Back from the Mission Field: Reverse Culture Shock

When I joined a study abroad program in college, I left America
and never looked back. I donned the Spanish name “Pepe”, and stayed out
at flamenco bars until sunrise. I ate every type of chorizo I could
find. I went on weekend trips to Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, and Rome. I started drinking coffee. I was a Spaniard through and through.

I never struggled with culture shock. I acclimated immediately. What I never expected, however, was the jolting experience I would have when returning to my own native culture.

In the book Culture Shock! (recommended reading for all students in my program), there was a section on “re-entry” or “reverse culture shock.”
I wish I would have read it.

Returning home from a cross-cultural experience was much more than mere shock. It was a smack in the face. One article I recently read says that this is because we don’t realize how much we have, in fact, changed.

I was only in Spain for a period of about four months, but the next
semester at school was almost unbearable for me. I returned home just in
time for Christmas and found myself looking at everything in my house
as if for the first time. The next week, I went to the dentist for a cleaning. Every question that he asked me, I answered in Spanish.

It took me awhile to work through some of the shock and even slight resentment that followed coming home after an exotic trip.
World Racer Elizabeth Bureman summarizes this feeling well from a missionary perspective in her humorous post

about reverse culture shock. After traveling the world for 11 months, what used to be normal to her felt unusual.

When she was finally able to drink tap water again and didn’t have to pay to use public restrooms, she aptly concluded: “The States are weird.” This is, in fact, how many people feel when returning home after a cross-cultural experience — even a short one.


If you’ve had a paradigm-shifting experience like a mission trip, it’s important to realize that re-entry can be difficult. It’s also healthy to expect some adjustment and even plan for it. Here are a few tips on how to do so:
  • Seek first to understand. If you’ve been gone for awhile, ask people questions about what they’ve been up to. Remember that it’s not just your life that has changed.
  • Be proactive in how you tell your story. Don’t just wait to be asked. Have some (short) talking points or stories prepared.
  • Be sensitive to coming across as arrogant. Even if you don’t intend to do so, you may be perceived now as a “missionary” — and with that comes unfortunate baggage sometimes. One mis-perception or missionaries is that they’re spiritually elite. Since they’ve accomplished “great exploits for the Lord,” they can sometimes (usually unintentionally) push people away. Just be aware of how your adventures may be perceived. The last thing you want to do is to shame someone. Inspire, yes. Shame, no.
For more on this topic, check out the following:

Seth Barnes
also has a lot of helpful resources on his blog in the “Debriefing” section that can help with this process of re-entry.