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Return migration and reverse cultural shock

Return migration and reverse cultural shock

May 6, 2021

Migration is usually conceived as a process that involves assuming various losses and that requires adapting to a new context. Among the expectations when leaving for our destination are the challenges that are supposed to be overcome.

The return to the place of origin, which is sometimes part of the migratory cycle, usually catches us more unprepared , since when considering that one returns to a point in which one has already been, a process of significant adaptation is not considered necessary. This assumption does not take into account that the place of origin, its people and especially the migrant himself, have undergone profound changes during the trip. The changing conditions of return allow us to consider return as a second migration.


The return as a second migration

The emotional implications of return migration can sometimes be even more shocking than those of the first migration.

The sense of strangeness and incompetence with respect to the place that we considered as our own, can be a source of great confusion and uncertainty. The psychological effects of return migration have been conceptualized under the name of reverse cultural shock.

Economic crisis and emigration

Reflection and research on the issue of return has intensified in recent times due to the migration dynamics that have emerged or increased as a result of the global economic crisis of 2007. The deterioration of the economy and the consequent increase of unemployment in the receiving countries migration has had a much greater impact on the migrant population, which also does not have the resource of family support to which local people have access .


The crisis has also resulted in an increase in social hostility towards this population, which is used as a scapegoat for many of the system's ills. In parallel, there is sometimes a perception that the conditions of the context of origin may have improved, constituting factors that influence so many more migrants are taking the decision to return to the country from their roots.

Return statistics

Statistically, the return occurs in greater proportions in men and in people with low qualifications . Women and skilled professionals tend to have a larger settlement at the destination. It is also observed that the lower distance traveled in the migration increase the probability of returning.

Among the motivations for return include those related to the economic field, such as unemployment or job insecurity in the place of destination; family motivations consisting, for example, of parents who have grown up and need attention or the desire to provide children who enter adolescence with a more controlled environment or according to the values ​​of the context of origin. Reasons for adaptation in the target environment and discrimination may also be reasons for returning.


Research highlights that the longer the stay and the greater cultural differentiation in the place of destination, increase the adaptation difficulties in return migration . It is emphasized that the circumstances and expectations surrounding our migration, in addition to the particularities of the experience during the stay, have a substantial influence on the way in which the return or return to the place of origin is experienced.

Different ways to leave and return

There are different ways to experience the return. Here are some of them.

The desired return

For many people, migration is considered as the means to achieve more or less concrete objectives , that imply a time duration in certain occasions and in others indefinite. It is based on the expectation and desire that once these objectives are achieved, they will return to the place of origin to enjoy the achievements obtained during the trip.

The objectives can be varied: to carry out an academic specialization, a fixed-term temporary job, save money to provide sufficient capital to carry out an undertaking or buy a home. Sometimes migration is motivated by negative aspects in the place of origin, such as job insecurity or insecurity, and then a temporary migration is considered while these conditions are modified or improved. Migration can also be seen as a respite to accumulate experiences and experiences during a defined time.

In those cases in which the idea of ​​return is very present from the beginning, there is usually a strong valuation and identification with the customs and traditions of the country of origin. These traditions seek to be recreated in the place of reception and it is usual to prioritize social ties with expatriate compatriots. Parallel to the above, there may be a resistance to integration or full assimilation with the target culture . It is also common for people who have a strong desire to return, have a high valuation of family and social ties in the country of origin, which seeks to continue to maintain and feed despite the distance.

The return in many cases is then the logical consequence of the migratory project: the academic or planned work periods are fulfilled, the proposed economic or experiential objectives are valued as to some degree fulfilled. In these cases the decision to return is usually lived with a high degree of autonomy and not as much as the passive consequence of external circumstances. There is usually a time of preparation, which allows adjusting expectations to what can be found in the return. They also recognize the achievements of the trip, as well as the benefits they can bring to the new life in the country of origin.

