Reverse Culture Shock

How to deal with re-entry when coming home from abroad

Earlier this year, I had to get my passport renewed, and I found that handing over that little book containing a rainbow of stamps and visas was more difficult than I would like to admit. I’ve been obsessed with world travel ever since my family hosted a German exchange student when I was in high school. Since then, I’ve made it a point to leave the country every time finances and work schedule will allow.

Before I embarked on a college semester in Paris, it seemed everyone had a warning word to say about culture shock. The city would be busy and crowded (it was). French people are rude (they weren’t). The linguistic barrier is impossible to overcome (shockingly untrue). After six months of new friends, new foods, and a bevy of new experiences, I returned home … only to find myself breaking down in the condiment aisle of an American supermarket less than 24 hours later.

At the time it seemed too absurd to fully comprehend. I had mastered the Parisian metro system. I had passed a four-hour language test in French. I had gained friends in multiple countries. Had I really overcome all this only to be trumped by ketchup and mayo?

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was suffering from reverse culture shock. After adjusting to a new culture for an extended period of time, your body is physically, emotionally and mentally required to make another switch when you return home. The result? What once seemed to so familiar now seems foreign, and you may be experiencing an unexpected learning curve (i.e. choosing a simple grocery item from endless shelves lined with nearly identical ketchup bottles). As I learned after my mother ushered me out of the store to go home for a long nap, the transition can be more difficult than we expect.

While everyone reacts differently to returning home, here are a eight tips for heading reverse culture shock off at the pass, whether you are homeward bound after serving on a mission trip, vacationing or otherwise expanding your comfort zone by traveling home and abroad.

1) Sleep it Off

Your body clock doesn’t sync with the local time as easily as your iPhone. If you’ve spent the entire plane ride home catching up on several months of movie viewing (guilty as charged) you’re going to arrive home exhausted, and probably mentally fried. If you’re not the kind of person who can nap easily on a plane, do whatever it takes to make up those zzzs when you land. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to function on a full night’s sleep.

2) Hydrate

If your body clock is stuck somewhere on another continent, chances are you’re probably neglecting your regular water intake. Since 75 percent of your body is made up of water, losing even 4 percent of fluid will result in lethargy, apathy and mental fog. For this reason, if you’re the type of person to indulge in a glass of wine, practice extreme moderation in the air. Nothing says “welcome home” like a headache after mixing alcohol with altitude on a dehydrated system. Like sleep, your body doesn’t work as well if you’re not giving it what it needs to function.

3) Talk it Out (Or Don’t)

Don’t be afraid to incorporate the discovery of abroad into your daily life at home.


Obviously, you’ve had a great time, and maybe learned and experienced something new along the way. Your friends and family probably want to hear about your adventures! But there’s no rule that says you have to start spilling the beans the second you step off the plane. If you’re exhausted or overwhelmed, there’s nothing wrong with taking a rain check for a day or two until you feel ready to do your stories justice.

4) Realize That Life Goes On

Chances are, if you’ve been gone awhile, your friends and family have had their fair share of life events as well. (Hey, you’re not the only one who has been growing and changing.) It’s easy to feel displaced when you haven’t connected with those close to you for the time since you’ve been away. Schedule some coffee dates or girls/guys nights out to help you get caught up. Be sure to listen as much as you talk.

5) Keep a Daily Routine

If possible, take a day or two off when you return home, but try to cap it at a few days. No one will blame you if pajama pants and Hulu are your closest friends for the first week after you return home. But don’t prolong it—you’ll be surprised how something as simple as getting up at the same time every day or pitching in with the household chores will help you slip back into the rhythms of life.

6) Bring It Back Home

What did you discover on your trip? A new hobby? A new favorite food? A new language? Don’t be afraid to incorporate the discovery of abroad into your daily life at home. You may not be able to recreate the experience exactly (I’m still on the hunt for a place in the U.S. where I can buy Swedish Söder tea), but nurturing your newfound passion and sharing it with others is a great way to reconnect with friends while appreciating your newly expanded life experience. Especially if you’re fresh from a mission trip, don’t stop doing the work. Find ways to incorporate the ministry that captivated your passion in another country into everyday life at home.

7) Keep in Touch

One of the most rewarding souvenirs from any trip is newly formed friendships. With email and Facebook, it’s even easier to stay in touch. Don’t forget to exchange contact information! Plus, you never know when these friendships will result in a cool houseguest, or provide a couch to sleep on next time you visit the country.

8) Appreciate “Home Sweet Home"

You call it home for a reason, right? You may have left your heart in San Francisco (or Paris, Dubai, Madrid), but there’s a reason you came home—even if it might be hard to remember at first. Drink up the little details that make your city unique. Remember the people and things you missed most while you were away, and let them know. Open your eyes to the cultural experiences right outside your front door, keep a look out for how God is moving in your very own neighborhood and claim your own hometown adventures as you step back into daily life.

Talk About It

Just coming home from a mission trip, vacation or study trip abroad? One world traveler offers her 8 tips on beating reverse culture shock upon re-entry.

11 Comments

84,884

Adam Gonnerman commented…

RCS hit me HARD when I returned to the United States after a two-month mission trip to Brazil in 1997. For the first week nothing looked right, as though my vision had been trained to expect certain images. I struggled for months with a profound homesickness, one that was only really alleviated a year later when I returned to Brazil for a couple of weeks. I guess deep inside I needed to know that the door back to Brazil wasn't shut, and when I was able to go back the weight of anxiety was removed.

Sarah Abbey

23

Sarah Abbey commented…

Well said Natalie

James

60

James commented…

They should have let you keep your old passport and just invalidated it with a hole punch. Just because your passport is expired you might have had visas that were not, plus you might have to prove where you have been at some point in the future. I was surprised to read that you had to turn yours over because I have always gotten to keep mine old passports.

84,884

Anonymous commented…

Interesting article, I've lived in Japan a year and a half as a teacher and I've been really immersed (95% Japanese friends, live in a small town, almost all-Japanese church, etc.) I'm kind of expecting RCS when I come home to the States next week and stay for a month. I love it in Japan and while I miss home and I'm ready to be back for a little while, I don't totally know what to expect. Good advice here.

84,884

Anonymous commented…

I've been overseas since 1993 and the thing that is ALWAYS most challenging is the shopping aisle at Walmart or the grocery store. I prepare myself for it and know to expect it but it is still overwhelming. The choices are overwhelming, and even if you know the brands, they have almost always changed the packaging and branding in 3-4 years. I think even more overwhelming is the fact that you can buy EVERYTHING in one place. Oh, and they always have change.

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