The Foreign Service Journal, April 2009

A P R I L 2 0 0 9 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 33 remember being a young Foreign Service spouse new toWashington, D.C., driving an old rented car on a blustery winter’s day. Lost in a city I did not know, I tried to soothe a 3-year-old who was plead- ing, “Mommy, I want to go home.” Home, I thought; that’s what we’re trying to find. But home was hundreds of miles away in a sun-drenched par- adise that nobody here seemed to care about. I felt very alone. I did not understand it then, but I was going through a dif- ficult, but normal, process of re-entry. The return to the U.S. on reassignment for a period of one year or longer after liv- ing and working overseas is part of the Foreign Service lifestyle. Fifty years of published research among non-State Department populations has shown that re-entry problems — difficulties readjusting to one’s home culture after living abroad for an extended period of time— are shared by many sojourners across occupational groups and cultures. These can range from a mild sense of not fitting into the home en- vironment to more serious and longer-lasting emotional dif- ficulties that may require outside professional help. Previous academic research on re-entry, primarily in the fields of education and psychology, has been conducted mainly on individuals assigned overseas as business managers, volunteers, teachers or students. But there has been little research on accompanying spouses. This fact inspired my own effort to identify factors associated with the re-entry ad- justment of Foreign Service spouses, as representative of a population of accompanying spouses. The Study of Culture Shock Historically, an understanding of re-entry adjustment rose out of the study of culture shock— the problems of adapting to life in a foreign culture — after World War II, when gov- ernment-sponsored international exchange programs came into prominence. In 1955, a long-term study of Norwegian Fulbright scholars who taught and studied in the U.S. found that not only did the scholars suffer from culture shock in ad- justing to life in the U.S. but, quite unexpectedly, they also exhibited problems readjusting to their home culture upon return. This phenomenon of re-entry was referred to as “re- verse culture shock.” With further study, distinctions between culture shock and reverse culture shock began to appear. Though both phe- nomena are reactions to cultural change and both represent stages of accommodation to this change, some aspects of re- verse culture shock appeared fundamentally different. Those differences, first posited in 1981 by Nancy J. Adler, a profes- sor of organizational behavior at McGill University, have to do with expectations. Sojourners returning home to their native culture do not expect anything to be unfamiliar, though they had such ex- pectations of the foreign culture when they went overseas. W HEN AN FS S POUSE C OMES “H OME ”: A S TUDY R E - ENTRY TO THE U.S. AFTER LIVING OVERSEAS INVOLVES ADJUSTMENTS THAT ARE NOT ALWAYS EASY . T HIS STUDY IDENTIFIES SOME OF THE FAULT LINES BETWEEN SUCCESS AND FAILURE . B Y S HARON M AYBARDUK Sharon Maybarduk is a 2008 graduate of the Smith College School for Social Work, specializing in family therapy. She has been a Foreign Service spouse for 33 years, accompany- ing her husband, Gary Maybarduk, to Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Cuba and Venezuela. This article is based on her master’s thesis, “An Exploration of Factors Associated with Re-Entry Adjustment of Foreign Service Spouses.” I