We also value the supports that can be obtained from the social and family networks that have continued to be maintained during the trip. All these aspects have a positive impact on adaptation in the return, but they do not exempt people from having difficulties, since although it is possible to return to the physical place, it is impossible to return to the imagined place to which one believed to belong.

The mythical return

Sometimes the expectations and initial objectives are transformed ; it may not be perceived that the proposed objectives have been met or that the hostile conditions that motivated the migration have not improved. Perhaps also, with the passage of time, strong roots have been built in the country of destination and weakened those of the country of origin. The intention to return then can be postponed for years, decades and even generations, sometimes becoming more than a concrete intention, a myth of longing.

If it is perceived that the objectives have not been achieved and it has to be returned sooner than expected, the return can be experienced as a failure. Adaptation implies confronting a feeling of discontent, as if something had been left pending. The immigrant can go from being a "hero" for the family and the social environment, to become a weight for family survival.

The unexpected return

There are people who from their departure consider migration as the beginning of a new life in a context of greater well-being, so in principle the return is not among their plans. Others arrive with an attitude of openness waiting to see how the circumstances go and decide after a while to take root in their destiny. Others, although they come with the idea of ​​returning, have opportunities or discover aspects that lead them to change their minds over time. There are also migrants who remain indefinitely with the open possibilities without radically ruling out any option.

One the fundamental aspects that leads people to choose to remain indefinitely in their destination place, is the perception that their quality of life is greater than what they could have in their country of origin . Quality of life that is described by some migrants as better economic conditions, sense of security in the streets, better health services, education or transportation, infrastructure, lower levels of corruption and disorganization. Also aspects related to the mentality, such as the case of women who find emancipation and equality quotas that they did not enjoy in their places of origin. For others, the need to live abroad responds to internal aspects, such as the possibility of satisfying their desire for adventure and novel experiences. Some migrants say that living abroad allows them to express themselves more genuinely away from an environment that they considered limiting.

In cases where return is no longer considered an attractive option, there is often an interest in integrating into the destination culture. This interest does not necessarily imply a distancing or rejection of one's own culture, nor the family or social ties of the country of origin. A transnational dynamic is generated, in which people live between the two cultures through periodic trips and permanent communication. This transnational dynamic is currently facilitated by the cheapening of air travel and the communication possibilities offered by new technologies. On some occasions, the transnational dynamics affects so that the passion for the national identity diminishes, acquiring a more evidently hybrid and cosmopolitan character.

Seeing the place of origin with bad eyes

When there is a high valuation of diverse aspects that have been able to live in place of destination and people are forced to return to their countries of origin, usually for family or economic reasons, the adaptation in the return becomes more complex, being necessary a habituation to a standard of living that is perceived as inferior in some areas. This can cause a hypersensitivity and overestimation of the aspects that are considered negative in the place of origin. You can then experience everything as more precarious, disorganized and insecure than what other people who are not going through this experience of adaptation perceive.

This hypersensitivity can generate tensions with family and friends who perceive the returnee with attitudes of unjustified contempt. The return sometimes also means that the person has to confront questions about their lifestyle that is not according to the prevailing schemes in their place of origin.

It is usual then that a sensation of strangeness emerges and the recognition of the distance that has been established with the environment of origin. This feeling leads many returnees to live the stay in the country of origin as a transition while the conditions exist to return to the country of their first migration or a new migration to a third country is undertaken.

The feeling of not being from here or there can be experienced with nostalgia for some migrants due to the loss of a national identity reference, but it can also be experienced as a liberation of schemata that straitjacket. In some, the eternal traveler syndrome is created, which constantly seeks to satisfy their need for new experiences and curiosity in different places.

The forced return

The most adverse conditions for the return evidently arise when the person wants to remain in the place of destination and external conditions force him without an alternative to return. It is the case of prolonged unemployment, an illness of their own or of a relative, expiration of legal residence or even deportation. In the cases in which economic has been the triggering factor, it is returned when all the survival strategies have been exhausted.

