Culture Shock vs Homesickness

Culture shock.  It is something that over 70% of travelers and those living abroad experience.  So that does not mean everyone feels it in their life, but then why does everyone assume it will happen to you?  Perhaps the answer is that we are often confusing culture shock, to homesickness. 


Culture shock is a sense of confusion, longing for home, and feeling alone.  Longing for home is more than just homesickness.  Longing is a strong desire to return to the familiar and have things be as they were and make sense.  When you are in another culture, things can be confusing because none of the customs make sense, nor are they relevant to you.  Longing for home, does not mean homesickness.


Homesickness is being sad because you are away from your family or home.  When one goes off to college, they tend to go through the waves of homesickness.  Things are different, things get tough, and the familiar support groups are not so easily accessible, so therefore, one suffers from homesickness.


Too often do we confuse culture shock, with homesickness.  As soon as someone over here says that they miss their family, friends, food, TV shows, or what-have-you back home, it is immediately equated with culture shock.  But is it really?  I miss my pets and my family, but does that make me a culture shock sufferer?  Of course not.  You wouldn’t tell a college student, who missed their family that they are suffering from culture shock, because they live in the same culture, just a different location, and are missing the familiar.  Culture shock includes a lost sense of identity, which is why it is such a serious thing, and why my program offers specialized support to those suffering from culture shock.  An identity crisis is something to not be taken lightly.


I suffered from culture shock when I studied in Tokyo two and a half years ago and witnessed my friends suffer worse than me.  It is also something that happens gradually.  One symptom is of missing your family, which is usually why people are so quick to cry out culture shock, but culture shock includes a wide range of symptoms.  You start to keep to yourself, feel depressed, often find yourself feeling frustrated or confused, you become OCD, you also start creating a ritual for yourself daily, you stop talking with people even those close to you, and when you do talk to someone, all you are talking about is home.  You start to question things, such as, who you are, why you are doing something, and what your purpose in life is.  THIS is culture shock.  Homesickness has 2 symptoms, depression, and cleanliness.  Nowhere is there a sense of identity being taken from you.


Reverse culture shock is something that happened to me when I came back from Japan.  I was only in Japan for 4 weeks, yet coming back home, I did not know who I was.  It took me over 6 months to find myself again.  I wanted to tell people about my adventures in Japan, but because I had posted everything on my website, no one really cared about what I had to say.  I was excited to see people, but no one was as excited to see me.  I would get to school ready to continue my studies in Japanese, and yet, no one else had any motivation to do anything.  I felt that the America I knew, was taken from me and I was living in an alternate universe.  In Japan, I knew I was American, and could call myself that.  But in America, I didn’t feel American, yet I was not Japanese.  I was in a 3 world where only travelers from abroad understand.  It wasn’t until I took a class on SLA learner motivation that I was able to study up on the subject of identity and culture shock.  I chose to give a presentation and research project on cultural identity and discovered that mostly everyone who had studied abroad before, was also struggling with finding themselves after returning home.  They felt they were not from America, nor were they from the country they traveled to, but they were all in an in-between place, and they will remain there, until they discover who their new self is. 


Reverse culture shock affects more people than initial culture shock does.  About 90% of people who return home, catch what is known as “the bug.”  They have a lost sense of identity and by traveling to different cultures they feel they are more easily able to find where they fit.  I caught the bug.  I desperately wanted to travel to so many locations in the world, but I couldn’t.  So I just went to places in the US with my husband.  The bug is real and is hard to get rid of.


That being said, culture shock has the same effect on people.  They feel that they don’t belong in that country and need to return home, only to discover that they don’t belong there anymore either and need to go somewhere else, because they are in an in-between place that cannot be reached.  You see, culture shock is a much much deeper issue than just simply “being homesick.”  The cure for homesickness is to talk to people you miss.  The cure for culture shock doesn’t exist.  It is a never ending wave most suffer through. 


I am not suffering from culture shock.  I have my days where I just don’t want to do anything, but I had those days in Arizona too.  I also have days where I just do not want to talk to anybody, and I had those days in Arizona too.  I also have days where I miss my family and pets and friends, but in Arizona, being a married adult, I also had those days.  You know if you are suffering from culture shock.  It is not something that you think about.  If you think it is culture shock, it’s not.  So before you are so quick to call me out for missing my family and tacos as culture shock, make sure you fully understand the difference between being homesick, and suffering from culture shock.