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Coming back to re-entry shock

As the W curve noted, the ups and downs of culture adjustment also affect those returning “home.” This recommended reading provides more details about adjustment processes both ways, but links them to our continuing identity construction.

To further understand adaptation processes, especially for those travelling abroad (sojourners), the recommended reading by Nan Sussman (2002) provides a fuller explanation. You might especially find her seven steps of adaptation helpful, as well as how she describes these “shocks” both going and coming back (“repatriation shock,” or what some call “reentry shock”). In each of these, she links adaptation to effects on what we discussed in Week 2 regarding a model of identity changes:

  • Step one of the model shows that before we move to another country we are not aware of our cultural identity or which of our everyday behaviors and ways of thinking have a cultural origin. (p. 4)

  • Step two these once-invisible preferences, values and thoughts emerge into awareness – sojourners are beginning to understand all the behaviors, small and large, that form their cultural selves.
  • Step three: the adjustment process. Sojourners are now experiencing the daily recognition that there are many, many, many differences between home country and host country (p. 5)

  • Step four of the Cultural Identity model suggests that several personal factors influence how much we adjust to the host country including how flexible we are and how important our cultural identity is to us. And there are several external factors which influence how much we adjust, including the cultural distance between our home and host country and particular cultural values embraced by our home culture (which either encourages or discourages tradition). (p. 6)

  • Step five suggests that if we have incorporated many aspects of host country behaviors, values, and ways of thinking into our own repertoire, our ideas about ourselves may also have changed. Social psychologists call this a self-concept disturbance. Who we are and how we think about ourselves may not be as clear to us as it was before the sojourn began.

  • Step six the lack of clarity regarding our self-concept and cultural identity becomes engaged when we return to our home country…. repatriation shock is due, in large part, to those changes sojourners made in their behavior and thinking, the changes that helped them be more effective in the host country… All these changes result in cultural identity responses that are not understood by most sojourners yet have upsetting consequences. Expatriates are not expecting that coming home will cause any problems and these erroneous expectations can lead to repatriation problems being increased. (p. 6)
  • Step seven focuses on the invisible cultural identity component but very real emotional reactions. Some repatriates feel as though they no longer fit into their home country. I call this the “subtractive” identity response. …These repatriates feel different from their family and find it difficult to relate to friends and co-workers.

Another type of identity response also results in distress and discomfort upon returning home but for slightly different reasons. These repatriates experience distress because they have interwoven many of the host country’s values and behaviors into their own. I call this the “additive” identity response. And acting on the host country values and behaviors when back in the home country causes discomfort for repatriates and those in contact with them….Some repatriates experience both subtractive and additive identity shifts and this leads to a double dose of repatriation shock. (pp. 6,7)

This seven-step schema might provide another way for you to think about cultural adjustments, especially if you are going through a relocation (or expatriation) process. To this end, Sussman provides important suggestions for coping (see pp. 7-9), including explanations on:

  1. psychologically preparing,
  2. removing the element of surprise,
  3. realizing that friends and family will not fully understand,
  4. finding kindred spirits who will appreciate their overseas experiences,
  5. and realizing that repatriation distress gradually dissipates).

As Sussman notes in her last paragraph:

Even if you have never left your home country, you should now be aware of the complexities of cultural identities, the changes in identity which a cultural sojourn can elicit, and the far-reaching consequences of cultural identity responses. (p. 9)

Understanding what you’ve gone through and what is coming can be helpful for assessing the feelings or reactions that you are or will be experiencing. We hope this article helps you in the process.

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)