For some people, migration has been a way of distancing family or social situations that are burdensome or conflicting. The return therefore implies abandoning a context that seemed more satisfactory to them and the reencounter with situations and conflicts that they sought to distance themselves from.

In cases where migration has been leaving behind a past to be overcome, there is usually a high motivation to fully integrate with the dynamics of the destination context, sometimes even trying to avoid the people of their own country.

In some cases then, upon returning, there has been not only a distancing of family ties but also with friendships from the place of origin, in such a way that they can not function as a support or resource for adaptation. The return is then lived almost as an exile that involves confronting many aspects that were expected to be left behind. The research highlights that the adaptation in these types of return are usually the most difficult, also presenting the desire to start a new migration but sometimes with vague and little elaborated plans.

The reverse cultural shock

People who return arrive at the country of their roots with the feeling of having fulfilled more or less with their purposes, in other cases with feelings of frustration or sense of defeat , but always with the urgent need to give course to their lives in the existing conditions.

Reverse cultural shock refers to this process of readjustment, resocialization and reassimilation within one's own culture after having lived in a different culture for a significant period of time. This concept has been developed by researchers since the mid-twentieth century based initially on the difficulties of adaptation to the return of exchange students

Stages of the reverse cultural shock

Some researchers believe that the reverse cultural shock begins when you plan to return home . It is observed that some people perform some rituals with the intention of saying goodbye to their destination and begin to take actions to go to the place of origin.

The second stage is called honeymoon. It is characterized by the emotion of the recuentro with family, friends and spaces to which he longed. The returnee feels the satisfaction of being welcomed and recognized in his return.

The third stage is the cultural shock itself and emerges when the need arises to establish a daily life once the excitement of the reunions has passed. It is the moment in which one is aware that one's identity has been transformed and that the place longed for and people are not as they imagined. The protagonism of the first days or weeks is lost and people are no longer interested in hearing the stories of our trip. This can lead to unfolding feelings of loneliness and isolation. Then emerge doubts, disappointments and regrets. Returnees may also feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities and choices they have to face. Sometimes the anxieties that this generates can be manifested in irritability, insomnia, fears, phobias and psychosomatic disorders.

The final stage is adjustment and integration . In this stage, the returnee mobilizes his adaptation resources to adapt to the new circumstances and the constant yearning for the country that welcomed him disappears. The ability to focus on the present and work towards the attainment of their vital projects is then strengthened.

The ideal is that when the returnee returns to his country he is aware of the enrichment that the trip has given him and the experiences he has lived in the host country. Also, develop the capacity so that these experiences become resources for your new ventures. It is argued that the stages are not strictly linear, but rather go through mood ups and downs until little by little a certain stability is achieved.

Bibliographic references:

  • Díaz, L. M. (2009). The chimera of the return. Migrant Dialogues, (4), 13-20
  • Diaz, J. A. J., & Valverde, J. R. (2014). An approximation to the definitions, typologies and theoretical frameworks of return migration. Biblio 3w: bibliography of geography and social sciences.
  • Durand, J. (2004). Theoretical essay on return migration. Notebooks
  • Geographies, 2 (35), 103-116
  • Motoa Flórez, J. and Tinel, X. (2009). Back home? Reflections on the return of Colombian and Colombian migrants in Spain. Migrant Dialogues, (4), 59-67
  • Pulgarín, S. V. C., & Mesa, S. A. M. (2015). Return migration: A description from some Latin American and Spanish research. Colombian Journal of Social Sciences, 6 (1), 89-112.
  • Schramm, C. (2011). Return and reintegration of Ecuadorian migrants: the importance of transnational social networks. CIDOB Journal of International Affairs, 241-260.
  • Valenzuela, U., & Paz, D. (2015). The phenomenon of cultural shock inverse an inductive study with Chilean cases.

Returning home after living abroad (May 2021).


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