Arrival Survival

photo: Sebastian Czapnik

Written by  May 1, 2012
Returning travellers are often surprised to find that the process of reintegration is rife with challenges – and ripe with opportunities.

"I was expecting to have some culture shock," says Melanie Lindayen, but the culture shock she describes wasn't experienced after arriving in Thailand – it was when she returned home to Toronto.

Lindayen, a fourth-year international studies student at York University's Glendon Campus recently completed a one-year exchange at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

"When I came back there was an initial shock with the amount of space and the quality of air, and the general wealth and waste," she says.

"The experience of 're-entry shock' or 'reverse culture shock,' is much less talked about or understood, though it affects thousands of people who work, study and volunteer abroad."

This is a common sentiment expressed by people returning from living abroad, especially from locales in developing countries. It's one of the many symptoms of reverse culture shock.

When the familiar becomes foreign

Most people know what "culture shock" means – it's the state of anxiety or disorientation that results from being in a foreign culture, usually following an initial period of giddy excitement from being somewhere new. The experience of "re-entry shock" or "reverse culture shock," however, is much less talked about or understood, though it affects thousands of people who work, study and volunteer abroad.

Dr. Bruce LaBrack, a professor of anthropology at the University of the Pacific in California and author of the online resource 'What's Up With Culture?' specializes in cross-cultural training and re-entry. He describes re-entry shock as "coming home to find that you have become very comfortable overseas, and what was once foreign is now familiar and what was once familiar is now foreign."

Be patient, reserve judgment

Lindayen had also been teaching English to Thai sex workers, and was living in the midst of a challenging, and often unsafe, political situation. In addition to defending her choice to work in a somewhat dangerous area, she also had to combat her friends' and family's sensationalized perceptions of the situation.

"People have come to realize recently that when you come home from your overseas experience, that's not the end of the experience."

"I did feel perhaps a little bit of alienation from certain perspectives about 'dirty' sex workers," Lindayen says. At these times, she tries to share the philosophy that "our way is not better; it's different. And that their way is not strange; it's different."

Finding a way to share your experience with friends and family is a common challenge for returning sojourners. Overcoming that, however, can help ease the transition of coming home.

"Reverse culture shock is focused around a difficulty in having people understand what the experience was all about," explains Alan Webb, training and development advisor with CUSO-VSO.

"Our volunteers are away typically for one or two years, and when they get back people will ask 'what was it like?' and it's very difficult to answer that question in simple short phrases."

Webb explains that many people feel out of place and unsure of where they fit in their old lifestyles, in addition to feeling isolated because no one around them understands their experiences or their resistance to "return to normal."

Dr. LaBrack, in an online cultural training resource he developed for study abroad students, suggests several approaches, including remaining patient while you readjust and trying to reserve the judgement that can accompany comparisons between different cultures, especially differences that involve issues of power and privilege in your home country.

"Assuming that things must return to normal is one of the things that contributes to reverse culture shock. You need to understand that you're a different person than the person who left, and you need to find a place for that person."

For your own good

Just finding a way to reintegrate, however, is not the end of the journey.

"People have come to realize recently that when you come home from your overseas experience, that's not the end of the experience," explains Dr. LaBrack. "Re-entry, in my opinion, is a very necessary part of cross-cultural training. What did you learn? What skills? What knowledge? How are you going to apply it?"

CUSO-VSO offers returning volunteers a chance to attend weekend-long reintegration workshops, where they can talk with other people who have had similar experiences. The objective is to learn how to effectively share your experience with others while maintaining a network with similarly minded individuals.

"We try to help people identify what stories they have to tell, and how to practice telling their stories; 'what is my two-minute message that is a summary of my experience?'" explains Webb.

CUSO-VSO also encourages returning volunteers to stay involved with volunteer or development work in their own community. At CUSO-VSO, that can include participating in public engagement, fundraising or recruitment.

For returning exchange students, York University, Ryerson University and the University of Toronto hold an annual conference in September. In addition to information sharing, the workshops focus on skill building as it relates to graduate school or identifying skills from your overseas experience to market to employers.

One such session, 'Marketing Your International Experience', is run by Marlene Bernholtz, founder of Dynamic Communication Skills. She shows returning exchange students how to reframe their study abroad experience for potential employers.

"You need to think about everything that you're now able to do and who you now are, and consider what value that has for an employer," she explains. "You have gained a great deal of adaptability, flexibility, cultural understanding and strong communication skills – these are all things employers are looking for."

Bernholtz stresses the need to communicate not just what you did while you were abroad, but the positive outcomes that resulted from those experiences.

"What makes you a stronger, more effective person also makes you a stronger more effective employee," she says.

If nothing else, returning home after working, studying or volunteering abroad means making a space in your new life for who you now are, whoever that may be, and putting your newfound knowledge and skills to good use.

"Assuming that things must return to normal is one of the things that contributes to reverse culture shock," Webb says. "You need to understand that you're a different person than the person who left, and you need to find a place for that person."

10 Things You Can Do to Minimize Re-entry Shock:

1. Mentally prepare for the adjustment process.

2. Allow yourself time to relax, reflect and ease into the transition.

3. Understand that the familiar will seem different.

4. Acknowledge that you will probably need to do some “cultural catching up” on what’s been going on at home.

5. Reserve judgements about people and behaviours in your home country.

6. Respond thoughtfully and carefully when asked about your time abroad.

7. Cultivate sensitivity by showing an interest in what others have been doing while you were away.

8. Beware of comparisons; try not to put down your home culture while lavishing praise on foreign cultures.

9. Remain flexible. Balance reconnecting to old networks with cultivating new ones.

10. Seek support networks.

- Courtesy of Dr. LaBrack’s What’s Up With Culture? pacific.edu/sis/culture/ 

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Published in Study Abroad
Zalina Alvi

Zalina grew up in Toronto and began her career in journalism at the York University campus newspaper. Before joining Verge in 2010, she worked for a documentary festival, a non-profit organization and various magazines and newspapers. Zalina has had some eclectic travel experiences, including reporting for a newspaper on the island of Molokai in Hawaii.

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