Culture Shock and Re-entry Shock

Project Assistant Milka Lähde, milka.lahde[a]
HAMK University of Applied Sciences

The term culture shock is widely understood and the concept is even used in our daily language. It is the contradiction between one’s former understanding and experiences and altered new circumstances. Encountering any strange situation or environment can cause an inner conflict, which appears in uncomfortable feelings and surprising behaviour.

When travelling abroad for a longer period of time, people are more prepared to go through a process of cultural adjustment. Therefore the handling the shock is also easier. However most people are totally unprepared for another shock: the shock of re-entry. Returning home is expected to be a happy and a relaxing event; everything goes back to normal and you meet your family and friends after long time. The shock of re-entry catches one altogether off guard.

Out of the comfort zone

Leaving the comfort zone and stepping out into another world is a big decision made with many positive expectations. Also negative visions and fears are considered and tried to come to terms with in advance. Both approaches are necessary for the process of preparing for the change. Both positive and negative visions can be close to the reality or far from it.

Home is home; you are understood in your own language, you know how to behave and you don’t have to think in advance what to say or do in different situations. Abroad you are a foreigner. You behave, talk and maybe even look different from others. Whenever you show up in a public place, unknown people around you pay attention to you. But that, as well as all of the funny situations and new environments, are an exotic part of the trip, which you do want to experience.

Even though all of the exiting moments make you feel that you are a real survivor and a cosmopolitan, feelings of restlessness, anxiety, tiredness, anger and homesickness can surface. The first enchantment of a new culture is gone and your eyes are wide open to see the shortcomings of the society around you. This is a culture shock.

When and how a culture shock shows up is very individual. All of the symptoms are individual, as well as are the cures. In general it’s important to take care of one’s daily routines; relax, eat and sleep enough and also keep in touch with your family and friends back at home. Be merciful to yourself; culture shock is a normal reaction. Not everyone experiences culture shock and on the other hand some people may experience it more than once in the same place. Culture shock can start on different phases of a trip or a longer stay and its length varies.

If you expect that the culture and the habits in a new place are close to what you experience in your home country; people have the same skin colour, they behave almost like you and they eat the same food etc., you are actually in greater danger of experiencing culture shock. If you are prepared to encounter something very extreme, you more likely don’t experience such a strong reaction.

The shock of re-entry

Culture shock in a foreign culture is very normal. That is human being’s way to adapt to the new situation. One may be more surprised by the shock one experiences when returning home, as one experiences the so called shock of re-entry. The biggest surprise is that this culture shock might be stronger and take longer than one experienced overseas. Why would you go through anything like this when you are back home?

Right after an emotional farewell abroad, there’s a reunion with family and friends at home. You feel great sadness and joy almost at the same time. A part of your heart is remains in a foreign country and you have a second home there, but you should feel happy to re-enter your home country. As you return home you are not the same person who left that home some weeks, months or years ago. You have experienced something very special and this experience has made you to grow as a person.

You have changed and it might be a challenge to your family and friends. You can’t share everything with them, as they haven’t experienced the same things as you have. They may have difficulties in understanding what you are sharing. Or you feel that they have changed and you are wondering why things are not the way they used to be. Some of your loved ones might be angry with you, because they feel that you rejected them by leaving the country.

Symptoms of the shock of re-entry are similar to the symptoms of a culture shock. You see everything, your home country and people, with totally different eyes than before. You are confused because there where you should feel at home, you feel like an alien. But also the shock of re-entry will end some day and you will find your place your home country once more.

Even though there is a risk of experiencing culture shocks and the shock of re-entry, you will never regret that you decided to leave your comfort zone and to go to a totally unknown country. This memory will give you such a great mental heritage and so many skills for life that you are telling everyone around you to go out of the country and experience something fantastic! You know that this experience didn’t come to you for free, you have paid your price and gone through difficult times, but you have survived! And there were many others with you who went through the same; you will never forget those people. After all you start to think that it was the best time of your life!


Writer: Milka Lähde, Bachelor of Culture and Arts, HAMK University of Applied Sciences. The writer made her practical training for degree programme of Crafts and Recreation in Kampala, Uganda, in autumn 2009.

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See for example:
Re-entry shock: Torn between two cultures, by Martha Denney and Erin Eckert