes you, and you feel unable to express yourself effectively, and this can be incredibly frustrating. After a few days back home you will adapt, only to go abroad once more and start over again!

Everything is annoying. From background music in a restaurant to the accent spoken in your region, things you never noticed before are suddenly unbearable. You begin to feel like your country abroad has a more pleasant environment, better television programming, more etiquette, or just a better way of life in general. We become critical of things that never bothered us prior to living abroad. Be careful not to express this too loudly, as others might feel insulted!

Your favourite food isn’t so great after all. So you’ve waited 10 months to go to your favourite restaurant or bar. But after a day or two of eating local cuisine that has always been your “comfort food” your gut starts to send you a message. And that message is: what is this? Your body needs time to adapt to different types of food preparation, and you have become acquainted with the foreign food abroad. Suddenly our familiar favourites start to lack their appeal and this can come as quite a surprise to most of us! You might want to bite your tongue if your mother has cooked what used to be your favourite dish!

You want to go “home”. When we travel back home for a short visit during our long-term stay abroad, we experience much the same phenomenon as anyone would when they travel to a brand new country. And the prospect of the end of our holiday and the inevitable return to our “home” becomes quite attractive, as the reverse culture shock symptoms build up day after day. Many ex-pats speak of no longer feeling fully integrated into their home country, yet never fully integrated into their adoped country either. Such is the plight of today’s modern ex-patriot!

Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock?

Can you think of any more symptoms or situations in which yourelf or others might feel reverse culture shock?

We love to read your comments! 



April is an e-marketing specialist, English instructor and freelance writer living in Grenoble, France.

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