Odds are if you’ve looked into studying abroad, or you’ve actually gotten there and found yourself in another country, you’ve heard of culture shock. Maybe you’ve even experienced it. But the odds are just a little less likely that you’re familiar with reverse culture shock– coming home and having a hard transition back into your ‘real’ life.
Culture shock is intimidating, but that is something we all prepare for when traveling. Its opposite, reverse culture shock, however, is harder to comprehend until you experience it for yourself. The idea of coming home doesn’t feel as overwhelming as it does sad, because you’re leaving a place that has probably become pretty familiar and comfortable to you. It may also be exciting, knowing that you’ll see your family and other friends again soon.
This is why reverse culture shock tends to be harder for people returning from experiences abroad, we can’t wrap our minds around the fact that home will feel just a little less like home. That’s not a bad thing, though, it means that we had experiences and met people that we don’t want to leave. Our lives have been added to in a positive way and saying ‘goodbye’ is never easy.
Leaving Study Abroad Early
My name is Anna Shoultz and I just got home a few weeks ago from a, shortened, semester with USAC in Chile. I have been lucky enough to study abroad in college already and, with 29 countries under my belt, the trials and tribulations of returning home and readjusting culturally and socially is something I felt totally prepared for. I’d done that a few times before and I knew that it was okay to be a little sad for a while, to miss my friends but to stay in touch, that maybe I would feel weird not speaking in Spanish all the time. I was prepared.
As life typically happens, what I thought I was ready for did a complete 180 and I found myself crying as I looked out the window of the plane that was taking us back to the states 44 days early.
I watched Santiago, Chile’s capital and my oh-so-temporary home sink away and thought about how newly unprepared I was for this situation. We missed the chance to attend our farewell USAC party after classes ended and some field trips that were coming up, we just barely got to say goodbye to our Chilean friends and, at that point, didn’t know if our classes would continue. Of course that was hard, but we got the one thing that so many other students and travelers being called home from around the world did not have, and that was time.
South America was pretty under-the-radar at that point in terms of the spread of COVID-19, and taking precautions to stay that way. Our parents received emails on Saturday night and most of us left between that Tuesday and Thursday, I personally had 4 whole days to get back to the city from our spring break in Patagonia and pack and say my goodbyes. I am so grateful for that because I had been hearing stories of kids in Italy and other European countries being given a 10-hour notice to get on a flight and get back to their home country. We had time to say goodbye and to start processing the situation and, as the entire world feels the weight of this virus, we were fortunate enough to get home safely.
USAC waited until they absolutely had to bring us home, they gave us the time and the resources to help us during such an unprecedented situation and it is for that reason that we had it so much better off than a lot of our peers.
Finding Comfort During a Pandemic
So, here we are now in the middle of a pandemic that is different than anything any of us have seen in our lifetimes and the reverse culture shock is there, but so is an added barrier. It is something that our parents and friends and neighbors are experiencing, though, too. One of the hardest parts of coming back home from a study abroad experience in a typical situation is the feeling of leaving your ‘people’ and that nobody at home can fully understand what you went through and how you grew as a person. Sure, that still exists, but this new factor is the opposite, it is something that everybody in the world is feeling and that can be something to take a little comfort in during these times.
We are all in the same boat, and it is important to remember that this is a hard time for everyone. That sense of community that is brought by this shared experience might not make the reverse culture shock any easier, but it is something to keep in mind.
Most of us got to come back from abroad to our families’ homes or apartments shared with friends. I was able to come home and I recognize that my quarantine and, now, isolation experiences have been made easier because of that. No matter how crazy your family might drive you, it’s a gift to not be completely alone during this time.
Most of us probably aren’t too worried about where our next meal will come from or how we will possibly maintain social distancing. We have seen parts of the world where this might not be the case, but we get to come back to a safe place- whatever that might mean for each individual.
It’s hard to be home, and it will continue to be hard. It was unprecedented to leave our programs early and then have nothing but time to reflect upon what we had to leave behind so quickly. But odds are, most of us are okay.
Facing A New Kind of Reverse Culture Shock
So while we face the reverse culture shock, it is different than that of the typical experience. We left a place and experiences that people at home might not understand, which is common. We are experiencing something very different now, though. As we settle in to these new ‘normals’ and build routines and manage to start wrapping our minds around this new, temporary, reality we can find solace in the fact that those people closest to us (but still 6 feet away) are feeling many of the same things we are feeling.
The gap that we notice between our homes abroad and the places we are from are filled, in a way, by the shared adjustment we are all going through as we stay in our homes and go through the processes that we should all be following.
When it comes down to it, it is alright to feel alone and let in that disappointment once in a while. It is also alright to be grateful that you are home and recognize that many of the people around you are going through many of the same emotions for myriad different reasons.
We can remember that our family members are dealing with working from home or even the loss of their jobs. That our siblings are taking online classes and may even be finishing high school or college far away from everything they are used to. This is a difficult time for everyone in the world, and knowing that we share in that sadness and frustration is essential in becoming grateful for all that we still have.
Take this time to reflect on everything you got to do abroad, notice the differences between your home and where you lived abroad, focus on finishing classes if that is an option, and stay connected with those you met abroad. The people from your program still have the best understanding of your situation as they navigate being home and we, fortunately, live in a time with ample access to video calls and quick connection that allow us to stay in touch with friends no matter where in the world they are. So, talk to your people and get a little bit of that old ‘normal’ back, set some sort of routine for yourself, be present even under these odd circumstances, and take a second every once in a while to remember that even if you’re on your own physically, you are not alone in the world.
If you are interested in reading more about my time in Santiago specifically, I have a personal blog where I talk about my experiences in the city and as I traveled around South America.
Anna Shoultz is a University of Alabama student. She studied abroad in Santiago, Chile during Spring 2020.