Overcoming Reverse Culture Shock
Post-exchange depression shouldn't keep you grounded
Studying abroad or taking a gap-year to travel is an invaluable experience. One that’s sure to transform the returning student in one of two ways: it will make you better, or it will make you bitter.
Two weeks ago, the Life section ran an article entitled “They say you can’t come home again”. The writer suggested that the common reaction students have to ‘re-entry’ into normal life after traveling abroad is largely negative, what she refers to as post-Erasmus depression. The Erasmus Student Network (ESM) facilitates university exchanges and internships for students wishing to study in Europe, and one can assume that the condition is common to all foreign travel. In any case, that is where the name comes from.
I don’t contradict the fact that returning home from an extended time abroad is difficult — this is very true. I do, however, contradict the implied solution to post-Erasmus depression. Having traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa over a gap-year, I can sympathize, but I cannot agree that the only solution to the back-home-blahs is to book another flight. That’s the reaction of the bitter, and I think we can do better.
Post-Erasmus depression is just a fancy way to talk about reverse culture shock. Actually, reverse culture shock could use some explaining too. Culture shock is a process people experience when they enter a culture very different from their own. Being a Montrealer, I would not experience any shock in Moncton — but in Marseilles I might be bothered, and even more so in Marrakech.
“But new cultures are fun,” you might say, and I’d respond “indeed!” But for how long, and to what extent?
The official Canadian government travel website lists three distinct stages of this process: The “Honeymoon,” “Culture Shock,” and “Adjustment” phases. I experienced all three of the stages abroad and when I returned home, so I hope to provide some insight for those who are struggling with coming home and those who might travel soon.
The “Honeymoon” phase is glorious. In this stage, “everything you see and do in the country you are visiting is exciting and positive” says the government travel webpage. Baguettes? Delicious. Donkeys? Cool. A distinctly non-Western approach to punctuality? Well, that’s endearing, of course. If the things you experience in this phase are not amazing in and of themselves, they are, at the very least, oddities which interest and intrigue you.
It should be noted that sometimes you don’t come out of the “Honeymoon” phase. Maybe because the trip is too short, or the culture is not radically different (a trip to Vermont or Maine, perhaps). Maybe you live in the “Honeymoon” phase because you’re the Greek god of travel! If you’re not though, and you spend enough time in a different culture, you will experience the shock of culture shock.
So if we accept that culture shock is a real process, then we must acknowledge that the reverse can, and does, happen. The government website describes this second stage as: “a sense of dislocation and general unease” and lists several symptoms. I should mention that my main point of contention with the original article was that post-Erasmus depression was presented as an almost unavoidable phenomena, when it can be rightly understood as reverse culture shock. So in the interest of bouncing back from those back-at-home blahs, let’s explore reverse culture shock.
When you return from spending six to 12 months overseas you’re certain to experience a gamut of emotions. Regret, some relief, and perhaps nostalgia in both directions. When I returned from a year abroad the first Tim Hortons I saw was to me as the Statue of Liberty might’ve been to a returning American. To me Tim’s represented so many comforting values and experiences, and it tugged at my heart in spite of the quality of their coffee. The trick is to not fall into one of two traps: idealizing home or demonizing home. The latter happens when we idealize wherever we’ve been abroad.
Unqualified as I am, it was apparent to me while reading the original article that the experiences and stories of those interviewed showed strong signs of being the reactions of those idealizing “abroad.” I am deeply nostalgic for many aspects of my time abroad, but I remember also being homesick while I was away. Not the whole time, mind you, and there were times when I said “I’m never going back!”
But I did come back, and so will you if you study abroad.
So, what can you do when you find yourself hating everything about home? You can get right back on that plane and go back, but that’s probably not an option, and even if it were, it’s not helpful. All the excitement and novelty of the “new place” will wear off eventually and you’ll find yourself in the same spot — restless and lusty for wandering.
I propose a far more pragmatic solution: have another adventure.
If an adventure is made from equal parts “old familiar self” and “exciting new place” why isn’t the reverse true? Mix up a little “new exciting self” with the “old familiar place” and get to it. Sure, it’ll be just as much work to adjust the new you to your old “culture”, but you had experience doing that when you went abroad, only now it’s in reverse.
I’ve reversed and revised the recommendations of the Canadian government for your convenience:
- Admit, frankly, that these impacts exist. Reverse culture shock is real but it’s not the end of the world, you just need to readjust.
- (Re)learn the rules of living in your country. Local behaviour and customs, although they may be different from your own, are neither better nor worse than what you are used to.
- Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise and take the time to sleep. Limit your alcohol consumption to moderate amounts.
- Travel. Take the time to be a tourist and explore your country’s sights as if you were a visitor.
- Make (new) friends and develop relationships. Getting to know local people will help you (re)adjust to cultural differences.
- Maintain contact with friends abroad. It is also a good idea to keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts.
- Do something that reminds you of life abroad. Maintaining some of the habits you made overseas can be helpful re: independence, etc.
- Avoid idealizing life abroad. You were in another country that had its own set of problems. Also, you can find people everywhere, and people can be terrible.
Go on, travel and study abroad if you can. One semester is good but a whole year is even better. If you have the chance, explore a country whose culture is vastly different from your own, maybe the Middle East or East Asia. Do it, have the invaluable experience — but don’t let it make you bitter about coming back. Live it, love it, and let it soak into you. Then come back a fuller, more insightful you and have the adventure all over again as you rediscover a familiar place through new eyes.
Welcome home, world traveler.
Originally published at theconcordian.com on February 3, 2015.