After graduating from Drake University, I decided I wanted to experience a different culture and live in another country for a year. I chose to move the city of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. There, I volunteered and taught English in a Kindergarten. As I prepared to for my year abroad, one of my worries was culture shock. It turned out that although the culture in Malaysia is vastly different than the US, I was easily able to embrace it. It was, after all, the main reason I had gone abroad, to experience a new culture. What I wasn’t nearly as prepared for was Reverse Culture Shock. As my year in Malaysia came to an end, I was equally excited and sad. Excited, of course, to see my family and friends but extremely sad to be leaving my new friends, my students, and the life I had built in Malaysia. I consider myself a very adaptable person, so I prepared very little for the reverse culture shock I might experience. There were several things I wish I had known or focused on more before my return to the US. As the 2011 Ayusa exchange students prepare for their journey back home, I would like to share my reflections on reverse culture shock.
Change is Inevitable. Over the course of the year abroad, students have changed and grown into different people than they were when they left their home country. Although their parents and friends have probably stayed in close contact, the changes will be more apparent to family, friends and the students when they go home. It would helpful for the students to try and reflect on this before they return and talk about it with their close friends and family. They should not expect to go back to the same life they had when they left because they will have changed as a person.
Build a Support System. Upon returning home the students will most likely be excited to see their friends and family. They will be excited to tell them anything and everything about their year abroad. They will also likely find themselves comparing everything to the US, since it is what they’ve experience over the past year. However, there is only so much a person can grasp about the experience the students have had, since others didn’t experienced it firsthand. As sad as it sounds, people may grow tired of hearing students go on and on about their experience in the US. For the students, talking about it is one of their ways of adjusting. It would be a good idea for students to find at least one trusted family member or close friend that they talk about this with previous to their departure from the US. This friend and family member can be the students’ main support and will be willing to always listen when students want to talk about their experience.
Make No Promises. It will be very easy for students to make many promises as they prepare to leave. Most likely these will be promises to their host families and friends to stay in regular contact. I would strongly encourage students to make as few promises as possible. Of course, the students will stay in contact with their US families and friends. However, they could easily make a commitment to Skype weekly, only to arrive home, be swept up in their new surroundings and have little time to fulfill the previously made promise. This will only put pressure and guilt on the student and possibly hurt the feelings of the family and friends if the promise isn’t fulfilled. Instead, host families and students should be open and broad about the amount of communication they will have. Something like this, said by the host family, “We will miss you and would love to hear from you whenever you have time. We know you will be busy, so email or Skype with us when it fits your schedule,” would likely put the student at ease.
Take Time For Yourself. Most importantly the students should remember to take the time they need for themselves. Some students may need time to reflect on their past year. They may possibly need time to slightly grieve the loss of their life in the US, in order to move on and embrace their life back at home. This is all quite natural and it is important for them to realize that writing in a journal or simply taking time to think about all the changes they are experiencing, may be helpful. Talking to a trusted friend or family member may also help during the adjustment period.