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Reverse Culture Shock

As the IDIN Summits Coordinator, I don’t think I have fully utilized this blog as the microphone it could be for all IDDS participants of the past, present, and future. Those of you who know me know I enjoy listening to stories.  Now I’m hoping to share some with you in my own digital fireside chat sort of way.

I’ve perused my Facebook timeline, sifted through my inbox, listened to the crackles across Airtel lines from Arusha, and talked to some who have passed back through Boston.

One thing is ringing loud and clear—many of you are experiencing a variety of emotions in your post-IDDS return. 

Many of you know what a rush it feels like in the final days to use every last minute to get your prototypes ready for display and turnover to the community. Then the fret as you scour to pack up the tools (not to mention your room) and find your passport that you lost somewhere between the Talent Show and the Closing Ceremony. And, at last, the sense of clarity as you finally sit down on your return bus or plane seat, take deep breath of release and think,  “Wow, that was it.”

Over the last decade I’ve worked for several international programs both short and long term. Most programs are sure to take the time before a program to prepare their participants for culture shock. Very few take the same, equally necessary time after a program to talk about reverse culture shock.

“What is reverse culture shock?” you may ask.

Whereas culture shock is the cycle of emotions (feelings of elation, rejection, and then adaptation) we experience when living in a new place and/or with new people, reverse culture shock is what we experience when we return from that experience—sometimes a mirror image of the first emotional cycle.

As opposed to a typical study abroad program or other international development volunteer experience, IDDS is not a simple two-way street of “my culture” and “the host country’s culture.” Instead, IDDS is like a Delhi-style traffic jam where all sorts of roads and pathways collide into one space and time. Over the course of one month, you learn not only how to adapt to, live in, and celebrate the culture and language of the host country (in this case Tanzania), but you also adapt to the culture of your roommates, other participants, and fellow organizers—people from Cambodia, Colombia, Ghana, Germany, and elsewhere.  Even more still, you learn the completely new way of the IDDS culture and language: morning circles (whether you love or hate them, they’re there), using colored sticky notes for everything, thinking differently about poverty, and finding commonality in a passion to really improve livelihoods in a co-creative way.

You’ve crossed borders, languages, and several goats and chickens. And now you’re going back home trying to readjust to “normal life” and trying to remember why exactly you went to IDDS in the first place. Some of you may be feeling elated. Some of you may be feeling exhausted. Some of you (I know) are feeling everything in between and finding it difficult to articulate to friends, family, and even yourself exactly what it is you really feel and when and why you’re feeling it.

I’m here to tell you all each of your emotions are normal and ok. They are your emotions. And while you don’t want to be perpetually driven by emotions alone, you don’t want to ignore them either. They are a valuable part of your experience and can teach you things even after IDDS is over. It is OK to pause and enjoy each for what it is, even the tough ones.

Perhaps this is too “morning circle-y” for some of you and you’re thinking, “Sher, just give me some practical tips on how to deal with whatever this reverse culture shock thing is.” And so for all of you, my pragmatic friends out there, I want to share with you some good tips I’ve gleaned from the Peace Corps as well as other programs and articles I’ve found useful even in my own readjustment journeys. I’ve listed their websites below if you want to explore them further.

Each of the tips is important, but I cannot stress enough the value of staying connected. Whether you consider yourself to be social or not, I think we all understand well the value of community, even if it’s only one other person to share the experience with. But know that you have a whole network of people here to support you wherever you’re at (it’s called IDIN ;).  And they are only an email, a Facebook message, a text message, phone call, or dala dala ride away.

With the most professional IDDS love and support possible,

IDIN Summits Coordinator

Tips for Readjusting

(This is a mashed list from multiple sources all listed below.)

1.  Expect the shock

  • Seek out international news so you don’t feel so abruptly cut off from your experience
  • Maintain a sense of patience and humor, similar to when you initially went overseas
  • Maintain a healthy diet, exercise, and other healthy habits

2.  Share your experience

  • Look for ways to use the new skills and knowledge you gained, e.g. giving a slideshow or talk at your local library or local community group,
  • Write about your experience, and share it with others, or submit it for publication
  • Visit elementary/middle/high schools to speak about your experience

3.  Stay connected

  • Get together with others who have been to the same area as you (e.g. your local IDIN chapter!)
  • Get involved with international students or visitors that come your way
  • Keep in touch with the friends and contacts you met while you were away

4. Accept that you’ve changed, significantly or in part

  • Keep a journal. This will help you make sense out of what you are feeling, how you have changed, and what you have gained from your time abroad.
  • Continue to explore the new hobbies and interests you developed abroad. Look for ways to use new skills you may have acquired in your host country. Integrate the new “you” with the old.
  • Plan to use your experience abroad as a marketable skill. Transferable skills include working with diverse work teams, demonstrating flexibility, solving problems creatively, dealing well with change, taking initiative, willingness to take risks, demonstrating sensitivity to people from other cultural backgrounds, willingness to travel.

Read more about these tips on CNN’s article on Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock or Evergreen’s Re-entry Shock page. Explore more on reverse culture shock at, the University of Iowa’s IP’s page, or read Pacific’s article on “Returning Home.” 

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