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What’s Worse: Culture Shock or its Reverse?

Staring up from your luggage at an entirely new scenery is daunting no matter where you go, but returning to your home country may yet be more intimidating. People come and go—it’s a natural ebb and flow through time—but now its your turn. That feeling may very well be the worst.

I don’t know what was scarier: throwing myself into a country where I had only basic functional language skills and vastly different lifestyles or watching all my friends disperse to their respective homes across the globe, knowing that I must also do that all too soon. With the constant lectures from family, friends, and the school coordinating staff, I knew full well what I was to face with my decision to spend five months abroad—or did I?


I packed my bags and left the quiet life of Kansas behind for the hustle and bustle of Seoul with an open mind. I had been abroad once to Ecuador as a volunteer and knew that I would have to approach the tech-savvy South Korea differently. I never was an avid drama or TV watcher, so I had few ideas of Korean life which I needed to be disillusioned from, but I had enough working knowledge to know what not to do. My mindset was simply to learn as I go and to build my humble knowledge. I figured that my meager knowledge was inadequate, which initially led to some unnecessary anxiety on the trip over, but I found that this open-mindedness would come to serve me well in the long run.

On the flight over, I sat next to an older American gentleman who happened to be a culinary arts instructor in Daegu for a number of years and was returning from vacation. Originally he thought I was on my way to become an English teacher and he began narrating his tales—and his passion—of Korea to me. As I enjoyed his conversation, I did not want to break in to tell him that I was merely a college student going for a semester at Yonsei University. He continued to detail his story for several hours, explaining what he wished he knew before coming. I found my fears being relaxed away and by the time we landed I was in a state of pure exultation, if not for the new experience ahead, for the fact that the seemingly incessant plane ride was over!


After stepping off the airplane and flowing through customs and immigrations, I immediately connected to the free airport wireless (one of the perks of South Korea!) and zipped off a message to my penpal who was kind enough to pick me up. We found each other easily and, between her broken English and my broken Korean, headed off towards my accommodations in Seoul. We spent the rest of the afternoon together at ease, trying my first Korean meal and orienting myself among the maze of Seoul streets.

I expected to have a wave of culture shock hit me at any moment and for the high of newness to wear off, but nothing could damper my enthusiasm. Two weeks passed and I left my guesthouse for the school dormitory. A month passed and I was well into the rigors of my study. Yet another month slipped by and still no sign of the foretold “devious” culture shock. Nothing reasonably unexpected came up and slapped me in the face. Nothing stifled my excitement as the school counseling said it would. I was in Korea and determined to learn and love it!

End of Year Class Dinner

Months flew by and soon I found myself at the end of my stay. One by one, my international friends began to leave as I awaited my mother to join me on one last adventure gallivanting around Seoul. It was time to say goodbye to the last of my friends. I dreaded the flights back home, taking 30 hours in its entirety. At the same time, I was thrilled for the future; the prospects and the classes I was to take the next semester were the meat and potatoes of my curriculum.

We landed in a terribly windy snowstorm and arrived home in the thick of night only to collapse in our beds from utter exhaustion. Sleep came easily—too much so, as a matter of fact. Jet-lag tore at my mind and exacerbated my emotional state. I was in a constant state of tiredness and the on-rush of preparations for my next semester inclined to destroy my sanity. One application after the next, one box packed to another, the tasks on my list compiled until I was all but completely overwhelmed. I longed to rejoin my friends in Korea. I made embarrassing mistakes out of habit. I could not fathom how everyone else remained exactly as when I had left them. I had to force myself not to follow my desire to lock myself away from society until my brain rebooted and processed that Seoul was no longer my doorstep.

KSU + Snow

A couple weeks upon my return, I moved back to school. I had high hopes that school would distract me from the distress of the reverse culture shock, only to find my longing increased. Each day I woke up without registering that I was back in Kansas. Only after a month passed and all my faculties were employed in my coursework did my mind start to sort the mess out.

Perhaps it was the support I received from both Koreans and other ex-patriots that made my transition much smoother and culture shock nearly non-existent. Or perhaps it was my lack of desire to return to my home country that heightened the effect of reverse culture shock. Either way, reverse culture shock was certainly the worst for me. What about you? Do you have any experiences with the two? Which do you think or have heard is the worst?