Home is not just a place, or a physical structure – it can also mean a feeling of joy, the smell of your mom’s fresh pastries, the gentle breeze of provincial air, or just warmth of being with your family. But what if after a year, or even just a semester, of studying abroad, you come back to a place where everything familiar suddenly became foreign?
This is what experts call reverse culture shock. “Reverse culture shock is the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after a number of years overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in re-adjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.”¹
Here are some stages (really, a playlist) of how to overcome this phenomenon that most study abroad students unknowingly suffer from.
Stage 1: Disengagement
Are you way Too Good at Goodbyes?
After months of being in a different country, you might be feeling that you’re not yet ready to say goodbye to your friends and the whole study-abroad experience. You’re in denial that the whole adventure is now coming to a close- and it really is. Right now, life feels like that scene in the movies where you’re at the airport, walking away, and holding back tears. Don’t cry because you and your friends can still FaceTime everyday, even if you have to sing a Sam Smith tune every time you hang up.
Stage 2: Initial Euphoria
Has the Philippines become A Whole New World?
Finally, after hours of being cramped in an economy seat, your legs can finally stretch and your ears can relax. Mabuhay, and welcome back to the Philippines! You’re home and you can’t wait to savor the sinigang and devour all the kwek kweks and fishballs. Family members will be fawning over you, listening to your hilarious story about the time you were lost in Wal-Mart because the place was so huge or how amazed you were when you were in New York where every turn was a sight to behold. Everything seems brand new to you- the traffic in EDSA, the long queues at the LRT, and the smoggy Manila air that you fell in love with. Why are you so happy? That’s reverse culture shock in full swing.
Stage 3: Loneliness, Irritability and Hostility
Ever feel like those moments abroad were Irreplaceable?
This is the most difficult stage of reverse culture shock- that feeling that you don’t belong to your home country anymore. Ever wondered why those who once loved listening to your stories got tired after hearing for the 23rd time how awesome you think Whole Foods is? Suddenly, your friends and their stories seem so shallow, life moves too slow, and everything is just so inefficient in the Philippines. At this stage, you might start being hostile to this new environment by avoiding conversation, shutting yourself in as you bawl over your study abroad-themed IG feed. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is it for you! It’s helpful to surround yourself with people who have had the same experience and make sure to seek the advice of your study abroad counsellors as well.
Stage 4: Re-adjustment and Adaptation
Maybe it’s time to Let It Go?
Coping and re-adjusting may take some time but you will get there. Letting go of the past does not mean forgetting everything that happened. It simply means cherishing memories and moving forward with your life. Time travel is not an option, but acceptance is. Like Queen Elsa, you will learn to let it go. Letting go also means reinventing yourself, perhaps into someone who is more understanding of the world and the people in it. This stage is really about realizing the insights you learned abroad and applying them at home to help the people around you.
Stage 5: Recovery
This calls for a celebration!
You made it! Your view of home will be a bit different now due in part to what you have seen and gone through when you studied abroad but at least now, home will still feel like home once more! You’ve gone through four stages of ups and downs and you deserve to celebrate. Reverse culture shock is truly a stressful experience especially if you are not prepared or are not even aware that it exists. But as you start a new chapter in your life, don’t forget that one of the most important parts of your study abroad experience is accepting and adapting to change.
So now that you know what to expect upon coming back, there’s no stopping you from embarking on another adventure and researching your next study abroad destination.