Discussing the effects of reverse culture shock on students and host families.
Your host student’s exchange experience is coming to a close. Soon, they will be returning to their home country, reuniting with friends and relatives who they have not seen for months, tasting food they haven’t eaten since arriving in the United States and eagerly telling stories of their time abroad. They may be excited about the trip home but also a bit nervous and apprehensive. They have changed over the course of the program, and they may be concerned about how people at home react to these changes. Your hosted student may feel guilty expressing excitement about returning home in front of you. It can be overwhelming for them to consider saying goodbye to the family and friends they have grown so close to here and slipping right back into the life they left behind.
You may remember before your student arrived, we told you about the cultural adjustment process and the highs and lows your participant may experience as they adjust to life in a new family, school, community and country. One stage of this process, being culture shock. Culture Shock is a term that describes the disorientation and adaptation that takes place when you begin living in a new environment. Among other things, symptoms can include fatigue, frustration, homesickness, and feelings of displacement.
Going home is often accompanied by very similar feelings, as your participant readjusts to life back home! This is called Reverse Culture Shock.
Culture shock can be characterized as the expected confrontation with the unfamiliar. Reentry shock as the unexpected confrontation with the familiar.
Host families often go through a similar transition as they prepare for their student to depart and may feel a sense of loss after their student(s) depart.
The reverse culture shock W-curve was developed by John and Jeanne Gullahorn. Upon arrival in the "home" culture, the returnee experiences a "honeymoon" period where all that is grand about home seems to shine through. Visits with old friends and family are refreshing, and you may notice some exciting changes. The honeymoon period doesn't last long, though, as cultural differences and the stresses of reentry continue to mount. For people not expecting reentry stress, the challenges can vary in severity. As returnees cope with the cultural differences of their home culture and manage the logistical tasks, they climb up the slope of re-adaptation and again regain their emotional equilibrium. As with initial culture shock, the duration of this phenomenon varies from person to person, but the phenomenon itself is prevalent among those who have spent a significant time abroad.
Almost all students and host families experience reverse culture shock to some degree. For some it is minor, and for others, it is a significant part of their return process. Here is some information that we hope will help answer your questions about this experience.
Why does reverse culture shock occur?
- People and places in the home country may have remained much the same and the AFS student has changed substantially. They now have a different perspective or lens through which to see and experience things, and what they see through this new lens may be jarring to them. On the flip side, some people and places may have changed, and these unexpected changes can be disconcerting.
- People may not be as interested in hearing about the exchange experience as the student is in sharing it with them. AFSers may have difficulty conveying their experiences to friends and family from home and get frustrated.
- Students may not expect to have trouble re-adjusting to life back home and they are unprepared for the impact of this process.
An awareness of the feelings and behaviors most commonly associated with reverse culture shock can help students and host families prepare for their own experience. Knowing what to expect and knowing that certain feelings are normal can make the experience less stressful and more manageable.
How can we expect our student to feel before departure?
- Excitement to be going home.
- Sadness that the host family is making plans beyond their stay.
- Withdrawal from the host family—it may seem easier to say goodbye if the feelings of closeness are less intense.
- Confusion about why the host family may be pulling away emotionally.
How will they feel once they are home?
- There may be a Honeymoon period initially when returning home, seeing people they have missed.
- They may have difficulty assimilating back into their own culture.
- Homesickness for the U.S. Missing friends and family from the U.S.
- Tendency to compare everything to the U.S. Their home country friends, and family may not appreciate these comparisons.
- Feelings that they have changed, but people expect them to be the same.
- Questioning interests that defined them before their experience abroad.
- Lack of focus on what to do instead/next.
- Feelings that no one understands what they are going through.
Typical Host Family feelings and behaviors as a result of their student leaving:
- Sadness that the student is making plans for after they get home.
- Tendency to withdraw from the student - it may seem easier to say goodbye if there is some emotional distance.
- Frustration that the student may be withdrawing from the host family.
- Feeling of relief once the student is gone.
- Sense of grief at the loss of the student.
- Feelings of empty-nest syndrome.
Discussing ways, you and your student(s) can work together to recognize some of these typical feelings and behaviors and how you can make departure and re-entry as smooth as possible will help the transition.
Note: While these are examples of common emotions and behaviors, they are not a definitive or exhaustive list. Students and host families may experience a wide variety of feelings related to their student’s departure.
The following are some suggested coping strategies for both the student and the host family to consider both before and after the student departs, to help prepare for the challenges that re-entry presents.
Coping strategies while student is still in U.S.:
- Recognition and awareness of the typical stages of reverse culture shock, understand that each other’s behavior may be affected by reverse culture shock.
- Consider how you dealt with culture shock upon arrival in the U.S. and employ the same strategies you did then, for example, self-care in whatever forms it takes for you.
- Students and host families should communicate openly about the inevitability of the student’s departure.
- Open discussion about the feelings and emotions around departure is encouraged.
- When making plans beyond the program, acknowledge that it may be difficult for the other party to hear about them.
- Take some time for introspection, consider how you have learned, changed, and grown from the experience.
- Compare both cultures; for students it can be helpful to consider what aspects of American culture you would like to take home with you; for host families it can be helpful to consider what aspects of the student’s culture you would like to incorporate into your life.
- Bring closure to your experience, say “goodbye” and “thank you”, make plans for continuing your relationship.
- Discuss expectations for the student’s return home and whether or not they may be realistic.
- Talk to your liaison or AFS volunteer for assistance through this process.
Coping strategies when student is at home:
- Be patient with yourself, adjustment takes time.
- Realize that people may not be as interested in your experiences as you are, be sure to express interest in others’ lives as well.
- Give yourself permission to relax, rest, absorb, and really think about your time abroad.
- Stay busy and active, pick-up old interests or pursue new ones you discovered while abroad.
- Connect with other AFS students who may be going through a similar adjustment. If there is an AFS alumni group near you, join in!
- Share your perspectives and expertise with community and school groups interested in learning about the U.S., American culture, or English language.
- Encourage your family to host an AFS exchange student.
- Find ways to continue developing skills or interests you started building while abroad.
- Be a mentor for others who are planning to study abroad or are currently abroad.
- Find ways to be an Active Global Citizen and take action in your community.
- Recognize that your student may need space from you to readjust to life back home and initially may not be in touch with you as often as you might like after their return.
- Connect with other host families who may be going through a similar adjustment process.
- Share your perspectives with others about your student’s country, culture, or language.
- Become an AFS mentor for new host families at local orientations.
- Consider hosting again, encourage others to host, and/or encourage your children to study abroad.
- Get involved in the international community in your local area.
- Find ways to incorporate your student’s culture with your own culture.
- Become an AFS volunteer and pass peace forward.
Remember, returning home, and the process of re-settling in after a return, is part of a student's and host family's intercultural learning process. One that we hope will continue long after the program ends!