Reverse Culture Shock

And the Reentry Transition

A Singaporean student referred to her readjustment back home as “re-caging a freed bird.” This picture captures her own understanding of what life will be like when she returns home. It anticipates the places of difficulties and challenges, as well as potential places of personal growth.

She will definitely experience reverse culture shock, which can be defined as the emotional, mental and physical response to life and changes back home. The term culture shock was first used by an anthropologist named Kalervo Oberg in the late 1950s. It took another ten to fifteen years for the term reverse culture shock to be recognized and utilized to describe the stress and disequilibrium upon returning to one’s own culture.

Kalervo Oberg identified six symptoms of culture shock:

  1. strain as a result of the effort required to make necessary psychological adaptations
  2. a sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in regard to friends, status, profession, and possessions
  3. rejection by and/or rejection of members of the new culture
  4. confusion in role, role expectations, values, feelings, and self-identity
  5. surprise, anxiety, even disgust and indignation after becoming aware of culture differences
  6. feelings of impotence, as a result of not being able to cope with the new environment (Cross-cultural Adaptation Current Approaches, edited by Kim and Gudykunst, p.45)

Similar symptoms are also true of reverse culture shock. There is strain and stress in readjusting. Feelings of loss and grief are present in regard to friends and the community the returning student left behind.

There could be jealousy and rejection from people back home. There is definitely confusion regarding roles and expectations and a need for values clarification. Various feelings surface when confronted with the daily demands of life back home: the change in weather conditions, freedom or lack thereof, living conditions, family expectations, protocols in the workplace, social norms, political climate, economic situation, spiritual and church life, and the pace of life can all bring surprise, frustration, anxiety disgust or indignation.

The returnee may also experience a sense of helplessness and an inability to cope with life back home.

There are obvious difficulties in the next transition of returning home. However, once the student has overcome the initial reverse culture shock, new growth, fresh insights and avenues of influence will open up. Like many returnees, they would change the spiritual, economic, political, educational and social landscape of their countries.

How then can an International Student Ministry staff worker help with an international student’s reentry transition? Here are some ways:

Understand the reentry transition process

The reentry transition has similar components as the entry into another culture. In 1955, Lysgaard (Sociology professor from the University of Oslo, Norway) developed a tool to help describe the transition phenomenon. He called it the U-curve. It describes the different feelings that one experiences when entering a new environment. The feelings resemble the letter U with a definite high point, a clear low point and another high point, signifying the recovery or adjustment.

Although life in another culture is not a clean series of ups and downs, the model nonetheless helps identify the feelings and when they occur in the transition. (See figure 1 of the U-curve.)

In the early 1960s, Gullahorn and Gullahorn studied a similar pattern of feelings when returning home, and he called that pattern the W-curve. (See figure 2 of the W-curve.)

I have called the different phases the Fun, the Fight, the Flight and the Fit stages.

The Fun Stage
This period is characterized by a brief, or an extended, time of euphoria over being back home, or excitement about certain features of the home environment. The returnee will cherish the time spent with family and friends. The initial days and weeks are spent visiting people, enjoying local food and sights and sharing photos, stories and souvenirs.

The Flight Stage
The Flight stage may last days or weeks, but the feelings of loneliness or “homesickness” for friends and experiences abroad may begin to dominate the returnee’s emotional landscape. The returnee will also be more aware of how different home is from the life he left behind.

The returnee may have feelings of being the “foreigner” in his own country, of being out of step in the cultural cadence of home. The returnee may begin to withdraw or limit his social interaction. Reverse culture shock may be so intense that the returnee may being to be critical of home. The emotional response is flight, or an avoidance of interacting with the home culture.

The Fight Stage
This is the bottom of the W-curve. This is where the returnee may question the decision to return home. This is the stage when one may hear, “I hate this place…”

David Pollock, Executive Director of Interaction, Inc (Houghton College, Houghton, New York), offers a reentry seminar around the world for children of missionaries, diplomats and business people. In his seminars, he suggest two different ways this Flight stage is experienced.

Anger: Different and Bad
For some returnees the transition over time gets harder, and they feel worse. This stage is characterized by anger. The returnee sees what is different around her and sees those differences as bad. Bad because it is not the same with her foreign sojourn, or bad because what she sees and experiences violates her conscience or threatens her new values and beliefs. The returnee responds by being angry at her own culture or people.

