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Reverse culture shock

October 28, 2008

Hello again,

It’s been interesting talking to people recently who have returned to the UK after long spells of teaching abroad. Many of them have experienced quite bad reverse culture shock.

When you first arrive back...

and meet friends and family, you feel elated. But quite often depression sets in quickly. In the first place, things at home have changed in ways you didn’t expect.
People have changed jobs, got married or divorced, had children, moved away…it makes you feel unsure where you fit in.

And even the things you did expect seem a trial: maybe you’ve lived in a hot climate and find the cold and the rain hard to bear.
Then you might start missing the friends you made abroad and the places you got to know, which now seem a lot more attractive than what’s on offer at home.

Your experience of another culture may have made you reconsider your values and the people at home and their ordinary lives might seem selfish or banal or boring or materialistic. You will find yourself comparing your home culture to what you have left behind. In fact you may feel as if people who have not widened their horizons as you have done seem narrow and dull.

Your emotions surprise and worry you: you feel like a misfit, you don’t know what to do. In fact coming home seems to have exposed you to just as much discomfort as going abroad in the first place.

However, all of this is normal. Just as you needed to adjust when you left, so you do when you return. To cope with this readjustment, allow yourself time. Try to talk about your feelings with somebody who respects you. Keep in touch with your friends and colleagues overseas so that the rupture is not total.

Do some hard thinking about the direction you want your life to take over the next few years. Can you make use of your overseas experience in some way? What skills have you acquired that you can transfer to your new life at home? If the feelings become too strong or last more than a few weeks, seek professional help from a counsellor or doctor. Essentially this is a period of transition and you need to work through it before you can settle into the next phase of your life.

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  1. Lee Hobbs Says:

    Fascinating topic Brenda.

    I wrote about my research on the subject of "reverse culture shock" in the final chapter of my dissertation. It is interesting that so many returning expats have experienced this particular phenomenon.


  1. Monkeyrider Says:

    I agree, with some of the above comments. even though I returned home to NZ 3 yeas ago after teaching in Tawian and much prefer it here, not a day goes by when I don;t think about people I worked with in Taiwan and the students I taught. Memories of teaching overseas never seem to fade.

  1. Teacher Says:

    What surprises me about this post is that the idea of leaving for good is not discussed.
    i have taught abroad for over 4 years now and found it so rewarding that i intend to spend the rest of my life in a country other than my own.

    if the reverse culture shock is so severe that one requires counselling, maybe staying overseas would have been a better option.

  1. Pat Says:

    No matter how long I've worked overseas, I remained a guest. Coming home requires additional responsibility and commitment.

    I've found that immersing myself in community service, church, music groups and such, are ways of getting back into the swing of being a citizen once again.

  1. dt Says:

    I agree with Teacher.

    I think I prefer living in Taiwan to the US. The teaching here is far more rewarding.

    Maybe I'm fleeing my problems, but life here seems simpler.

    A language barrier (I don't speak Mandarin or Taiwanese) means that I don't perceive aggression, conflict of any kind, game-playing, or other unreasonable things in my interaction with people. I see amazing courtesy and neighborliness all around me. I see a society that loves its children and values education. (Frank McCort claims that you can tell that Americans hate their kids by looking at the shabby education system and lousy teachers' pay).

    I see a culture that honors hard work and discipline and doesn't make supreme virtues out of deceit and conniving. (They put their former president in jail. Would that happen in the US?)

    My preference for Taiwan could be based in my perception alone, but I'm not sure. It's true, I might get run over by a scooter here, but I won't get mugged.

  1. Fathma Yazmin Says:

    reverse culture shock, is something we have to deal with, we humans adapt to any situation.Being a part of one culture and accepting others makes you feel good, especially if you are multicultural person
    you go through similar experiences but learn to ajust. Counselling is a good way yes or talking to someone about it, these mixed feeling that one goes through after a long spell away from home sometimes you get the feeling you will never realy ajust and want to go back,so thanks Brenda this was an eye opener.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:


    I have been in China for 16 years. I have seen a lot of people come to China to work for one or more years only to go home and be almost completely depressed and in need of therapy. One close friend was in China for three years, another two years in Hungary, and he has told me that everyone he meets in America is as Brenda described the negative reactions of some people. He has since found work for which he returns to China several months a year. Apparently, reversed cultural shock is real and people need to be aware of it.

    I loved DT's comments about feeling safer, less threated, and the work is more rewarding. Those are some of the reasons I have stayed in China for sixteen years. I've got the best teaching situation in the world, I believe.

    Good post, Brenda, and everyone else.

  1. Julian Edwards Says:

    The problem of job loss and readjustment to a home environment or even a new organisation represents a great challenge to teachers and people generally in the current economic climate.

    I enjoyed the article and agree one has to think hard before taking a decision to go, stay or return. Though sometimes that decision ti taken for you.

    One often gives up responsibilities to teach abroad and this can lead to perhaps a three month period of euphoria, either on return or arrival. Followed by a longer period of sometimes painful readjustment to a 'new' or 'old' life.

    Elation is short lived and unless firm plans are stuck to an expat can end up confused. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that even if you have lived abraos before it does not cease the stress of readjustment.

    That said to be a visitor for three months in one place and keep moving to the next, might be the answer to the depression of intial culture shock or reverse culture shock which may include; loss of status, loss of the familiar and cultural dificulties and the resulting inappropriate behaviour.

    Though can you keep moving for three monthly intervals and maintaining the transitory nature of freedom and joy of euphoria?

    Surely at some point everyone must return to what Joyce referred to in Ulysesses as 'ineluctable modality' or a basic mundanity such as washing your socks. Indeed perhaps this idea keeps a level head.The person who thinks like this may never even feel culture shock as there are many who do not.

    Yet it can be the complicated misfortune to meet students who have difficulty adjusting to life in the UK, this has led to them transferring their problems onto the teacher and relaying unjustified criticism of teaching style to unsupportive management.

    This inappropriate behaviour of student can be a problem of culture shock which affects a teachers standard of living and can result in dismissal at home or abroad.

    It is after this dismissal in a poorly regulated teaching industry which may well cause depressing reverse culture shock in a teacher if they are compelled to return and forcibly readjust.

  1. Judy Anderson Says:

    I came to S. Korea with the plan of teaching for one year. The goal was to earn enough money to pay down loans and get started with teaching in the US. That was six years ago. I'm still in Korea. Still at the same school.

    I return home twice a year. It seems foreign to me. Here, I am at home. It is a place for family, simplicity, values and ethic. I am a single woman and walking downtown streets at night feels safer to me here than walking in midday in the US.

    I agree with much of the article, but people are very different. You never know, you may find it a culture shock just to return to your roots for a visit and that shock may be calmed only by returning to your new home. This is what happen to me.

    What is the value of an education to the masses in S. Korea? Think about it. Teachers are paid a superior salary, given free housing, free health care, free pension, bonuses, and treated with respect. Teachers are happy here.

    Can the same be said in the US?

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