When your student returns home, s/he may experience “reverse culture shock” in readjusting to American culture. Time abroad may have changed your student in some ways, and therefore, the place they return to may appear to have changed. If they have been away on long program, some things may have indeed changed while they have been gone, and they may feel that they no longer fit in. For some people, this re-entry adjustment can be just as traumatic as the adjustment to a new culture, although it is usually shorter.
We asked a former study abroad participant to contribute her feelings upon returning to the United States after a semester abroad. She hopes her thoughts will help you and your family prepare for your child’s return.
I was flying home on Christmas day. Not the most convenient time for my family, I know, but the ticket was cheaper. I had teased my mom about the surprise party they were going to throw me when I returned. I had only been teasing, but after missing Thanksgiving, I couldn’t wait for some good, ole’ turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. My flight didn’t get in until 9 p.m., but after a semester of late-night European dinners, it didn’t seem very late, and I figured my family would wait for me. After a day of traveling, my study abroad buddy and I arrived at the Kansas City airport. Her entire family had driven from Western Kansas to meet her at the airport. I walked off the plane, and nobody from my family was there. My dad was only 10 minutes late, but it still hurt a little not to have any excited faces to meet me at the end of a long flight. I had been gone for four months!
We went back to the house (the rest of the family didn’t want to be bothered to drive out to meet me), and I got a couple of hugs and a, “So how was it?” And, well, that was it. I didn’t get the good, ole’ turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. I got leftover Kraft macaroni and cheese because my mom hadn’t wanted to cook a whole meal. They hadn’t even waited to eat the Kraft dinner. I ate the leftovers, distributed the Christmas gifts I had bought for my family, and then I opened my Christmas gifts -- they hadn’t waited to exchange the presents, either. Then everyone went to bed. I was still wired, so I stayed up by myself and watched Cosby Show re-runs until I was finally ready to sleep. I didn’t expect a song and dance. I guess I just wanted a little special treatment—four months is a long time. I wanted a little recognition they were happy I was home. I came back a completely different person. My career goals had changed. I had a million stories to tell. I had made a million new friends. I know my family loves me, and I love them, but there is nothing harder in this world than experiencing something only a few really care about. Those who can’t relate to the monumental experience you just had want to know you had a good time, and that’s it. They don’t care about all the glorious wine you drank, all the wonderful, exciting people you met, all the things you learned in your classes. They want to hear, “Yeah, it was awesome!” and then go back to their daily lives.
My situation was pretty much a worst-case scenario. The best you can do is be there for your child and listen to the stories when no one else will. At the most, throw your son or daughter an elaborate welcome-home party with imported wine and cheese. At the least, turn off the television, have a family dinner and ask questions. Then listen to the responses. So many people don’t want to hear about the details. You and your family might be your child’s only willing ear.
Your son or daughter will also probably experience homesickness for the other culture. Again, be there to listen. It’s hard to return from a place you just got used to. Encourage your son or daughter to think about joining international clubs on campus or think about other international experiences like the Peace Corps. There are lots of resources on the Office of International Programs Web site at www.ksu.edu/oip. Please-oh-please encourage your child to share their feelings with you. After returning home, I woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. I decided to cook my favorite meal from my host country. Not only did I get in trouble for making too much noise, but no one wanted to try what I made when they did wake up. I would have been ecstatic if someone had just shown an interest in something they had never experienced before.
Your child will also probably have very different world views. They’ve lived and adapted in another culture. They might be a little more critical about the U.S. government (lots of places see things differently than George W. Bush); they might see home with critical eyes. I did, which really surprised a family full of Republicans. Listen to and respect their opinions—even if you don’t agree with them. Your son or daughter will come back a different person, but he or she is also going to return ready to make the world a better place. And they’ll thank you for all of your love and support.