Cultural stress (formerly culture shock) is disorientation when arriving in a new culture. All students will likely experience some kind of cultural stress while abroad. It is also possible to experience the same feeling upon return to the US at the completion of your program. This is called re-entry adjustment or reverse cultural stress.

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Cultural Stress

When the student first arrives there is a period of euphoria because their planning and hard work has landed them under the Eiffel Tower or on Mount Fuji just where they want to be. However, reality soon appears and there is a rapid disillusionment with the country, the university and life in general. Everything seems too difficult. At this point all the student may want to do is sleep or, more extreme, go home. Symptoms of that stage include boredom, restlessness, inability to focus, irritability. This is the time that you may get frantic phone calls or, conversely, no communication at all. If too many phone calls are the rule, the role of the parent is to listen and support the student, reminding him or her of their skills and resources. Some remedies include adequate exercise and proper nutrition. Congratulations are in order for what may seem the simplest things-learning how to buy groceries in a different language or getting from point A to B on public transportation without getting lost.

There is gradual improvement when the student learns to accept and adjust to his or her new environment. All is well as it can be and once again phone calls and emails will decrease in number but increase in reports of new friends, foods and experiences. It is helpful for parents to remember that a student who does not experience some measure of cultural stress may not be making the most of the experience of study abroad.

Of course, if you feel something major is wrong, do not hesitate to contact the program leader or the international office of the host university. GeoBlue also has resources and may be able to assist you in identifying resources, doctors, or hospitals in your region.

Re-Entry Adjustment or Reverse Cultural Stress

Returning to the US after an extended stay abroad can be as challenging as your initial days in your host country. Most returnees experience a form of "reverse cultural stress," where customs, habits, and people in the US don't make as much sense as they did in your host country. Reverse cultural stress consists of feeling out of place in your own country, or experiencing a sense of disorientation. While everything is familiar, you feel different. You may have felt even walking through the airport and hearing American English spoken was a very surreal experience.

You've grown, changed, met people, and experienced things and places that your friends and family have not. You've adjusted to a foreign culture, made new friends, and probably consider your host country as a home. For months, you've been the foreigner, someone that people notice and are curious to meet. Now you're back at UMSL, and you're probably finding that classes and daily life are not quite as exciting as in England, Japan, Mexico, etc. Your friends may tire of your photographs and stories of "When I was in X…" Perhaps you want nothing more than to return to your host country, or maybe your glad to be back. Either way, you have changed and your experiences will always remain with you.

It's important to take time to readjust to life in the US and learn to incorporate your newfound passions, ideas, and beliefs into your daily life. Some of these strategies may help with readjusting:

Preparing to Return Home: Quick Tips

By Dr. Bruce LaBrack

Reentry into your home culture can be both challenging and as frustrating as living overseas, mostly because our attitude toward going "home" is that it should be a simple matter of getting resettled, resuming your earlier routines, and reestablishing your relationships. However, world wide reentry has its own set of special social and psychological adjustments which can be facilitated by being aware of the reentry process and following some advice from those who have already returned.

The following list is compiled from many sources, but all of the tips come from returnees who offer these ideas in the hope of making your reentry easier for you and for those at home.

1. Prepare for an adjustment process.
The more you consider your alternatives, think about what is to come, and know about how returning home is both similar to and different from going abroad, the easier the transition will be. Anticipating is useful. As one psychologist put it, "Worrying helps."

2. Allow yourself time.
Reentry is a process that will take time, just like adjusting to a new foreign culture. Give yourself time to relax and reflect upon what is going on around you, how you are reacting to it, and what you might like to change. Give yourself permission to ease into the transition.

3. Understand that the familiar will seem different.
You will have changed, home has changed, and you will be seeing familiar people, places, and behaviors from new perspectives. Some things will seem strange, perhaps even unsettling. Expect to have some new emotional and psychological reactions to being home. Everyone does.

4. There will be much "cultural catching up" to do.
Some linguistic, social, political, economic, entertainment and current event topics will be unfamiliar to you as new programs, slang, and even governmental forms may have emerged since you left. You may have some learning to do about your own culture. (Note: most returnees report that major insights into themselves and their home countries occur during reentry).

5. Reserve judgements.
Just as you had to keep an open mind when first encountering the culture of a new foreign country, try to resist the natural impulse to make snap decisions and judgements about people and behaviors once back home. Mood swings are common at first and your most valuable and valid analysis of events is likely to take place after allowing sometime for thorough reflection.

6. Respond thoughtfully and slowly.
Quick answers and impulsive reactions often characterize returnees. Frustration, disorientation, and boredom in the returnee can lead to behavior that is incomprehensible to family and friends. Take some time to rehearse what you want to say and how you will respond to predictable questions and situations; prepare to greet those that are less predictable with a calm, thoughtful approach.

7. Cultivate sensibility.
Showing an interest in what others have been doing while you have been on your adventure overseas is the surest way to reestablish rapport. Much frustration in returnees stems from what is perceived as disinterest by others in their experience and lack of opportunity to express their feelings and tell their stories. Being as a good a listener as a talker is a key ingredient in mutual sharing.

8. Beware of comparisons.
Making comparisons between cultures and nations is natural, particularly after residence abroad; however, a person must be careful not to be seen as too critical of home or too lavish in praise of things foreign. A balance of good and bad features is probably more accurate and certainly less threatening to others. The tendency to be an "instant expert" is to be avoided at all costs.

9. Remain flexible.
Keeping as many options open as possible is an essential aspect of a successful return home. Attempting to re-socialize totally into old patterns and networks can be difficult, but remaining aloof is isolating and counterproductive. What you want to achieve is a balance between maintaining earlier patterns and enhancing your social and intellectual life with new friends and interests.

10. Seek support networks.
There are lots of people back home who have gone through their own reentry and understand a returnees concerns — academic faculty, exchange students, international development staff, diplomatic corps, military personnel, church officials, and businessmen and women. University study-abroad and foreign student offices are just a few of the places where returnees can seek others who can offer support and country-specific advice.

Compiled by Dr. Bruce LaBrack. School of International Studies, University of the Pacific for use by the Institute of International Education, San Francisco. Aspire Newsletter.

Stop by the Study Abroad Office in 304 SSB to discuss your experiences abroad, readjustment in the US, and any concerns you may have. We're here to help you!