You arrived in your host country wide-eyed and ready to conquer your study abroad semester with ferocity. And, sure, you hit some rough patches (like the time when you had a meltdown trying to find a Diet A&W Root Beer), but this was to be expected. You were studying abroad in a new country. It’s culture shock. And you were ready for it, recognized it and dealt with it.
As the months went on, despite the fun you were having, you began to crave with greater and greater intensity your favorite Mexican restaurant at home, cuddles with your dog, and even those pajamas you forgot to pack. The countdown on your phone gets lower and lower and suddenly you’re saying your good-byes to your new friends and boarding that jumbo jet home, full of pure anticipation. Oh, the hugs! Banners! Balloons and flowers! The entire country was waiting for your return. Your parents were barely coping. Your sister realized you were her hero.
Then you exit immigration. And, yes, there might be a sign welcoming you home. For sure there will be hugs, but after climbing into the vehicle with all of your luggage, you realize that there are still the same songs on the radio as when you left. Your parents are chatting about your aunt who is still not taking her medications and even your dog seems a bit disinterested after the initial tail wagging. Oh, and your sister took over your room while you were gone.
More importantly, welcome to reverse culture shock. Something you were definitely not ready for. Unlike electric plug converters and a translation book, some luggage is more difficult to unpack. You are a changed person. You’ve conquered public transport (perhaps in a different language), you’ve worked on projects with new friends from around the world, and you’ve successfully navigated a whole different culture on your own. So why are your parents looking at you like you have five heads when you ask them to please add sweet chili sauce to the grocery list. You know, for your chips. Or fries… as “you Americans call them.”
Ah, the “you Americans” syndrome. It’s hard to avoid and I especially fell prey to this common reverse culture shock ailment. I studied abroad for a semester in Cambridge, England, and it was my first time abroad. I almost had to be dragged onto the plane as I knew that I had found a place where I could exist forever. And when I got back to my hometown (Population: 500 + quite a few cows), it was baffling how my parents couldn’t grab the simple concept that only Cadbury chocolate is acceptable.
At one of my lowest points on my return, I accompanied my mother to Walmart to run a quick errand. Having come from medieval Cambridge where something is “new” if it is from 1700 and the streets are barely the size of alleys, I stood among the sprawling aisles of the store, surrounded by bulk bins of pretzels, and was literally paralyzed with depression and fear. Why is everything so big in the US? Why are so many Americans obese? What is up with sweatpants? Why in the world do you need shopping carts the size of a Cessna? I couldn’t deal and had to retreat to the car, which was also way too massive, by the way. “Because in England, cars are tiny. Obviously.”
Luckily for me, I studied abroad with some good friends and we were able to cope together but in the process, we isolated ourselves from some of our other friends who were “left behind.” I’ll be honest. It took a few months to get back in the swing of things with my US friendships and some of them never really recovered from the experience. I thought it was them at the time. But now I know… it was definitely all me. I was projecting my expectations and experiences on them constantly.
For instance, we went to see “Bridget Jones’s Diary” shortly after my return when I revisited my college campus. I was “shocked” and “appalled” that the American version wouldn’t use “stones” instead of “pounds.” And I openly complained about it the entire evening. In case you couldn’t tell, I was pretty fantastic company at that time of my life.
But, there is some good news
A) Extreme reverse culture shock does not last forever.
B) That feeling of not quite belonging any more can help propel you into very cool experiences in the future.
C) Others are being equally as crazed on their return. You are not alone!
D) Once you harness your experiences, you have become a vastly interesting person and you can use this to your advantage later in life.
In the next installment, we’ll chat about ways to minimize reverse culture shock and to come out in one (stronger) piece!
A Senior Program Manager with TEAN, Rachel Dorsey studied abroad in England, caught the wanderlust bug, and hasn’t looked back since.