Re-entry culture shock: life after living abroad


Re-entry culture shock. Yes, it’s a thing.

Coming back to the United States can be quite jarring after living abroad. What do you do when your own country doesn’t feel like home anymore?

Recently, I spent the most incredible three months living, studying, and interning in Paris. The people were polite, the men refreshingly old-fashioned, the architecture elegant, and the lifestyle quite lovely.

And the food.

Do I even need to say it? Obviously, the food was incredible. Real ingredients. No preservatives. You get the picture.

Don’t get me wrong. With an internship and 16 credit hours to boot, it was a lot of hard work. I was not certainly not floating on a barge on the Seine drinking wine for three months. (Although, I might have liked to have been.)

And so I am faced with an interesting dichotomy —

When I’m in Paris, I have my Paris, but I don’t have my people. When I’m at home, I have my people, but I don’t have my Paris.  Hmm.

I knew going back home would be a challenge after living in such an amazing city for so long. I just didn’t realize how deeply the lifestyle change had permeated my entire being. Paris began to feel more like home than my own home. In fact, I felt more at home there than I have anywhere else.

So, what did going back home look like?

Ahem, we won’t mention the fact that I laid face-down in the foyer of my apartment for about 5 minutes once I got up the steps. Half pouting. Half in utter disbelief that my beautiful Paris had been ripped away from me and all that was left was the scenery of…the City of Football. Oh, dear Lord in Heaven, let it not be so.

It can be quite a shock to go from one completely different culture to another.

Here are my tips for dealing with re-entry culture shock in the best way possible:

1.) Try to get home at a decent hour.

No, seriously. Do your best to book your return flight with enough room to get home and get to bed. The unpacking can wait. I had three months worth of luggage to deal with when I returned home and it was still there at the bottom of the steps where I left it the night before, waiting for me when I woke up the next morning. I mean really, do you really need to sort through 5,000 souvenirs at 11:30 at night? Recounting every memory (which will probably make you cry). When your very own bed (which you haven’t seen in three months, I might add) is calling your name? I think not. Get some sleep. You’ll be glad for it in the morning.

2.) Hit the market.

Stock up on food that you ate where you lived overseas. Okay, maybe your city doesn’t have the open markets that your home abroad did. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find treats similar to those you enjoyed far from home. Try looking for specialty stores in the area or the bakery in your grocery store. When I returned home, my kitchen had graciously been stocked up by a friend who knew I wouldn’t want to be going out the next day. But I was missing the food to which I’d grown so familiar. So, off I went. I didn’t find much, but what I did find was some fromage (cheese), baguette (or close to it anyway), and some European chocolate. Pair that together with some strong coffee in a demitasse with a true teaspoon and I was feeling the comforts of my Parisian home.

3.) Listen to some music.

Spotify has some great options now for multicultural music. You can find everything from French to Latin to African, etc. Find some music that reminds you of the culture and settle in with a good book or your favorite overseas treat.

4.) Avoid negativity.

The last thing you need when you’re feeling like a fish out of water in your own country is the voice of a naysayer. Surround yourself with people you know will be supportive. We all have people in our lives that are absolutely oblivious to our needs. It’s okay to not pick up the phone for a while. You need to take care of yourself first.

5.) Be honest with yourself and others.

Let’s face it. Not everyone is going to understand what you are going through. You are the only who will fully understand the experiences you had, what they meant, and how they translate back into the world you came from. You are the only one who will fully understand the things that have changed you and why they changed you. “What’s the big deal? You were only gone for three months.” People who have never lived away from home don’t understand the wealth of things that can happen in just three short months in a different country. Your language changes, the people change, the social norms change, and your entire life changes. You experience challenges and huge life changes that no one else can fully understand unless they have lived through it, too. If something changes you so much that you need to re-evaluate life when you get back to a home that doesn’t feel like home anymore, that is significant. Not everyone is going to understand that. Give others grace, but be honest about what you are and are not willing to deal with while you’re processing.

6.) Be patient with yourself.

You just left the place that was your home for a chunk of a year. Bonded with people you may never see again. Spoke a different language. Lived a different lifestyle. Had amazing life experiences that you couldn’t have had anywhere other than where you were. It’s unrealistic to assume that you will “bounce back” to the “norm” right away. The norm doesn’t exist anymore. Which is why they call it culture shock. Take your time.

Photo by Sarah Elum, 2017, via iPhone




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2 responses to “Re-entry culture shock: life after living abroad”

  1. a good read sarah. i have enjoyed spending what seems like “time” with you on your journey. more so than with anyone else. you’ve been so honest and open and communicative about your feelings and challenges and successes. this recap will no doubt help you through the stages of grief over your lost Paris but it’s still there. i wonder if you’ll think it changed next time you go?

    • Merci, Andrew! When we return to a place, it will always appear as if it’s changed because experiences, people, places, etc. are unique to each moment of time. But the seeming “end” of one chapter means only one thing…the start of something new!

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