Of all aspects of transition, reentry shock is perhaps the most, well, shocking. Reentry is the situation that occurs when you return home after a lengthy missions trip, a semester of studying abroad, or another significant cultural experience. Why is this so difficult for people? Well, partly because of the very reason mentioned previously—people expect things to be somewhat challenging and difficult when they take a trip to a different country or culture. And, after they begin to struggle through culture shock and adjustment, they tend to romanticize home, as we’ve mentioned before. You spend so much time being homesick and missing everything familiar and all that you love. But as you go through your adjustment, you change. When you finally get home, it is not what you’ve been expecting or remembering. You expect to fit right back into life where you understand everything and where life and your routines are familiar. Contrary to your expectations, however, you have changed, and home is not the perfect fit you remember.
You need to know that this experience is perfectly normal. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. To better explain the confusing feelings you may experience, hear this quote from The Immigrants. It says more.
If you came back, you wanted to leave again; if you went away, you longed to come back. Wherever you were, you could hear the call of the homeland, like the note of the herdsman’s horn far away in the hills. You had one home out there and one over here and yet you were an alien in both places. Your true abiding place was the vision of something very far off, and your soul was like the waves, always restless, forever in motion.
Dr. Clyde Austin says, “The few research studies that have been done on reentry so far indicate that re-entry is more difficult than the initial culture shock.”10 This is especially true when someone has been living overseas for long periods of time, but it can also apply to those who have studied abroad. What happens is that first of all, you “freeze” home in your mind, but it changes while you are gone. But even more importantly than that, everyone (including you) “freezes” you. But you change and grow and learn to see the world through new eyes while you’re away (at least, that is the hope in a successful cross-cultural transition). When you come back, though, all of your friends and loved ones will probably expect you to be the same. As will you. This obviously can present some difficulties. This phenomenon is better explained through a table by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken.
Look different, Think different
Look alike, Think different
Look different, Think alike
Look alike, Think alike
For those who study abroad, when you leave, you are a Mirror in the sense that you look and think like the majority of people in your home culture. When you are overseas, you are oftentimes an obvious Foreigner. However, after you change and come home, you are a Hidden Immigrant—you look like others, and so they think you must obviously think like them as well, which is not always true. For international students and missionary kids, this becomes the story of their lives. The difficulty of reentry shock is determined by the length of time you are away, the degree to which you engaged with your host culture, and the amount of difference between your home and host cultures.
Another reason for the difficulty many have in adjusting back to their home culture is summarized in a quote by Dr. Paul Kilpatrick, “No one will ever be as interested in your experiences as you want them to be.” Not even your parents, sad to say. As much as they may love you, these people were not there, and so they will often have a hard time matching your enthusiasm about your trip to China for hours on end. Also, people may seem less interested because they might feel slightly envious of your experiences overseas. If you are really excited, they also might feel rejected by you, as if you didn’t really miss them. But don’t let that stop you from sharing—you need to share your experiences with someone who will listen.
Here is a compilation of various quotes about the re-entry process from The Art of Coming Home. “‘My family loved to hear me talk about the experience,’ a Swedish [exchange student] observed, ‘but they also thought I demanded too much attention and that I forgot to take part in what had happened to them during the year [I was away]’” (148).
“The sting of reentry...is made worse by the fact that no one understands what you are going through. Indeed, most people can’t even imagine what there is to go through” (147).
“‘You want to tell people about [your experience],’ an Australian returnee notes, ‘but sometimes they’re jealous, so you can’t talk to them. Mum and Dad were jealous of my host parents because I got along so well with them. Sometimes Mum would put them down, which made me really upset’” (143).
“One returning executive notes, ‘...And when I think about who I can confide in about [how] I am feeling, I just have my wife. I cannot explain my feelings to anyone who hasn’t traveled. You know, once you see the other side, [things are not the same]’” (55).
“‘I don’t think I’ll ever have a complete sense of belonging here in America,’ one returnee remembers, ‘or for that matter, overseas, because I’ve been split in two, culturally’” (54).
Don’t worry; it won’t be keenly difficult forever. You will adjust to life back at home. It won’t be exactly the way it was ever again, but you will create a new “normal” for yourself. With time, we can usually adapt to almost anything. As you continue to debrief and make sense of your cross-cultural experiences, you will be surprised to see how much you’ve changed for the better.