Aarthi Pookot remembered her first moment of “reverse” culture shock when she returned home from spending a year abroad in Japan.
Pookot — a first-year Japanese major — was at an airport in Atlanta, Georgia, and was trying to buy a hot chocolate while waiting for her connecting flight home.
“I was holding the right amount of cash, but I forgot completely how much each bill and coins were worth, so I couldn’t count money. And I just burst out crying. I was so stressed,” Pookot said.
She said this was one of her most shocking moments from coming home after studying at the Fujimigaoka High School for Girls her junior year in high school through Rotary Youth Exchange.
“I just remember being in the airport and hearing English all around me, and that freaked me out,” Pookot said.
While many experience culture shock — a feeling of disorientation experienced when subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes — students who study abroad often encounter the same feelings when returning home after becoming accustomed to their host country.
Emma Russell — a sophomore Chinese major and Korean minor — studied abroad in Asia, like Pookot. She spent four weeks over the summer studying at Korea University in South Korea.
Going into the program, Russell only knew how to say “hello” and “can I order this” in Korean. Although her four weeks were short, she said she learned way more than she expected to, and on her return home, her brain had to readjust.
“It took a minute to realize that people could understand when I was talking really fast,” Russell said. “I didn’t have to slow myself down, and I could just keep talking.”
Russell connected through Toronto on her flight home, and the immigration officer there asked her the question, “How long were you abroad?” Russell said she found it difficult to answer her simple question and it took her a few minutes to say, “30 days.”
“I didn’t expect to have that kind of reaction. I was like yeah it’s English, it’s my native language, it’s normal,” Russell said. “But then, being just four weeks abroad in a completely different language setting, it was really confusing to my brain.”
Although she has now readjusted to life in the United States, Pookot plans to move back to Tokyo, permanently, with one of the members of her Rotary program with whom she became best friends. Pookot said she misses Japan every single day.
“From the second I got off the plane [in Japan], I was like ‘whoa I feel so happy here.’ It just felt like I belonged,” Pookot said.
Brice Lynn — a Pitt alumnus and an assistant director at the Pitt Study Abroad Office — said the Study Abroad Office supports students by preparing them to go abroad and to return. Lynn went through his own re-entry slump when he returned from his study abroad semester in 2009. He said his excitement about coming home and seeing family and friends lasted about one week before he started to wish that he were back in Granada, Spain.
“Most students don’t prepare themselves for how difficult it can be to come back,” Lynn said. “I think reverse culture shock is really important too, because it helps you process your experience, and figure out how to talk about it in succinct ways.”
Lynn said most students find it difficult to express their feelings about their experiences abroad and their family and friends won’t necessarily understand the experiences students went through and what they go through after returning.
“That’s six months of your life that people really close to you don’t share, and you want them to share it with you, but they’re never going to have the same context,” Lynn said.
Lynn said the Pitt Study Abroad Office likes to get students thinking about the possibility of re-entry shock before students leave home. After they return, the office also has opportunities to go to Re-Entry Career Workshops — where students can learn to update their resumé, get tips and advice on how to best market their new skills and participate in networking activities. Students can also attend the Lessons from Abroad Conference to help debrief and reflect on their experiences.
For Pookot, staying in contact with her Rotary program and becoming a Rotex — a student who has completed their exchange year and helps train the next set of exchange students — was one thing that helped her adjust to returning home.
“Helping out with Rotary, after my year, really helped me stay sane, because I was kind of living vicariously through those students,” Pookot said.
Lynn said the Pitt Study Abroad Office has a page to help with students who are going through the signs of culture shock after coming back home.
“This is what we’ve dedicated our professional lives to,” Lynn said. “For students who are having a really rough time, they shouldn’t be ashamed of going to the counseling center.”
For many students, the struggles of culture and reverse culture shock are worth it. Russell said studying abroad is a good way to get a global perspective of America, and going to a different country can help students see how America is viewed in the world.
“It’s a good way to get a broader perspective, learn a new language, meet new people and have fun. I loved it very much, and I’m excited to go back,” Russell said.
Aside from gaining an understanding of how foreigners view the United States, Pookot said students can learn so much about themselves, and the experience can illuminate future careers that students want to pursue in life.
“You really don’t know how much you grow until you come back. And coming back is always the hardest part,” she said.