Coming Home After Living Abroad

Coming Home After Living Abroad

By Kelsey T

No matter how much time you spend abroad and your experience, returning "home" will feel different. The period of adjustment when you return to your hometown is called re-entry. 

Just as you might have experienced culture shock the first time you went to live abroad, you might experience culture shock when you return. This feeling is called "reverse culture shock."

Similar to going abroad, adjusting to being home may come with highs and lows. While you were abroad, you may have changed, or your hometown may have changed. Your attitudes towards certain things may have shifted. Things may not feel the same.

When I returned home from living in Spain, I experienced reverse culture shock. I learned many lessons after years of reflection and working as a professional in the field of study abroad.

If you're anticipating coming home from being abroad, here is a reentry guide.

Reverse Culture Shock

(Picture -  Feeling out of place in the city hustle and bustle)

When you go abroad, you often go through the phases of culture shock. These include the honeymoon phase, irritability and hostility, gradual adjustment, and adaptation.

It takes time to adjust to local customs, habits, timetables, and ways of living.

Whether it's becoming wholly comfortable or surviving abroad, most people adjust to their host culture to some degree.

It seems like adjusting back to the culture you were in before would be a breeze.

That's not always the case.

When you're abroad, you change. You adopt new ways of thinking and adapt to your surroundings. During your stay in another country, you create memories, meet people, and have experiences that people back home won't have.

When you return, adjusting back to your life before may be different than you'd expect.

If you're lucky, there will be people around you who understand that and know how to help you navigate this new feeling.

I have found that is not always the case.

How People Experience Reverse Culture Shock

(Picture - Coming home to a pet is great)

Everyone experiences reverse culture shock differently.

Your experience may vary depending on how positive or negative your time abroad was, how long you were abroad, the environment you are returning to, and many other personal factors.

The same person can even experience reverse culture shock differently each time they come back.

My re-entry process is an example of this.

The first time I returned from living abroad was after studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. My re0entry was much smoother because I was gone for a shorter time and returned to a college campus. There were resources on campus for me and ways to use my experiences to help others, which was fulfilling. 

I connected with international students on my campus because I could empathize with what they were going through. While being in the United States was very different than being in Spain, I felt inspired by all of the opportunities to stay internationally-focused when I returned.

Returning from teaching abroad was a very different experience. I had spent nine months in Palencia, Spain, teaching English abroad. When I returned to the United States, I had a rough experience adjusting.

I didn't have a group I could relate to or activities to become involved in to keep me busy. Everything felt different, and I didn't feel as if I could express why. I kept comparing my home to where I just left and felt very homesick for my life abroad. When I returned, I missed my friends, host city, and the entire experience.

Eventually, I adjusted again and created my own opportunities to stay connected to my time abroad, but it wasn't easy.

Re-entry Process

(Photo - At airport ready to come back home)

Re-entry isn't a straight line and can depend on the individual.

Most people follow a U-curve re-entry pattern, which, very simply put, is excitement, reverse culture shock, and readjustment.

Excitement

In the beginning, many people find it exciting to be home. They get to see people they missed, eat foods they couldn't get abroad, and be back in familiar territory.

Reverse Culture Shock

After the initial excitement phase wears off, the transition might become more complex.

Home may feel different than you expect. You spent a significant time away from it, and you may find things have changed or that your attitudes have changed. You may find it difficult to explain what you've experienced.

A few examples of this include:

  • The pace of life – your hometown may have a faster or slower pace of life than where you just left
  • Values and attitudes – values and attitudes towards time, family, work-life balance, etc. may be different abroad than it is at home
  • Language – it might be an adjustment switching back to your native language if you spent time speaking in a different one
  • Perceptions – people you encounter at home may know nothing about the place you came from and make assumptions about it
  • Process – at home, you may have to readjust to new routines and ways of doing things
  • Resources – you may have come from a place with more or fewer resources, waste, and materialism than you are reentering

All of these differences, whether they are large or small, could affect reverse culture shock.

The degree to which you experience these can depend on:

  • Whether your re-entry was voluntary or involuntary
  • Your age
  • How immersed you were in your host culture
  • Your attitude towards your home and host cultures
  • Length of stay abroad
  • How often you go abroad

 Adjustment

Reverse culture shock can last different amounts of time. It's okay if it takes you longer or shorter than someone else to readjust.

I readjusted quickly after returning from studying abroad. It took me almost two years to feel completely comfortable in my home culture after returning from teaching abroad.

A little part of me will always miss living in Spain, but I feel adjusted and happy in my home culture again.

Your experience abroad will always be a part of you. The best way to adjust isn't to forget it.

At first, you may have to "survive" before you "thrive." That means getting back to the basics and reestablishing a routine at home.

Find ways to keep your experience alive and find people you can talk to that understand you.

Some ways that I did that include:

  • Joining travel-oriented social media groups
  • Attending bi-weekly Spanish conversation meetups
  • Making my career travel-focused

All of these things were very therapeutic and helped me readjust and thrive at home.

Find what works for you and add those things to your life.

Tips for a Smoother Re-entry

 

(Photo - Looking out of an aeroplane window)

Now that we've defined re-entry and reverse culture shock, it's time to talk about strategies for a smoother transition home. Every person is going to have different methods that work for them. This list of tips and tricks can help you guide your own re-entry plan.

#1 Be kind to yourself

Re-entry is a process that will have many ups and downs. Don't be too hard on yourself if you're not adjusting as quickly as you'd like or fall back into the same patterns. Being abroad was a significant event in your life, so it's going to take some time to feel comfortable again at home.

#2 Journal

Journaling is a therapeutic way of processing your reentry. Putting your thoughts down on paper means that they won't be swirling around in your head. It's also a great way to reflect on the lessons you learned while abroad and apply them to your life at home.

#3 Connect with your community

When people go abroad, it's often the people who make a place feel like home. The same applies to when you return. You can reconnect with people in your hometown, and you can make some new friends who share your interests and perspectives.  

#4 Explore your own backyard with a new lens

When you were abroad, there were things that you probably thought were neat that locals thought weren't extraordinary. On the flip side, there might have been things your community abroad thought were remarkable about your hometown that you thought were normal. Explore those things when you get home and share them with your friends abroad to stay connected.

#5 Encourage others to go abroad

Chances are, at least one person is going to be interested in pursuing the same experience you just had. You are now an expert on the topic. Encouraging others interested in going abroad will help you adjust more quickly and fill you with a sense of purpose.

#6 Blend your old and your new life

It's impossible to recreate the life you had abroad at home. Embrace the opportunity to create the best of both worlds by infusing the best parts of your life abroad into your life at home. It could be as simple as cooking a dish you like from abroad or keeping up the walking routine you had. You could do things like a tapas night for your friends and family or coffee hour. Adding these things to your life could help you navigate reentry.

Conclusion

(Photo - Travelling the Sahara Desert with Camel)

Living abroad is an impactful, life-changing experience. Returning home is not always easy. Hopefully, this article will help you understand what you may experience and how to navigate it. It is possible to move forward healthily while keeping the memories of your time abroad alive.

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Resources:

Stages and Symptoms of Culture Shock - International Student Advising and Programs - Simon Fraser University (sfu.ca)

Reverse Culture Shock - The Challenges of Returning Home: Reverse Culture Shock (state.gov)

EJ1084430.pdf (ed.gov)

The Art of Coming Home (craigstorti.com)

Reentry Resources | IES Abroad | study Abroad