Understanding Reverse Culture Shock: When Home Feels Foreign

Danielle Zabielski is a Communications student at Saint Joseph’s University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2016. Danielle is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.

Having to look the opposite way before crossing the street. Referring to ketchup as “tomato sauce” and to fries as “chips.” Realizing that “going to the chemist” does not, in fact, mean that you’re paying a visit to a scientist’s lab. Instead, it’s the same as going to a drugstore in the US.

All of these cultural differences were overwhelming at first, and gave me quite a bit of culture shock. But I’ve grown used to many of the things that seemed so foreign to me a few months ago. (Except for looking the other way before crossing the road. I still instinctively look the wrong way every time.)

Now that Australian customs and practices have become normal to me, what will happen when I return home?

The Usual Becomes Unfamiliar

Things that used to seem ordinary—like ketchup, drugstores, and people driving on the righthand side of the road—will likely appear strange at first, since I’m no longer used to encountering them daily. This phenomenon is called reverse culture shock, and it’s common among people who live outside of their home countries for extended periods of time.

Reverse culture shock was never something I’d given much thought to until it was brought up by Lindsey, the IFSA-Butler student services coordinator in Melbourne. After all, when you’re studying abroad, you’re often so wrapped up in either learning or enjoying yourself that you don’t have time to think about what will happen once you return home.

This phenomenon is called reverse culture shock, and it’s common among people who live outside of their home countries for extended periods of time.

But Lindsey made some important points when she addressed us about what it’ll be like to go home after being away for over four months of the year. Drawing from her own experience of studying in the US and then returning to Australia, she confessed that reverse culture shock can be equally as daunting to deal with as regular culture shock. This, she said, can be off-putting, particularly so for those who wish they could have stayed in their host country. Every little cultural difference can seem huge when magnified by the desire to be somewhere else.

Missing the Little Things

Lindsey studied abroad in New Jersey. She said that when she returned to Australia, one of the first things she noticed was the difference in the bird sounds she’d hear in the mornings. As soon as she’d wake up, the chirping of native Australian birds was a reminder of the fact that she was no longer in the States. For me, I know it’ll be the opposite. Every morning I’m woken up by a chorus of noisyUnderstanding Reverse Culture Shock: When Home Feels Foreign cockatoos and lorikeets outside my window. What I used to consider disruptive screeches have become comforting coos, and I’ll miss hearing them.

Food is often a big trigger of reverse culture shock, since it’s such a vital part of our everyday lives. My friend Bo studied abroad in Madrid and craved tapas and churros for weeks after returning to the US. Eating rituals differ, as well. Dinner in Spain wasn’t held until around 9 pm, so coming home to early meals was startling for him. Although there are a great deal of Australian foods I’ll miss, I’ll particularly miss Vegemite. The infamous vegetable yeast spread has become a breakfast staple for me.

Even something as simple as the weather can activate reverse culture shock. London’s rainy weather became the norm for my friend Maggie when she studied there last semester. Returning to a relatively dry Pennsylvania summer seemed unusual for her, and made her long for the days when she couldn’t leave her flat without an umbrella. I can definitely sympathize with this one. Melbourne has extremely wet weather in winter, and though it has sometimes been inconvenient, I’ll miss the drizzly days.

If you find yourself experiencing reverse culture shock, it’s best to try to acknowledge these cultural differences without becoming frustrated by them. Use your broadened perspective to see your home’s customs in a new light. Rather than compare your home to your host country, appreciate them both for their unique qualities.

Reestablishing Relationships

Another thing to keep in mind, Lindsey continued, was that life at home will have continued on while you’ve been away. This, at first thought, seems obvious. Plus, now social media makes this easier to deal with, being that we’re constantly connected to friends and family—even from halfway around the world.

But even if you’re connected via the internet, people at home will still have changed in ways you might not realize or expect. Returning to friend groups may not be as simple as you anticipate. It doesn’t mean that your friends have abandoned you; instead, they’re just not used to having you physically around. It’s almost as if you’re providing them with your own form of culture shock.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Understanding Reverse Culture Shock: When Home Feels ForeignThis might all sound unsettling, but it’s really nothing to fear. Before you know it, you’ll be back to hanging out with your friends and re-acclimated to life at home. You can spend plenty of time fondly reminiscing about your time spent abroad, either with your old companions or your new IFSA-Butler mates.

Most importantly, keep in mind that studying abroad is all about gaining new perspectives and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone—and that doesn’t necessarily end when you get on the plane to fly home.

Your experience continues even after you leave as you use the knowledge you’ve gained abroad to navigate the world around you. By questioning the established norms of your home country and looking at it through fresh eyes, you’ll continue to become a smarter and more confident global citizen. And really, that’s what studying abroad is all about.

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