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IN MY OPINION

One exchange student’s tale of reverse culture shock

Exchange students often find coming home the toughest part.

By PIERRE-ALEXANDRE BOLDUC | SEP 16 2015

After 26 hours of flying I had arrived. It was 7:03 a.m. and the sun was rising over the island of Singapore. It was 29 degrees Celsius outside with 85 percent humidity; at that moment I realized I didn’t need to have brought my favorite hoodie.

I was in Southeast Asia for five months as a Concordia University student. I had moved with my family more than 10 times as a kid because of my father’s job and this was the chance to go to a place of my own choosing. I went to Singapore during the fall semester and to Denmark in the winter.

As most exchange students will tell you, the experience was great. I made new friends from all over the globe, went to Bangkok to experience Hangover 2 in real life and fell in love with a Russian girl in Denmark. I also learned an awful lot of things I would never have discovered had I stayed in Quebec. I found out I was more adventurous than I thought; I also witnessed poverty in places like Vietnam and Malaysia, and it was all very new to me.

My return to Quebec was more difficult than I expected. It was hard to get back to normal life and share my stories with my friends. They were simply uninterested. How could they prefer telling me about last night’s hookups rather than hearing my stories about the gigantic Tian Tan Buddha, or Hanoi or the Singaporean nightlife?

Even my family didn’t understand. I remember talking about Halong Bay in Vietnam over dinner with my grandparents, aunts and uncles and how beautiful the landscape was; that my friend and I had kayaked through caves and swum around the cruise boat during our spring break. My parents and siblings later told me to talk about something else when we are with “the family” and hinted that “those stories might come across as arrogant to others.”

Laura François, a Concordia University human relations and diversity student, also went to Singapore last year for a semester. Her return to Montreal was terrible, she recalls.

“I just felt like I wanted to go back to Singapore. I felt in the wrong place in Montreal,” she said. After more than a year since her return, Laura is only beginning to re-accustom herself to her Montreal routine.

“I really reinvented myself abroad and the way people see me. [In Montreal], people had a long-standing idea of how I was and didn’t seem to quite accept and understand I had changed. It was like a slap in the face,” she said. “I had become more curious and knew what I liked and what I didn’t like.” Laura said she was “on edge” with her family for about six months before their relationship improved.

Christine Archer is one of Concordia International’s exchange coordinators who takes care of students going to Asia, the Americas and Oceania. She agreed that some students experience a “reverse culture shock” when they come back, but she never hears about it.

“Students often feel like it’s their private life and that it’s not really our problem here at Concordia International. It’s not true, but it’s the way they feel,” she said.

“A reverse culture shock is a perfectly normal reaction,” added Concordia psychology department lecturer Dorothea Bye. “It goes back to the very definition of a simple cultural shock in ‘re-culturing’ oneself to a place.”

Dr. Bye said this phenomenon affects people who have lived in different countries and experienced a cross-cultural re-entry when they return home. In fact, researchers in cultural psychology such as Steven J. Heine found that the reverse cultural shock involves the same steps of a traditional cultural shock when one goes to a foreign country.

Dr. Bye says the best way to ease back in to normal life is to “share experiences in some sort of forum.” Human contact with people who went through the same experience is needed because students can find support through their peers. “Exchange students are intellectually active, curious, courageous, and can adapt, so all they need is to talk to people who have gone through the same things as they did.”

Concordia University alone sends between 350 and 400 students abroad each year to over 100 partner institutions. Before departure, Concordia International holds a mandatory session to prepare students to go abroad but does not offer any specific resources to returning students to share their experiences. Ms. Archer said her department is considering the idea. Université de Montréal’s Maison Internationale has psychologists available for students when they return as well as discussion forums with fellow returning exchange students.

Being at a foreign university with a different culture allows a student to experience all sorts of emotions, but coming back home is as much of an experience and adaptation as going abroad. Difficult or not, I think it allows for one to learn about himself or herself, both out in the world and back at home.

Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc completed his studies at Concordia last year, majoring in political science with a specialization in journalism. He works as a journalist for Radio-Canada in Moncton.

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  1. Joanne / September 18, 2015 at 07:45

    You may be interested in the discussion of this topic in chapter 4 “Culture Shock, Cognitive Dissonance, or Cognitive Negotiation? Terms Matter in International Service Learning Programs”
    (Joanne Benham Rennick and Cathleen DiFruscio) in THE WORLD IS MY CLASSROOM: INTERNATIONAL LEARNING AND CANADIAN HIGHER EDUCATION
    Edited by Joanne Benham Rennick and Michel Desjardins
    Foreword by Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger
    University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division © 2013

  2. Kelly Teixeira / September 18, 2015 at 09:33

    Thank you for this article. As a former exchange student, it is nice to know that my return experience was not unique. You hit all the points!

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