Culture shock has been one of the rites of passage of the studying abroad experience. Even the least discerning student knows he or she must brace for the strange ways of a foreign land.
Reverse culture shock is less discussed but nearly every student who returns after spending time abroad undergoes it.
Everyone’s homecoming experience is different. Most students are thrilled at the prospect of seeing loved ones again. They may even get excited over fringe benefits such as eating at a favourite restaurant.
Few think about the less desirable aspects previously left behind.
But the shock awaits and may even hit before one boards the flight back.
For Navneet Verma, a graduate student of Computer Science at Northeastern University, reverse culture shock came early on a vacation trip home to Bhopal, India from Boston, Massachusetts.
Verma was dreaming of riding his motorcycle under sunny skies once more when he started thinking about the potholes.
One bad thought led to another; it was downhill from there.
Things didn’t look up once he landed, since he found it hard to live up to his family’s expectations.
He had already foreseen the larger issues he couldn’t cope with.
“My parents wanted me to be the same person I was before I had left,” he says. “How is that possible? I’m more independent now. I wear what I like now; I speak my mind. I don’t like my privacy intruded upon. The US has changed me completely.
It has made me a grown-up and people couldn’t handle it.”
Verma cut his holiday short and returned to Boston.
Marissa D’Almeida, an HR professional in Mumbai, had a similar experience and says it affected her for years.
D’Almeida pursued her MBA at the Cardiff University, living in the UK for five years.
She says she admired the country for its cleanliness and comfortable lifestyle, but above all, for its liberalism and openness.
She says it’s taken her a long time to adjust to life in India again.
“I wasn’t happy about returning but did it for personal reasons and lack of job opportunities,” she adds. “It was especially difficult in the beginning because not only did I believe in a better standard of living now but opportunities to interact with
people from different cultures in a cosmopolitan place had been so much more enlightening.”
Sami Ahmad Khan, novelist and PhD scholar at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, takes a more philosophically mature view of the phenomenon of reverse culture shock.
After spending a year at the University of Iowa as a Fulbright Scholar, Khan realised that despite differences it is the very basic commonalities that matter.
“We all need a roof over our heads, three square meals, a decent job, a loving family and supportive friends. This is true whether I’m from the US or Armenia, India or Indonesia.”
Khan says for him it is a matter of synthesis and not conflict.
“Coming back was not unsettling at all. I looked forward to going back and applying what I had learnt to the real-world problems of my country and profession. For example, all the courses in theory and creative writing I undertook at Iowa helped me with my PhD thesis and creative writing.”
Another Fulbright Scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University who attended Johns Hopkins University seems to have applied Khan’s credo when she missed the good manners and courtesies common in the US.
“I started smiling at strangers, letting people stand before me in the queue. I am sure many people thought I was insane but I would be wrong if I say no one responded,” says Neelu Singh, who is pursuing PhD in linguistics.
“They smile back; they say thank you.”
The transition of resettling into her home environment was not smooth, but she has tried to bring some elements of her experience to her new life.
“I thank all the autorickshaw drivers after the ride and they respond back. If people don’t respond, I don’t feel bad because I know at least I made them feel good.”
Perhaps reverse culture shock represents a struggle in values. When you have begun living by another set of principles, can you really go back to the old system?
Over time the appeal of the new country’s goodness may also wear off but that would be a question one may pose to long-term expats.
What cannot be dismissed is the sudden shift in perception common to everyone who has spent any amount of time in a foreign land.
Once touched by another culture, be prepared to take a serious assessment of your own.