College Center Room 518
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 way that you did when you arrived at your study abroad 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.
As a returnee, you need to get involved again in activities at home and to plan a life built on the future rather than the past. This doesn't mean you should forget your abroad experience; on the contrary, you should use it as a reminder of how much you are capable of achieving. You coped amazingly with a variety of complex challenges and struggles as you made a place for yourself abroad. You accomplished things you never imagined yourself capable of doing! Keep all 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 reflect on 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 lessons of the recent past and be productive in the present.
Do you remember the culture shock you experienced after arrival abroad? Maybe your return feels similar 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 have achieved.
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 more positive or negative attitudes, or both, and to an altered perception of your own country, hometown and even FSU. This is entirely natural!
What happens with reverse culture shock?
You may resist adjusting to being back home because you feel that if you adjust, then you will have to stay here. Not true! Traveling is becoming more and more accessible and affordable. You will go back, even it it's not right away! Even working abroad is an option. The "Useful Links" page has many good Web sites to explore.
Some returnees equate readjusting with rejecting the personal 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.)
Some complaints or frustrations you might expect to feel include:
- The lifestyle abroad was so different from that at Framingham State University.
- I got used to a laid-back atmosphere and now must adjust to the fast pace of the US.
- I can’t travel anymore
- I can’t go anywhere special or exotic or experience anything completely new in Framingham
- 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 daily shopping for food experience
- 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
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.
The word HOME has lots of definitions. For most people, 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 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. Do you remember some of the emotions that may have floated through your head upon arrival at your study abroad program? 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 made 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. The way people act and the circumstances of daily life gradually become norms, and you begin to expect-- and therefore, to depend on-- them. Before long, you find yourself judging new behaviors and circumstances using these norms as the standard.
Dorothy was wrong! It is hard to come home!
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. 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. Give yourself time, your sense of "normal" will indeed return.
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 doesnt 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.
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 a local Italian or Chinese restaurant. 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 strengths or qualities that you didn't know you had, or were obliged to develop on the spot. You could feel yourself growing. Life back home can’t match the intensity of life abroad and you will miss everything 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.
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.
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?
People looking through your pictures may seem only interested in the breathtaking scenic views, the uncommon architecture and the monuments. Make a collage of those significant things plus all the pictures of your friends. That way, you can look at these places and people daily, and friends can ask about the one or two pictures that catch their eye from the collage. As for the rest of the pictures, they have a place in a scrap book full of written descriptions, tickets stubs, and information important to you.
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. Let them know you miss them. Tell them about all of the unexpected differences you are encountering. Check out online newspapers from the place you left. If you’re hoping to return to your off campus location someday, go to Career Services 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 Massachusetts 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. 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.
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. Choose courses that will allow you to expand on research you did abroad. Spend time with the international students at Framingham this year and try to see campus through their eyes. Volunteer at the Office of International Education and talk to students interested in studying abroad during drop-in times.
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. 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.
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 Home. Education from a Global Society. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1992.
Storti, Craig. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1997.