Coming Home from Abroad
Relationships, Roots and Unpacking
By Jim Citron and Vija Mendelson
Cross-cultural reentry—what happens when you come home from living abroad—has interested researchers for more than 50 years. Early writers saw reentry largely as a set of problems or challenges that returnees suffered. One, Asuncion-Lande, even compiled a list of 50 types of reentry difficulties, ranging from linguistic barriers to the inability to find a job where you can use your new skills. In the last 30 years, though, it has become more common to think of reentry as a positive challenge or an opportunity for growth and self-discovery rather than as a set of problems.
When you're the one going through the adjustment, however, it's normal to experience the transition as both positive and negative. You may even feel like you are on a roller coaster—one minute excited to be home and proud to share all you've learned, and the next bored or frustrated and feeling out of sync with those people who have always been closest to you. Having ups and downs is common, and whether you see your glass as half-full or half-empty may depend on whether you are having a good day or a bad day (see below). Research on study abroad has shown that we may gain several new skills and perspectives as a result of our experiences overseas, but when we are having a hard time readjusting to life back home, these can sometimes seem like a liability.
Being able to think optimistically about what you've learned abroad not only helps you feel better as you process your feelings about coming home, but it can also help you articulate how you are different—to family, friends, teachers, mentors, and current and potential employers.
At first, it may be challenging to put your experiences and thoughts into words, and it's normal to have conflicting feelings about being back. Judith Martin, an authority on intercultural reentry and reverse culture shock, says, "Although this confusion may lead to temporary reentry difficulties, effective communication and relationship formation play important roles in processing this identity change and in integrating old and new knowledge, behaviors, feelings, and perspectives—all of which require time and effort."
Margaret Pusch, an expert in intercultural communication, has suggested that when you come home from studying abroad, every relationship in your life may need to be renegotiated.
At least four types of relationship changes often occur during re-entry. The first is with those people who stayed at home while you were abroad. You'll likely find some of these relationships to be what a friend of ours likes to call "low-maintenance" friendships, the kind that don't need constant nurturing. You can pick up right where you left off, even after being apart for months or years. Others are apt to be "high-maintenance" friendships, the kind in which after you are apart for a period of time you suddenly discover that you don't have all that much in common any more. Recognizing the difference can help make these changes easier to accept.
It's also helpful to realize that while some of your low-maintenance friends will want to hear all about your overseas experiences—and the most empathetic of them may even be able to relate to many of your stories—sometimes they just won't "get it." Some of your experience may need to be internalized, processed, and integrated into your own life in ways that make sense for you, without your ever being able to fully share them with anyone else. Don't let this discourage you.
A second set of relationships that may change as you come home is with students who were abroad with you and who may be coming home with you to the same town or campus community. These are people who actually can relate to much of what you experienced abroad, and they can be an invaluable source of support when you're feeling down. Seek them out and share your feelings. But just as you may discover that you had some high-maintenance friends at home from whom you've grown apart by being abroad, it's not uncommon for the same phenomenon to occur with your fellow study-abroaders. When you no longer have the common experience of living, studying, or working together overseas, you might start to drift apart, too.
The next set of relationships that usually changes when you come home is with the people you grew close to while you were abroad and who didn't come home with you. These may be host family members, classmates, housemates, or other friends, either from the host country, from third countries, or from other parts of the U.S. As much as you may try to stay in touch with them—and new technologies make this easier nowadays—it's never quite the same as being in the same place at the same time. Knowing that you have friends in far corners of the globe who may visit you and who you can visit someday is exciting and empowering, but not having them with you when you need them—especially when your friends at home can't fully relate to everything that you experienced while you were abroad—can feel isolating and lonely. Starting to view yourself as "horizontally-rooted" with friends all over the globe rather than "rootless" can often make these feelings easier to accept and even embrace.
The final set of relationships to consider: the new ones. If you formed close ties while you were abroad, you have proven how good you are at forming new relationships. The ability to form new relationships is a skill that often grows from venturing out of your familiar environment. Now that you're back, there are countless people out there just waiting to meet you, to learn from you, and to share their own lives with you. This is your chance to establish connections to new people and places.
People sometimes say they feel "rootless" when they come home. They no longer feel as attached to their home culture as they once were. Yet they also may never feel completely connected to a country where they haven't grown up. As you live, study, work, and play in your community, you develop ever-deeper roots. We think of people who spend a long time living in one place as being "vertically-rooted."
When you go abroad, you deliberately "uproot" yourself from the environment where you have always lived and, in the process, lose a lot of familiar reference points and distance yourself from your familiar support networks. At first your host country may present some challenges, but ideally you learn to adapt as you adjust to a new way of life. You meet new people, from many different backgrounds, and you form new relationships that act as your support network abroad. You become comfortable with this new environment, find your place in it, and develop something akin to what David Pollack, an expert on "Third Culture Kids," has called an extended root system of perhaps less entrenched, but more far-reaching roots that now provide your support.
