Coming back to re-entry shock

As the repeated U (or W) curve suggests, the ups and downs of culture adjustment also affect those returning “home.” This article describes how such adjustment processes are linked to our continuing identity construction.

To further understand adaptation processes, especially for those travelling abroad (sojourners), please download and read the article by Nan Sussman (2002). She breaks down the adaptation process across 7 steps, valid in both moving to a new place and returning home. For each, she describes how adaptation effects what we discussed in Week 2 regarding our cultural and personal identities:

  • Step one: Before moving to another country, sojourners are often not aware of their cultural identity or of the fact that many of their everyday behaviors and ways of thinking have a cultural origin. (p. 4)

  • Step two: These once-invisible preferences, values and thoughts now emerge into awareness, and sojourners begin to understand their ‘cultural selves.’

  • Step three: Sojourners must now ‘adjust’ to the many, many, many differences between home country and host country (p. 5)

  • Step four: Sojourners begin to realize that several personal factors might influence how much they adjust, or resist adjusting, to the host country. These can include how flexible we are and how important our cultural identity is to us.

  • Step five: As sojourners incorporate aspects of host country behaviors, values, and ways of thinking into our own repertoire, we often experience a self-concept disturbance. 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 or 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 which helped them be more effective in the host country. But expatriates are often not expecting that coming home will cause problems, and this lack of awareness or erroneous expectations can lead to increased difficulty in repatriation. (p. 6)

  • Step seven: Sojourners experience a “subtractive” identity response. They feel as though they no longer fit into their home country and culture, and as a result find it difficult to relate to family, friends and co-workers. But, upon returning home, sojourners may also experience an “additive” identity response due to having interwoven some of the host country’s values and behaviors into their own. Yet acting on those adopted values and behaviors when back in the home country causes discomfort or distress for repatriates and those in contact with them. If repatriates experience both subtractive and additive identity shifts, this leads to a double dose of repatriation shock. (pp. 6,7)

These difficulties appear immense at first glance. But Sussman also offers 5 practical strategies to help sojourners cope with identity shifts as they travel to and from their home culture:

  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 caused by leaving and re-entering your home culture. We hope this article helps you prepare for and benefit from the process.

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)