Tag Archives: adjustment

An unexpected culture shock (returning home overseas)


Elizabeth is a US citizen who grew up in China. She spent a gap year between the US, Nepal and China, and just completed her first year of college in the US.

As a TCK, I had always heard of culture shock, but had never truly experienced it. I attribute this lack of experience to the fact that I have been switching cultures since I was less than a year old, so I’ve never had time to learn what culture shock felt like. I knew culture shock was common and difficult, but I had never truly experienced the impact of it. Because China was “home”, I figured that the most culture shock I would ever experience would come in the States or other new countries.

Then I returned to China after almost a year in the States. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I felt different this time back. Suddenly the large crowds were overwhelming, the polluted air was hard to breathe in, the food wasn’t settling well, and the language barriers were exasperating. After a day or so, I realized these troubles came from the fact that I was re-adjusting to China life. Suddenly I was seeing Beijing almost as any average foreigner would have. I realized I was experiencing real culture shock. But in my own country? My culture shock was intensified because I hadn’t expected to experience any readjustment; I expected to blend back into Beijing life like I always had in the past.

So what was making the difference this time around? Why was I having a hard time blending back into the familiar mix of a Chinese and Expat culture? I’ve come up with several theories to explain this
new experience.

Theory 1: Length of time away

It had been a longer amount of time since I had left China last. It had also been a longer time since I had been in any country besides the United States. I had been gone from China for up to 8 months before, but during that time I had visited another Asian country. This time it had been over 10 months since I had been anywhere outside of the States. I have to wonder if the length of time away contributed to my shock in re-entry.

Theory 2: Deeper affinity with my passport country

Since starting college in the States I’ve become more accustomed to the life and culture there. Maybe I’ve even become what TCKs shudder at – “more American.” I know I’ve seen this phenomenon happen in other TCKs. After spending more time in our passport country, some of us begin to identify more with that country. This definitely doesn’t happen for everyone; actually, from what I’ve seen, it probably applies to no more than half of the TCK population. Yet I would say it’s more common for TCKs when they return to their passport country for university. In my opinion, it’s a natural part of growing up and figuring out how your experience as a TCK will or won’t affect your identity. Because of my opinion, I’m fine with becoming “more American” in some areas of my life. I’m never going neglect or forget my TCK-ness, but I don’t want that to be my only identity. But back to my theories on my unexpected culture shock. The fact that I’m “more American” now may be contributing to the culture shock of re-entering China.

Reverse culture shock happens when one returns to one’s home country. Is the culture shock that a TCK experiences when returning to his/her “foreign” country reverse-reverse culture shock? (One of my friends cleverly called it “culture shock squared.”) Or is it merely reverse culture shock, because TCK’s often consider foreign countries their true home? I haven’t decided which one fits best. Yet I know that when I return to China next time, I won’t be as shocked by my own culture shock.

Have you experienced “culture shock squared”? How did you respond?

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Posted by on June 30, 2011 in Expat Life, Guest Posts, TCKs


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Factors Important to Successful Intercultural Adjustments – part 1

These 10 factors appear all over the internet – I can’t make out who first wrote them. If you know, please tell us so I can give credit where it is due!

They are interesting and there are plenty of applications to those of us who are living international lives. I would like, however, to focus on how an understanding of these factors can help us better serve the teens we work with.

I would suggest that the teens we work with will have more enjoyable international experiences if these factors are well developed in their own lives. Some develop these things naturally as a consequence of being overseas, especially in those who moved away from their passport country at a young age. That said, I think this is a great checklist. I can think of one of my kids, look at this list, and see an aspect that is missing. It gives me an idea of an area to help them grow in.

Open Mindedness: The ability to keep one’s opinions flexible and receptive to new stimuli seems to be important to intercultural adjustment.

Most of the TCKs I know are quite open minded – open to new ideas and different points of view. That said, I feel that there’s a big difference between a city kid in a big international school and a kid who is homeschooled in a remote area. The more rural kids often have a narrower view on life and, specifically, what is “right”. I feel this latter category benefits greatly from increased open-mindedness. Without it, they can be alienated from other teens, especially upon repatriation.

Sense of Humor: A sense of humor is important because in another culture there are many things which lead one to weep, get angry, be annoyed, embarrassed, or discouraged. The ability to laugh off things will help guard against despair.

I’ve seen this difference in many expats – those who can shrug of some of the irritants of the different environment with a laugh cope much better, especially long term. Life is more stressful when you let things get to you. Kids who grow up in a single country, or who are sheltered in an “expat bubble” while on assignment overseas, seem to have less issues with this. Those who move away from their passport country as a teenager, especially those with a sense of resentment about the move, often really struggle to “find the funny” in the difficult parts of their new life.

Ability to Cope with Failure: The ability to tolerate failure is critical because everyone fails at something overseas. Persons who go overseas are often those who have been the most successful in their home environments and have rarely experienced failure, thus, may have never developed ways of coping with failure.

So many of the kids I’ve worked with have a huge fear of failure. A lot of TCKs have high-achieving parents. About 80% have at least one parent with an advanced degree. Most have parents with high-powered jobs, or who do something with a different perceived worth – such as humanitarian or missionary work. Some kids internalise this, seeing it as the standard they have to live up to. The heavy school-load most take on contributes. When high-achieving kids with lots of potential fail at something, it can be devastating for them. Even with kids who don’t “fail” there is often a whole lot of pressure happening on the inside – crazy amounts of stress they’ll put upon themselves to achieve more and more.

Communicativeness: The ability and willingness to communicate one’s feelings and thoughts to others, verbally or non-verbally, has been suggested as an important skill for successful intercultural communicators.

Most of the TCKs I’ve known are quite communicative in a shallow way, but unwilling to communicate anything “real” or remotely deep to someone they don’t have history with. This is one of the reasons I believe long-term youth workers, especially in the field, make a massive difference in the life and growth of TCKs. Without the presence of trusted adults, the only confidants most have are fellow TCKs, particularly those who have lived in a similar area for a similar length of time. While I’m sure we can all see the value of this peer support, it is still a limited perspective.

Flexibility and Adaptability: The ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations is very important to intercultural success. Keeping options open and judgmental behavior to a minimum describes an adaptable or flexible person.

This is, I think, one of the biggest strengths of the typical TCK. While not true for 100% of TCKs, most fit this bill. It’s great for running events in China – everything changes! My first year or two I was always stunned at how well they coped with us totally changing things, and how few complaints we received from parents when events changed at the last minute.

That’s the first five factors – I’ll look at the next five in another post (click here for part 2).

What do you think? Does any of this ring true in your own experiences?


Posted by on March 7, 2011 in Expat Life, Leading Youth, TCKs


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