A few weeks ago I returned from a three-month study abroad program in the Netherlands. Pre-departure, all of the staff and professors at the program kept talking about “culture shock” and whether or not we had experienced it and whether or not we had eventually adjusted and felt a sense of acceptance of our environment. They also spoke about the idea of “reverse culture shock,” when we experience a sense of not belonging upon returning to the United States.
Honestly, I find this concept ridiculous and kind of pretentious—especially in the context of the study abroad program I was attending. Reverse culture shock implies that you have completely changed as a person while abroad, to the point that you are unrecognizable to your home or your home is unrecognizable to you. And, yes, I do know a lot of people come back from study abroad programs exclaiming that it was a life changing experience. I’m not trying to take away from that. I can understand while someone would feel as though the experience greatly affected them. Though I personally did not fully experience this, I can see how it would change someone’s life. The thing about reverse culture shock, however, is that it implies that a person has changed cultures so that when they to their own, it no longer feels like they belong. While people do change while studying abroad and experience many other cultures, it does not change the culture in which they had previously.
Additionally, the experiences can be eye-opening, but there is a stereotype of people who come back from studying abroad being incredibly pretentious about the experience and only talking about it for years and years, annoying everyone else around them. Reverse culture shock only adds to this stereotype by implying that the person is almost above the culture of their home country.
But what about the feeling of not belonging in the United States? If a term exists for it, it must actually be something people experience. And I think there may be an uneasy feeling that occurs when students return. They have been in an unfamiliar place for several months, it is going to be strange—but it isn’t a form of culture shock. It’s a feeling of returning to somewhere you haven’t been in a while, turned up a notch.
I especially have a problem with a program like mine claiming reverse culture shock is something students experience because I’m not entirely sure most students even experienced culture shock in the first place. We were only in class with students from our own school. We only lived with students from our own school. We lived in a town with about two thousand people and had minimal interaction with anyone living there. When we traveled, it was usually only for a few days, not long enough to fully experience the culture, and also rarely involved talking to people who lived in those places.
Maybe if the study abroad program was an immersion program I could understand the use of the term reverse culture shock, but I just can’t see the use of the term by a program where students can easily get by without learning a word of the language of the country they are staying in being accurate.