Repatriate: to return to one’s place of origin or citizenship. It sounds simple enough: you are returning to the place you came from, where you have lived, where you have friends and family and a cultural frame of reference. It’s not like you have to learn about a new culture, make new friends or even pick up a new language when returning home. So, what’s the big deal? What is reverse culture shock and why can it be so hard?
It turns out many things can throw you for a loop when returning home from an international assignment. Many employers are aware of the challenges facing international employees arriving for assignment, and have programs in place for cross-cultural training in order to assure a smooth transition. However, the return home has not traditionally been recognized as a difficult adjustment period. It sounds counter-intuitive that returning home should require preparation and training. It sounds almost impossible that you would struggle to adjust to the culture of your home country. And yet, this is exactly what happens to many returnees.
“Reverse culture shock is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer, is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated,” says Dean Foster, founder and president of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions. Living abroad changes you, however subtly, and the country and people you left behind have changed too. Once back home, you may recognize the streets and the buildings but the sights and sounds appear different as you are now seeing your country through a lens that has been altered by your new experiences.
According to Dr. Bruce La Brack from the School of International Studies at University of the Pacific, the following challenges are common upon re-entry:
- No one wants to listen
- You can’t explain
- Reverse homesickness
- Relationships have changed
- People see ‘wrong’ changes
- People misunderstand you
- Feelings of alienation
- Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
- Loss/compartmentalization of experience
You can add to this list some of the same practical challenges that you face when leaving your home country: finding housing, schooling, activities, trailing spouse finding a job, financial issues, etc.
While you may not be able to avoid culture shock (reverse or otherwise), there are measures to take to make the transition easier. The first thing to keep in mind is that culture shock is not a permanent state. You will gradually grow accustomed to your “new old country”.
Journaling or blogging can be helpful, as a therapeutic outlet and as a way to connect with people. Actively nurturing your international perspective by reading international newspapers and magazines, listening to your favorite podcasts or watching international news can ease the transition. Cooking your favorite foods from abroad and then sharing with friends and family is a great way to stay connected with what you’ve left behind, and it provides a perfect opportunity to share some of your experiences while also catching up on the lives of your loved ones!
By: Felicia Shermis