Reverse Culture Shock inevitable to students

Reverse Culture Shock inevitable to students

Kelsey D., Reporter

“What people understand is ‘people from another country who have moved here.’ They can get that. They can even understand expats, like Americans or British, and people who have moved to the Netherlands and are working there. I think what they have a harder time with is Dutch people who’ve moved abroad and are now coming back. That’s just a category they don’t see very often,” H. Kollen (’20) said.

Culture shock is a familiar concept at ASD, with more than 80 nationalities represented among the school body. The vast majority of students have learned to adjust from their home country to Qatar, or to several different countries over their lifetime. But what happens to people when they return home after living abroad? Reverse Culture Shock (RCS) is an overlooked phenomenon. According to Evergreen, when foreigners travel to other countries, locals tend to understand cultural differences and expect them to make mistakes. When foreigners return home, friends and family don’t usually understand the intensity of living abroad, experiences, and readjustment that come with returning to one’s own culture. Students leaving Qatar need to understand that their expectations of their home country might not meet reality.

One aspect of RCS is the seeming lack of interest from friends and family about international experiences. Often people will ask a couple of questions, or simply nod their heads and change the subject when hearing stories about living abroad. Annabel Boatwright, a former ASD student, described her experiences about moving back to the U.S. similarly. She said, “Normally, people seem very interested at first and ask a few questions. After I explain a little bit, they are content to talk about their lives and the present.” International students have many stories to tell, but they cannot always relate them to everyday conversation.

Part of this trouble may be because people who haven’t traveled don’t know what questions to ask about living abroad. While it’s easy to get upset that few people seem to care, their response is quite normal. It may be difficult for international students to relate to people back home when they can’t converse about aspects of the country they grew up in without boring the other person. Another reason for avoiding the topic is that people don’t like sounding dumb. People don’t actually know if asking questions like, “Do you ride camels? Do you live in a tent? Is it safe there?” are reasonable questions to ask — or whether those questions are ridiculous.

Boatwright, who lived in Qatar for the 2017-2018 school year, reflected upon her experiences with RCS when she moved back to Pennsylvania. She claimed, “The hardest adjustment for me when I moved back to the U.S. was reconnecting with my previous friends. Before I lived in Qatar, my friends and I had very similar lives, but when I moved back, we had such different backgrounds, and it was hard to relate. It seemed like most of my friends had moved on without me, and it was hard to regain relationships with them when I moved back.”

Brandon Davis, a 2019 graduate, had a different experience, despite living in Qatar for eight years. Visiting the U.S. every summer, he was familiar with RCS even before moving back. That awareness, along with being an international student, made him easily adaptable to change. He said, “I wasn’t really shocked or surprised about the difference of culture, but seeing my friends who I’ve known for ages change dramatically over the course of 9-10 months is always interesting.”

Even students who haven’t moved away from Qatar are still aware of the cultural adjustments they will have to make. According to Kollen, an ASD senior who will return to the Netherlands for university, “It feels like I’m going to go back and it’s going to be exactly the same way it was. And I think that’s going to be a shock when I move back and — Oh, wait… everything looks different, everything operates different, things have changed.”

People’s experiences with RCS not only depend on how long they’ve lived abroad, but on a variety of circumstances. Everyone experiences change differently, and for some people it can be worse than their initial culture shock ever was.

S. Kamel (’21), a student potentially moving back to the U.S. next year, said, “I’m really worried about how we’re probably going to move back to the South. I’m not too excited about that. When I previously lived in Alabama, I had trouble fitting in, being Muslim and wearing the hijab. It was kind of hard to accept myself and to have other people accept me. I feel like coming back here, I felt more at home than when I lived in America. I didn’t really have much trouble fitting in here.”

F. Al-Sulaiti’s (’20) father is a Qatari diplomat, so she has moved around quite a bit, having lived in Qatar for only a short period of time. She experienced a form of Reverse Culture Shock moving back to Qatar. She said, “I came to Qatar not knowing how to speak Arabic. I didn’t have many Qatari friends. Then I had to learn Arabic, and that was difficult because my accent wasn’t strong. Now that I’m more familiar with the culture, I don’t feel like I want to move anywhere else. Now it finally feels like ‘home,’ but for years and years of my life I didn’t feel like Qatar was my home. I didn’t feel like I actually had a home.”

While the idea of a Third Culture Kid (TCK) has multiple definitions, a general description from Merriam Webster includes kids who have grown up outside of either parent’s home country or nationality. They often struggle with having a strong sense of identity. Interestingly enough, none of the five students interviewed, regardless of how long they’d lived away from their home country or how many places they had lived, classified themselves as a TCK. It seemed that label belonged to people who couldn’t pick one country to claim as their own. Since everyone had a first-choice country they called ‘home,’ none of them felt they were Third Culture Kids, even though the dictionary’s definition does appear to apply to each of them. This may be due to their tendency not to classify themselves into boxes, being international students.

Kamel said, “I feel like something that’s really impacted me is knowing there’s so much more than just America.”

Boatwright said, “Before, I didn’t know much about the world and was content living in my small town. When I moved back, I was surprised at how little I had known about the world. Living in Qatar helped me learn more about other countries and keep up with some current events.”

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