Reverse culture shock after an exchange
You changed, Groningen didn’t
Alice Micheli enjoyed her six months studying in Tokyo immensely. The Italian student of liberal arts and sciences was never bored in the vibrant city of forty million inhabitants. ‘There was always something to do, something new to see.’
But when she returned to Groningen, ‘all I wanted was to be alone’, she says. ‘I felt very weird, coming back to a familiar environment that just did not feel like home at that moment. I had gotten used to new ways of socialising, new schedules, new ways of approaching people. I needed time to process that and to readjust.’
What Alice experienced is called reverse culture shock: the process of readjustment, reacculturation and reintegration into one’s own culture after living in another culture for an extended period of time.
It occurs frequently and leads to tension, pressure, and anxiety, recent research by the Istanbul Ticaret University among business administration exchange students found. They often do not realise how much their stay abroad has changed their personalities and beliefs until they arrive back home. Then they may discover, like Alice did, that the place they left no longer feels familiar. It can even lead to communication problems with family and friends who are trying to figure out the ‘new’ you.
For Alice, the culture shock started while she was still in Tokyo. ‘I realised the exchange was coming to an end. Leaving all my friends I met in Japan was very hard’, she says. But she eventually embraced the fact that her time overseas was coming to an end. ‘I was somehow happy that I was not going to stay longer, because if I did, my experience there was going to be completely different. With that in mind, I was glad that I had the opportunity to live such an experience.’
Getting back to the old routine has been quite boring
Researchers from Japan’s Hokkaido University call that the disengagement stage, the first of four common stages they identified in those suffering from reverse culture shock. It’s like an emotional recalibration for the return.
The second stage – euphoria – comes when you have just arrived home and are excited to be back and eager to reconnect. ‘The first two weeks of being back, I had a lot of fun seeing all my friends and family again’, says Dutch psychology student Ruben, who spent last semester in Cairo, Egypt. ‘But the novelty of being back and seeing all my friends again wore off quite quickly. Since then, getting back to the old routine has been quite boring and under-stimulating’, he says.
That is the third stage, the re-entry shock, when you get frustrated by the contrast between your home country and the one you just left.
Ruben is still trying to process some of the differences between his life in Egypt and Groningen. ‘In Egypt, everyone I knew had a mindset of “let’s see what the day brings”’, he says. ‘This was noticeable in daily life and small interactions. If you met a stranger on the street, you could find yourself sitting in a bar with them twenty minutes later. This is something I’ve never experienced in the Netherlands, and I miss that.’
Getting this fresh perspective has also made him more critical about his home country. ‘Egypt is a very poor country’, he says. ‘Coming back to the Netherlands, it felt weird to see people spending money on useless things and prestige items. The individualistic nature of Dutch society was something that I had kind of forgotten about for a while.’
Sharing the experience
German psychology student Niko von Schenck, who just returned from a semester in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, found it surprisingly easy to readjust to the Groningen culture. But sharing his experience with others proved difficult, he says. ‘I felt I could never really share the whole experience with my friends and family, or whoever I wanted to tell it to’, he notes. ‘It’s just hard to convey a feeling of being away for such a long time.’
I had a very intense time, for my friends it was just another normal six months
The disparity in experiences affected Niko’s ability to connect with his friends. ‘I had a very intense time, for them it was just another normal six months. Our perceptions of what happened and how time went by differed so much.’
Eventually, you move into the final readjustment phase, where you start to find your new sense of normalcy. You may find that you have a new appreciation for the familiar things you once took for granted. And you’ll value the fact that you’ve changed as a result of your experiences abroad.
Hannah Matthiesen, who spent a semester in Hong Kong, is in that phase, but still carries some of the after-effects of the re-entry shock. ‘What I experienced as a shock was the academic and Western distance we can take while discussing themes like authoritarianism.’
In Hong Kong, which has become increasingly authoritarian under China’s leadership in recent years, the German UCG student experienced such a state system firsthand. ‘It makes me feel conflicted in many ways. I question the relevance of our discourse here and the impact my education can actually have, when my academic theory on such issues is a lived reality for others.’
My academic theory on authoritarianism is a lived reality for others
Getting used to ‘small’ Groningen again took some time, but during the readjustment stage she discovered a lot of positive aspects of coming back to her familiar surroundings. She strongly felt that when she attended the protest for social safety and academic freedom on March 8 in front of the Academy building.
‘I found the part of coming together and freely expressing oneself in an open space very liberating and fulfilling’, she says. ‘In Hong Kong, despite strong opinions on societal and political matters, self-censorship is very prevalent, especially in the public discourse. And I subconsciously participated in that self-censorship, which felt very frustrating and restrictive.’
Readjustment takes time, but the university could help with that a little more, Hannah feels. ‘I would have appreciated some external support from the university.’ And if it’s up to Michaela Carrière, section head at the UG’s Language Centre and a senior trainer in intercultural competence, that will be arranged. She advocates for ‘a brief module on re-entry for exchange students returning home, both incoming and outgoing’.
Carrière, too, has noticed that students are changed by their sojourns abroad – often in subtle ways. It would be good, she feels, to make them aware that those changes might make home less familiar to them. ‘There used to be an online module offered via the Language Centre, but sadly, that’s no longer available.’
Eventually, reverse culture shock is a temporary experience. ‘It is something that we need to get through, but eventually we’ll feel “at home” again’, Alice explains. ‘There will be parts that we like, parts that we don’t like, things we miss from other places and things that we have missed.’
Yet, their experiences will stay with students forever, Ruben thinks. ‘I don’t know specifically in what way, but living abroad has definitely made me motivated to see more of the world.’
Students’ tips for coping with reverse culture shock
- ‘Going abroad is like going shopping – enjoy yourself and bring back new things! When you return, you might need to reshuffle your wardrobe, but eventually, you’ll find a place for all your new experiences.’ – Alice
- ‘Live in the moment while you’re abroad and don’t worry about your life when you come back.’ – Ruben
- ‘Know that reverse culture shock might happen, but don’t let it discourage you from studying abroad. Plan to readjust for a few weeks, and remember that it’s all part of the experience!’ – Niko
- ‘Don’t rush yourself back into your old life. Take the time to process your experiences and don’t compare yourself to others. You don’t owe anyone an extensive reflection of your time abroad, so have the courage to say “I don’t know” when asked about it.’ – Hannah