Beating Reverse Culture Shock

By Bri Dascher

So, you’re finally home after a semester (or year, or summer) abroad. You put on your best pair of bravery pants, you hopped on an international flight bound for adventure, and you learned more about yourself and the world than you ever thought possible.

And now, after weeks to months spent exploring and figuring out how to navigate all those quirks that felt so terrifying when you first landed in your host country, you’re back home. While you knew you’d certainly be torn when this moment came – a part of you was so excited to get back to the people you love and the creature comforts of home, and another part was just as sad to go – you really had no idea what you were getting into.

In fact, it’s not nearly the relief you thought it would be. After fighting intense cravings for ice cubes and public bathrooms and not having to convert currency in your head for every transaction for months, you’re back – and nothing is right.

switzerland-lungern_by-james-harmoush-sap-jumping-into-a-painting-photo-contest-2012

Everything that used to be normal, and a lot of the things that even felt good, are now just weird. You’re a changed person, be it in a small way or big after all you learned abroad, and your worldview has shifted, quite literally. But everything at home stayed eerily just as you left it – and after your monumental experience, that almost feels wrong.

Welcome to the world of reverse culture shock.

Unfortunately, just as it took time for you to adjust to all the nuances of living abroad, returning to the US requires a certain grace period too. After all, you had to fight to get through normal culture shock to become comfortable there. Maybe, through all that hard work, you even started to like parts of it better than home, and you want them back.

So how do you get through it?

Well, the best place to start is to know that it’s okay. When I first returned from abroad, I felt terrible about how irritable and out-of-place I felt at home. My once thrilling, stunning state of Colorado felt bland: a desert punctuated by boxy, cookie-cutter houses in a sea of corn and loud Americans. Even my bedroom – a castle compared to my itty-bitty bunk bed in London – felt stifling and constricting.

This frustration was made worse by how unappreciative it made me feel. I had just had the best experience of my life so far, and one I knew I was very fortunate to be able to have. I was a more centered, independent and confident person than I’d ever been because of it, but it was hard to feel that way. I’d wake up in the morning, and take my rattly old Taurus to my monotonous job in my boring suburb, and I couldn’t stand it. I’d think about how, just months ago, I would have been flying through the tube bound for some hundred-year-old monument or even just class perched atop a row of posh flats in Kensington, and it made serving noodles all day feel even worse than it did before. I was away from the friends I had made, and the excitement of newness, and I was so unhappy. Worse yet? I was even more unhappy with myself for feeling that way.

Looking back, I wish I had given myself a break.

I made it far, FAR worse by kicking myself for not immediately feeling like the person I’d felt I’d grown into abroad. Even though I was out of my element, all of those things I’d learned and held most dear from across the pond still remained, and it didn’t take away from them just to feel out of place and uncomfortable for a while.

My suggestion to you is to hold those newfound feelings from abroad even closer, and find ways to weave them back into your new-old life back home. Things feel a lot better when you see all the things you gained being brought back with you, and you should feel proud when you use them, even if they’re small, or different than they would have been abroad. 

As an example: I am historically a high-strung, high-stress gal. But, I went abroad and england-london-by-bryce-patterson-st-pauls-cathedral-spring-20141learned quickly that I had to just go with the flow if I wanted things to work out. Being in a totally different country means that things will go wrong, and London showed me that sometimes the most beautiful and precious experiences are the ones that arise from the times when things go awry. While it may not always feel like this will do you as much good at home under the blanket of certainty and routine, that is still a huge part of you. Use it to find peace with the little things that once bothered you. I used to find myself frustrated at really silly things: 22 people ordering mac and cheeses at once, people driving under the speed limit, having a bad hair day. After going abroad, I found it easier to put all these things into perspective: months ago, I was worried about catching a flight back to the US before my visa expired, or having my passport stolen at a pub, or even just navigating a country I didn’t understand. While yes, my hair has managed to stick directly upward today, and refused my attempts at taming it, there are worse things in the world. I have more important things to focus my energy on. (And let’s be real, my hair has been far more crazy.)

Another thing I wish I did differently: allowed myself some time. I worried I’d never again feel as good at a university I’d always loved, or like my best experience was behind me, or just generally that my life back home was enough anymore.

I promise you, right now: that doesn’t last forever.

Even though Folsom Field now feels tiny in comparison to Wembley Stadium, there’s denmark3_amandakruegerreally nothing in the UK close to being an American college student yelling at a football (American football, not soccer) team with your buddies, decked out in gold and black just like old times. And while Pekoe might not be quite as chic as your favorite café in Copenhagen, they’re still the only ones that know how to make your favorite boba just right. And hey, you may totally miss your roommates from your flat in Paris, but try to remember you probably missed your best friend from Boulder even more while you were gone. Having these feelings doesn’t negate the other ones – and it’s cool to be able to feel that strongly about things all over the globe, all at the same time.

You’re readjusting to your old-new culture, and getting used to not being on an extended adventure, and it feels weird. Allow the people and things you love to make that feel a bit better. Talk about your experience and what you learned and love from abroad, but don’t forget to talk about the present too. Eventually, it’ll all start to feel normal again, as you get back to your routine, and even the culture you’d been away from. Focus on the things you’d missed most abroad, and your final round of culture shock will be on its way out the door. At least, that is, until next time.

Photos: James Harmoush, Bryce Patterson, Amanda Krueger
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