Blog: Reverse culture shock after China study abroad


Public domain photo by Li Yang

The bright lights of Shanghai’s skyline are photographed at night.

By Ben Spock, Staff Writer

This page was made possible in part by a grant from Year of Pitt Global.

I won’t soon forget my experience standing in line at the McDonald’s in the Chicago O’Hare Airport. I had a layover in Chicago during my trip between Shanghai and Pittsburgh after studying abroad in China for two months. I was about to order a 10-piece chicken nugget combo, something I’ve regrettably done dozens — if not hundreds — of times before. But for the first time in two months, I had to order food in English.

This should have put me at ease, but I felt frozen. Even more, everyone around me was speaking English. I had become accustomed to being mostly uncertain of what people around me were saying. My brain, suddenly able to parse the meaning of the conversations happening in every direction, went into sensory overload.

Culture shock is a well-known and well-documented phenomenon experienced by many who travel abroad and become disoriented in foreign environments and cultures. What is less talked about and less understood is what happens upon the return home.

I spent the past summer studying in Shanghai. At one point or another, many Westerners living in Asia long for the comfort of being in their home country where things simply make more sense — and I was no exception. The stress of daily life in China made me long for the familiar simplicity of ordering my weekly meal at Chipotle. So I was surprised by the psychological duress I experienced when returning to Pittsburgh. From the moment I touched down, things that would have gone unnoticed before my trip began to weigh heavily on my mind.

After we returned, I interviewed other Pitt students from my study abroad program, which shed more light on how reverse culture shock plays out. Some students I talked to reported feeling totally normal when returning to Pitt’s campus. Unsurprisingly, these students had often spent more significant periods of their life living abroad. Other less-traveled students felt culture shock for weeks after their return.

Some factors of reverse culture shock are more trivial and easier to cope with. Senior political science major Kory Gentle lamented the lack of adequate public transportation in Pittsburgh in comparison to his time in China and mentioned his readjustment to the less aggressive nature of American traffic.

Both senior Alyssa Martinec and sophomore Alex Anthony-Williams were more distinctly aware of the racial diversity that exists in America. Both also noted positive differences, such as a more natural understanding of American restaurant culture or having more acquaintances in America than they had in China. However, these small differences contribute to a sense of overall disorientation that could linger for the first few days back home.

A more concerning, longer-lasting symptom is a sense of depression that lasted for weeks following my time abroad. On a cursory level, I certainly missed the friends I made in China. Luckily, we live in the digital age where social media helps us to keep in contact with friends we make abroad. On a deeper level, this sadness seems to extend from the fact that I was expected to pick up my “old life” right where I left off.

No matter where you study abroad, you will interact with the country’s culture, and this will inevitably change you as a person. Returning to my home culture forced me to reevaluate my foundational cultural beliefs. Because ideas such as government and family relationships are different in China, I was constantly comparing such values with what I had learned growing up in Pittsburgh.

At one point during my study abroad, my roommate’s cousin visited Shanghai for a weekend,  yet for several weeks I thought he was a younger brother. This was because my roommate kept referring to his cousin as “Gege,” which translates to older brother, but apparently it is also commonly used to refer to a male cousin. Meanwhile, I hadn’t talked to my extended family in weeks, leading me to wonder whether I should value those relationships more.

Returning to your home country can also lead to a sense of sadness depending on your level of engagement with a foreign culture. My roommate in China was a native-born Chinese college student, so I was using more Chinese than I was English.

However long it takes to readjust to one’s native country, one symptom of reverse culture shock will surely last longer than the rest — people who didn’t accompany you won’t care about the stories you have to share to the extent that you will. This isn’t to say that your friends and family are unfeeling or apathetic, but it is human nature to be less interested in things that can’t be experienced first-hand.

“I miss the way of life in Shanghai. It’s hard dealing with people who live back in the States. They can’t relate to your experience, and it feels very isolating,” Anthony-Williams said.

We tend to laugh at the Instagram-savvy student who spent a semester abroad in Rome and posts about the sense of wanderlust they gained from their time abroad. But these posts demonstrate an aspect of reverse culture shock, in which people who have studied abroad want to reveal to Americans the lessons they learned while abroad.

I spent my time after my return trying to dispel commonplace myths about China. When people think about living under Communist-ruled China, they tend to think of single-minded people under harsh dystopian control. While there may be some kernels of truth in these sentiments, China is a place rich with ideological diversity and culture.

For instance, Shanghai has a thriving music scene that is clearly influenced by the West, yet distinctly Chinese in origin. While two months isn’t nearly enough time to begin to fully understand what life is really like in China, I was touched by the beauty and sense of community China possesses.

It may be cliche, but travel really does open one’s mind. And like a preacher who has seen the light, you too will find that the fifth or sixth study abroad story you’ve told in the past hour is falling on deaf ears.