We think of people who have lived in more than one place as being more "horizontally-rooted," a trait that may be accompanied by a feeling of wanderlust as you realize how eager you are to explore new places. People who have had the experience of adapting to different ways of living develop skills that can enable them to adjust—plant their roots, if you will—in other new environments with increasing ease. This ability to feel almost at home anywhere—but not quite as totally rooted anywhere as you once did—can be at once exhilarating and frustrating.
This is not to say you forfeit your home connections, your "vertical roots," by choosing to embrace new experiences and expand your network of relationships. But it is a common experience for people returning home after time abroad to have a confused sense of self and conflicting loyalties about how they fit back into their home culture.
Some of the functions of those vertical roots that served you well for so long were replaced by your horizontal roots while you were gone. Where are you going to plant your roots now? Are you exactly the same person you were before you studied abroad? Do your parents or friends think so? Odds are that you have changed, and you will need to think about these changes in order to come to terms with the "new" you and appreciate the rich hybrid that you have become as a result of blending your home and host culture perspectives and experiences.
How can you tackle the challenge of sorting through your recent experiences, sharing your thoughts and feelings with the people important to you, and blending the key parts of life at home and life abroad to reflect the person you want to be? Here are some ideas on how to "unpack" from your study and travel abroad.
One of the first things you may want to do is communicate the wonder of your experiences to those close to you. But the reality is that few people, even your loved ones, will have the patience to listen to every anecdote about your time abroad or examine with boundless enthusiasm every photo you took.
One way to deal with this is to try to distill the experience so that you can express the importance of your adventures without recounting every single thing that happened to you. Try to think about the moments that stood out for you and the people or places that made a deep impression on you so that you can at least share the highlights.
And be careful about how you talk about your experiences: nothing turns off even a faithful listener faster than hearing about how superior your new (host) country or culture is to the U.S, or about how much wiser you feel now compared to the ignorant person you were before going abroad. Use your newfound cultural sensitivity to avoid alienating your audience.
Another important part of processing your experience is internalizing the most important aspects of it. A lot of times you return home only to be faced with new classes, a new job, new living arrangements, new academic or professional interests, new people, etc. It seems natural to dedicate your energies fully to this challenging and stressful present and to let your study abroad memories fade into the hazy past, mentally filed away under "Surreal, Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience." This is what Bruce La Brack refers to as "shoeboxing"—when you take the entire experience and put it in a mental "shoebox," tuck it away in the closet of your mind, and only rarely take it out for periodic reminiscing. This weakens the power of your study abroad experience; without serious thought about what you have learned and gained from your time overseas, it is all too easy to minimize the impact of the experience on your future academic, professional, and personal lives and stifle your own growth.
Bringing it Home
If you are part of the small percentage of the world's citizens that has had the opportunity to live life on another culture's terms, you've probably found that the experience awakened your senses and led you to new understandings and personal growth. Coming home might feel like a letdown after all that excitement. But it's also an opportunity to put your new skills to use. The challenge now is to take both your new knowledge and your exploration skills and integrate them permanently into your life ahead. It might sound like a daunting task, but, supported by your horizontal roots, the new you is destined to thrive.
|On a Good Day
||On a Bad Day
|I have the flexibility to fit in anywhere. I adapt easily. I feel horizontally rooted.
||I don't seem to fit in anywhere. I resist change. I feel rootless.
|I am bilingual/multilingual.
|| I am semi-lingual in two or more languages.
|I can empathize with multiple viewpoints.
||I am frustrated by the narrow-mindedness of people at home.
|I respect cultural differences.
||I become impatient with monoculturalism.
|I have tolerance for ambiguity.
||I am frequently indecisive.
|I feel challenged/empowered by new experiences.
||I feel bored by the mundane.
|I am aware of global issues (news, politics, media, resource distribution, etc.).
||I am uninformed about local issues and unable to apply what I've learned about the larger world to my life at home.
|I accept challenges to my lifelong beliefs and values.
||I am becoming resocialized into U.S. patterns of thought.
|I have a more complex/defined sense of self.
||I have a more fragmented sense of conflicting identities.
|I act more socially responsible.
||I act judgmental and self-righteous in the face of others' social choices.
|I enjoy a personal connection to the larger world; I feel like a "global citizen."
||I feel disconnected/alienated from my home environment.
|I take risks and embrace the unknown.
||I feel overwhelmed by the known and the unknown.
|I am curious and eager to learn.
||I feel depressed and reluctant to engage.
For More Info
The Benefits of Study Abroad Dwyer and Peters
L'Auberge Espagnole is a great movie about a French student's experiences studying abroad in Barcelona, from his preparations to his conflicting feelings about returning home.
James L. Citron is Director, Inter-American Partnership for Education at Worldfund.
Vija G. Mendelson has weathered many a reentry experience herself. She is currently Director of Experiential Programs at Academic Programs International (API).