After spending an incredible summer in Beijing, nothing seemed as daunting as a 7,000-mile journey, 40 hours of traveling, 2 flight delays, and a 1:30 AM arrival time.
Except starting a new semester the very next day.
More than a bit frazzled, a million questions buzzed through my head. How could I make sense of my time abroad and express it to my friends and family? How could I cope with this “reverse culture shock” they told me about? And how could I leverage my international experience to become a stronger student, now that I was back on campus?
If, like me, you’re starting to feel anxious about returning to reality, fret not! I’m here to share some tips on how not to feel out of place after going back to school.
Going Abroad = Winning
Since you’re reading this, you’re already familiar with the benefits of studying or working abroad. Living in another country is liberating to the mind and to the senses. After all, how many chances do you get to try durian or some stinky tofu back home?
By experiencing cultural diversity firsthand, you’ll also make a million new friends…which means a million more couches to crash on when you travel the world in years to come. Moreover, exposure to a wide variety of worldviews will teach you how to approach challenges in your life from a fresh perspective.
Your time abroad will also enhance your resume in the eyes of employers. By one measure, 61% of employers look favorably on candidates who have international experience, while an even higher number see an advantage for graduates who are fluent in a second language.
As you count down the days until you’re reunited with your friends and family, consider how you might deal with some of the challenges you may face.
Coping with Reverse Culture Shock
After being removed from your own culture for an extended period of time, it is common to feel like it’s hard to “go back to normal.” This difficulty in readjusting is called reverse culture shock.
Just like when you first arrived in your host country, you will experience a process of initial euphoria, followed by irritability, gradual adjustment, and adaptation. Many people have a hard time dealing with reverse culture shock because they don’t expect it, don’t realize that their home life changed, or don’t recognize their own personal growth while they were abroad.
“When I came back, I forgot how big of a cornerstone customer service is for businesses and in general. When we came back from New York, I had to drive back to Maryland. I went with my parents and I was sitting in the window seat by my dad. We were at the toll booth and he handed them the money and the person said something like thank you, have a great rest of your week. As we were driving away I was yelling out the window, you have a great weekend too! In Germany, no one really says that. I just found myself yelling and my parents were like why are you so excited, but I think it was to make up for the lack of that in Germany.”
Jon Yahriun, Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals, 2013 alumnus
Whatever the cause, people who return to their home countries often feel bored, lost, and misunderstood. What are some ways to deal with friends who are sick of hearing about your experience abroad, and how do you cope with homesickness for your host country?
- If you find it difficult to convey your emotions or feel that your friends don’t want to hear about your time abroad, try reconnecting with your international friends, speaking to students who are considering studying or working abroad, or writing out your thoughts in a journal or a blog post.
- If your day-to-day life at home now seems boring, remember how open-minded and adventurous you felt during your program and commit to exploring new parts of your own city. Taking up a new hobby such as photography, improv, or geocaching will help you see your surroundings in a whole new light.
- If you feel an existential longing to be back in Paris or Patagonia, try volunteering with a cultural organization on campus, watching foreign movies, cooking your favorite food, chatting with a language partner, or bonding with the international students on your campus who are just as homesick as you.
- If you feel left out by your family and friends, remember that they also changed while you were away. Rather than fret over all of the experiences you missed, take it as an opportunity to deepen your relationships by becoming familiar again with their wonderful quirks and personalities. Being a good listener also goes a long way!
- If you find yourself making cultural faux pas, try to keep a good sense of humor and realize that re-adapting to your home country is a gradual process.
When I returned from Beijing, I never imagined that reverse culture shock would happen to me. However, after living in a city of nearly 20 million people—each one trying to cram their way into a crowded subway car—it is easy to pick up bad habits. To deal with the tremendous crowding, which the Chinese call renshan renhai (people-mountain, people-sea), people often push and shove one another. It seemed quite rude at first, but soon enough I was doing it too.
One day after coming back to the United States, reverse culture shock hit me as I waited to board the subway in New York City. After the train doors opened and a stream of cane-wielding seniors flooded out onto the platform, I felt anxious. I’m going to miss this train, I thought. Instinctively, I raised my arms forward, ready to strike, but then stopped myself.
I’m not in China anymore.
Like me, you will find yourself committing so many faux pas that you will wish you never came home. So long as you maintain a positive attitude and a great sense of humor, you will learn to re-adapt.
And get on the next train.
Using Your International Experience on Campus
Once back on campus, many students worry that they will lose their language skills or will have no opportunity to further explore issues relating to their host country. However, there are many things students can do to leverage their international experiences in the classroom.
Enhance Class Discussions
Most immediately, you can use your new cultural knowledge to inform class discussions. If you interned in Brazil, for example, you can share your insights into anything from urban inequality and sports diplomacy to climate change and green entrepreneurship. Aside from creating richer, more engaging discussions, your insights will also let you shine and your classmates will appreciate the fresh perspective.
Create New Insights
Similarly, your experience abroad will deepen your subject-matter expertise and lead to surprising new conclusions. What can a rainforest researcher learn from a yearlong internship in Munich? More than he ever imagined. Drawing parallels between his background in conservation biology and his observations that there are too few women and minorities studying STEM, CBYX alumnus Andrew Budsock came to a startling new insight:
“As ecologists, we view diversity as an essential metric of health for an ecosystem; therefore, it would be insane to not take the same approach as our own scientific community. We need everyone to come together, share ideas, and collaborate to answer the vast array of scientific questions posed by our natural world.”
Like Andrew, you should think creatively about how you can apply the lessons you learned abroad to different aspects of your research. Speaking of which…
Do Your Research
Have you ever struggled to brainstorm a topic for your thesis or identify a case study? Spending time abroad opens up new networks that you can call upon when you need a nudge.
If you need advice on a topic, don’t hesitate to reach out to your international professors, friends, and colleagues. Often, they can be your greatest resources. Not only can they provide guidance on what topics would be the most fruitful to study, but they can also help open up doors when you need to interview an expert or distribute a survey.
To further up your research game, try utilizing databases from the country you studied or worked in—especially if you can speak the language. Doing so will greatly increase your credibility and provide important nuance to your research. It will also help counter any cultural biases in your sources.
Even if you’re a pre-med or STEM student, key discoveries are being made in labs from Seoul to São Paulo. You would be remiss not to discuss them in your research.
Once back on campus, you might feel “homesick” for your host country. Maybe you miss getting lost in the serpentine souks of Marrakech, or you crave the bustle and banana leaf rice of Kuala Lumpur. Even if you have no plans to travel again, there are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the culture and practice the language!
With so much diversity, college campuses today offer a cornucopia of cultural clubs. Seek out their events in order to enjoy your favorite culture’s music, dance, movies, holiday celebrations, and traditional food. You’ll be amazed by how easy it is to make friends when you can all swap stories about getting lost in Lima.
Even if there isn’t a club that you want to join, there are still other ways to stay active. Try organizing one yourself or reaching out to your school’s International Student Services office to see if there’s an opportunity to mentor new students from your host country. This is also a great way to find a tandem partner to help keep your language skills sharp.
If all else fails, the internet makes it easier than ever to watch foreign films and TV.
Call to Action
If you’re getting ready to leave your host country, tell us how you plan to re-adjust to life back home. Are you prepared to deal with reverse culture shock? How do you plan to use your international experience in the classroom?
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