Mockery: Different and Foolish
Sometimes the returnee’s response is mocker towards some aspects of the home culture. He may see some practices as unnecessary. Reverse culture shock sets in during the Flight stage and gets more acute during the Fight stage.

The Fit Stage
Over a period of time, the returnee will make some mental alignment with the home culture and find a readjustment of attitudes. In the Fit stage, the sojourner makes her peace with what was “different” in the home culture. Internal disequilibrium is now replaced by equilibrium. She may find herself more open and more understanding. At this stage, she may also be energized to engage in the culture and be a participant again.

Her full re-engagement in the culture, however, does not mean embracing everything uncritically, but it means that she is able to hold on to her new values and still relate with others. Obviously, reaching the Fit stage does not mean everything will be great and wonderful forever. There will still be bumpy times along the way.

Understanding the transition will enable the staff worker to prepare returning international students for what to expect during a reentry.

Address different reentry issues

Recognizing and accepting change in oneself and changes at home is an important first step in minimizing the effects of reverse culture shock. Think Home–-a reentry workbook-–is a good place to begin (purchase a copy at isionline.org). Use the exercises in this book to help a student identify the places where he has changed.

Self-worth and self-identity are issues that merit attention. Where dose the returnee base her identity? In what areas has the returnee become more secure? What may threaten her security when she returns home?

Unrealistic expectations is another issue to talk about with the returning international student. How realistic are the returnee’s expectations? How willing and able is he to adjust his expectations to the different cultural realities?

Closure, the process by which one puts an appropriate ending to an event or an appropriate ending to an event or an experience, is another topic to discuss with your international student. Victor Hunter, an American reflecting on his last days in England, wrote, “Today I must say goodbye. Goodbyes are important. Without a meaningful goodbye, an effective closure, there cannot be a creative hello, a new beginning and hopeful commencement… In saying goodbye to each other and to current ‘home,’ we are able to greet and affirm the new hope and anticipation. We affirmed the new journeys yet to be taken, as individuals and as a family.” (Cross-cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings, Clyde Austin, p. 96)

Staff should encourage returning international students to take steps in putting closure to their time in the United States by saying goodbyes, thanking people, settling accounts (both financial and spiritual) and collecting appropriate souvenirs.

Loneliness and depression are also issues that accompany reentry. The returnee should be aware of the emotional cost of returning home and should be encouraged to look for someone who may be a friend to help process the foreign experience.

Feelings of loss and grief are natural consequences of leaving people, places, and pleasant experiences behind. The returnee should know that these feelings will come and go as he transitions back home. Those photos and souvenirs, e-mails and phone calls help to lessen the pain of loss and distance from dear friends.

Returnees need a support group to belong to when they reach home. This can be a church group, a group of former returnees or a group of expatriate workers.

For some returnees the issue of fear should be addressed. Help the returning student identify her areas of concern. Her fear may be in the inability to make the adjustments, or in regressing in her personal growth or in the lack of resources back home. Ask what areas of fear the returnee had when she first arrived in the United States and how those fears were overcome.

For a Christian student returning home, reentry issues need to be seen in the light of God’s call, his provision and the student’s faith, vision and obedience to God. (See Think Home for different questions and exercises on these topics.)

Identify key attitudes that would make a difference in the transition

Flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and patience are necessary attitudes that can make the reentry transition a growing and fun experience. In addition, having a learner’s attitude, humility and willingness to serve will carry the returnee to new levels of maturity and influence his own culture and people.

The same attitudes that made for a successful entry into another culture are indispensable in making a smooth re-adjustment back home.

A Swiss student considered her time away from home a transforming experience. Yet she feared that returning home would interrupt that transformation. Reentry experience need not be seen as aborting the transformation process. If viewed in the light of the larger life experience, reentry can contribute to a person’s growth and transformation. The reentry experience will provide a new environment to test and validate, push and challenge the returnee to apply what she has learned during a foreign sojourn.

Connect them with friends, mentors or a church when they return home

There is an increasing network among colleagues around the world that will facilitate this connection. Check with the IFES website or the ACMI (Association of Christian Ministering among Internationals). You may also add your local contacts.

Helping your international student friends understand what reverse culture shock is, what to anticipate in reentering their home culture and what attitudes to have in their next transition will empower them to move ahead with confidence. Your input in their lives in this area will make a difference in their survival and in their significant contributions to their home countries.

In addition to preparing them well, pray for them regularly and connect and communicate whenever possible.

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