BU Today

Health & Wellness + In the World

Culture Shocked

After adapting to life in a foreign land, coming home has its challenges, too


In the slide show above, Meredith Duffy (ENG’11) talks about being forced to come home from Guadalajara, Mexico, three weeks early because of the swine flu outbreak. Slide show by Anna Webster

For Ian Leatherman, who studied in Guadalajara, Mexico, last semester, the stateside return came early, and with a shock: during a lecture on Friday, April 24, Leatherman (ENG’11) was browsing the Internet to find that Mexico City was being shut down because of H1N1 (swine) flu.

On Sunday, Boston University canceled classes for the next week. On Monday, Leatherman booked his flight to the States. On Tuesday, he was home.

Later, he learned that three of his close Mexican friends had contracted H1N1. Had he stayed abroad, there’s a strong possibility he would have been infected by the virus, too.

Now home with his parents in Idaho, Leatherman is doing yard work in his free time. After a semester (or almost a semester) abroad, experiencing moments as diverse as being stung by a jellyfish and getting lost in a city without having a firm grasp of the language, adapting to life in Idaho is not as simple as it might sound. His light hair no longer makes him stand out; he no longer frequents salsa clubs to show off his moves.

Students are warned about culture shock before going abroad, but the reverse — reentry shock — can be an unexpected and difficult adjustment, too. Finding a new cultural context for acquired perspectives overseas can be hard.

Reverse culture shock normally has four identifying phases: initial euphoria, isolation, hostility, and adaptation.

Joe Finkhouse, BU’s director of institutional relations, says many students find it more stressful adjusting to the familiar than the unfamiliar. “Students tend to say things like, ‘American food is so bland and so awful,’ when in fact it’s not,” says Finkhouse. “There is a tendency to look unfavorably at everything that is familiar back here.”

According to David McBride, director of Student Health Services, culture change is mid- to high-range on the level of life stressors. “I think this current generation is less resilient than those we’ve seen in the past,” says McBride, “more connected with family, more reliant on parents a lot to negotiate change.”

He cautions against trying to identify every emotion with a pathology. “Stress and change are normal parts of life,” he adds. “Labeling things as ‘reentry reaction’ lends itself to everyone wanting a diagnosis for everything they have.”

For Marlene Riquelme (CAS’10), who has visited Latin America several times, adapting to Ecuador was no stretch, but suburban life in New Jersey is a different story — even though she’s been able to satisfy her craving for a real New York pizza.

Riquelme’s situation is not typical. She was in an affluent gated community in Ecuador; her school had marble floors, and every day she climbed 72 steps to her host family’s house, where her room overlooked the city. For five months, two maids took care of the housework.

“The lifestyle was relaxed and the pace of life a lot slower,” she says. “I felt like I was on a long vacation.”

Now, instead of taking buses for 25 cents, she needs $35 to fill her gas tank. Her home in New Jersey is filled with three siblings, two parents, and a dog; in Quito, she often found herself alone or with just her host parents. She finds that she sometimes slips into Spanish without realizing it when she’s talking with friends.

Riquelme says it’s tough to say where she feels most at home. “I definitely like the Latin American lifestyle better,” she says, “but I do feel more liberated and free in the States.”

Culture shock is a part of being a global citizen, according to Finkhouse. He suggests that students find an outlet for new knowledge acquired abroad. Reading local newspapers and keeping in contact with friends from overseas is important.

For travelers like Leatherman, the grass can look greener on the other side, no matter which side you’re on. When the BU’s men’s ice hockey team won the NCAA championship game, Leatherman got his Boston fix thousands of miles away, watching on ESPN with Spanish commentary. Now that he’s back in the States, he craves things Mexican; after discovering Wal-Mart’s Mexican food aisle, he made corn tortillas from scratch for his parents. He also found a place to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with Mexicans transplanted to Idaho Falls.

But some lessons cross international boundaries. “I’ve brought the relaxed mentality back,” he says. “Normally I would be crazy staying at home doing yard work all summer.”

Anna Webster can be reached at annaweb@bu.edu.

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