How to deal with reverse culture shock

When you finally head home after your semester abroad, it can feel difficult to adjust again. Here’s what may surprise you when you return to the States.


Victoria Liu

(Illustration by Victoria Liu)

Lena Olson, Staff Writer

Before leaving to go abroad, it feels like everyone is concerned with preparing you for the culture shock, but a whole semester of immersion does wonders for acclimation. Returning home, however, involves a type of culture shock that no one seems to talk about. After months of getting used to new cultures abroad, being home can feel strange and require adjustment as well.

I studied at NYU London during the fall 2022 semester. While there was no language barrier, going home for winter break exposed many cultural differences between the United States and England. I spent this spring at NYU Berlin, and I have learned that the culture shock of returning home can be even more extreme after studying somewhere with a language barrier and a culture much different from the United States. With the end of the semester rapidly approaching, I compiled a list of reverse culture shock moments from between my two semesters abroad that you might experience as well.

Food and drinks

One of the most bizarre parts of being an American abroad is paying for water at restaurants. Despite it being only two or three euros for a large bottle for the table, seeing water on the bill is strange. Being abroad made it obvious how deeply conditioned I am to expect the waiter to pour free, cold, still water soon after sitting down. Coming back to the United States to eat at a restaurant with free water is pleasantly surprising.

Another moment of reverse culture shock is the sheer size of the portions in the U.S. I thought I was prepared for this, considering how often American food and beverage sizes are joked about, but the difference was still shocking. For reference, at any European Starbucks, a venti iced drink is 20 ounces; in the United States, a venti is 24 ounces. This 20 percent increase in size is astounding the first few times you order a drink in the United States again.

American food is infamously more processed than most food in many other countries. Foods tend to be saltier and contain more sugar, take longer to go bad because of preservatives and are largely less nutritious in the United States compared to much of the rest of the world. I remember, during my first week at home, feeling constantly bloated and overly full, yet being hungry again soon after eating. My biggest tips for dealing with this adjustment are to drink plenty of water — probably far more than you think you need — and move your body, even if it’s just walking.

Lack of eco-consciousness

In recent years, parts of the United States, especially larger cities like New York City, have taken big steps forward in the realm of eco-friendliness, such as decreasing the use of plastic straws and charging extra for plastic grocery bags. However, these steps are still far behind norms of many countries — especially those in Europe. For one, everything disposable in restaurants is individually packaged in the United States, with every straw or element of cutlery encased in a plastic or paper wrapper. This extra barrier is deemed obsolete by most European countries, so it is a bit strange to see it at home.

Part of the learning curve of being abroad is the strange reusable paper towel dispenser in bathrooms. They look like “regular” paper towel dispensers, except there are dish towel-like pieces of fabric looped through the opening area where the paper towels would be. You pull downward, wipe your hands, and the used part retracts back into the dispenser. I have seen these while studying in both London and Berlin, as well as in other cities I have visited across Europe. Getting used to these took such an effort that seeing disposable paper towels back home was equal parts confusing, relieving and disappointing. The reusable system works well, so why is it nowhere in the United States?

Emotional growing pains

This last aspect of reverse culture shock is far more metaphorical and, admittedly, a bit cheesy. Going abroad is an incredibly impactful growing experience. Living in a country other than the one you grew up in, potentially an ocean and several time zones away from your family, friends and the foundation of your life thus far is not a minor accomplishment. You have likely spent the semester learning to understand new cultures, traveling to new places, making new friends, learning new languages and becoming more of a global citizen. Going home after all of that is bizarre. I felt a strange weight of newness and knowledge. Finding myself back in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after four months of exploring London and backpacking Europe, did not feel quite right. I found myself feeling like I wanted to tell everyone I came into contact with how I had spent my recent months, like they needed to know everything and like I had something to prove. Even though many joke about the student who won’t stop talking about their semester abroad, it would be strange to not share all the life-changing experiences I had.

My only tip for getting over this feeling — and all the other feelings of reverse culture shock — is going through it. There is not much you can do to make this alienation from what used to be your normal feel any less uncomfortable. Some things, though, may stay strange after experiencing new customs, and some things may be especially difficult to readapt to. Take it in and feel your feelings. Just like how you got used to most of what felt strange about being abroad, you will get used to most of what feels strange about home. But now, you are returning full of new experiences and knowledge from your time away that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Contact Lena Olson at [email protected].