After the slightly discouraging stories doled out in Part I of our blog series on reverse culture shock/re-entry, there is some good news. Just like you adjusted to being in a different country and the differences that you faced, you’ll eventually settle back into your regular life. You’ll still crave your favorite international foods, have four-month pop culture gaps of knowledge, and you’ll likely waste hours at a time going through your Facebook albums, but gradually you’ll notice less moments of anxiety. Beyond mentally preparing a bit before departing your study abroad country, below are some tips for easing the transition from international rock star to stateside rock star.
First, it’s not personal. Try not to be offended as your parents eyes glaze over when you wax on about how “in Melbourne, you can walk down shady alleys and find the best bars EVER” or how “in China, slurping noodles is actually a compliment to the chef.” And when people throw out the obligatory “How was it?” while obviously not expecting or wanting a blow-by-blow, it’s not an attack on you and your experiences. Unfortunately, the best four months of your life likely didn’t have a significant impact on the day-to-day life of your loved ones. There is a time and place to tell stories and they will naturally come up in conversation as you settle back into your every day life. You’re out for dinner at a sushi restaurant… now it’s the perfect time to say “In Japan, sushi is eaten with the fingers because it’s a snack, not a meal.” With a little practice, you’ll be a master in storytelling in no time and you’ll keep those friendships in place.
As you start to spin these return-from-abroad tales, it’s best to avoid comparative sentences that are an indirect insult to your home culture. Sentences like “I can’t believe Americans eat so much McDonalds” or “Why are Americans so loud?” simply do not bridge the gap of understanding and can offend those you’re speaking with.
It’s also helpful to remind yourself that there is an element of jealousy involved with those who didn’t spend the last four months of their lives enjoying a spectacular experience abroad. I literally turn green when friends post photos from a hammock in Bali or from a raft on the wild rivers of Nepal (or seeing TEAN student photos). This feeling is natural and it makes communication difficult at times.
The great news about returning from a semester abroad is that the fun isn’t over! Take some time to create a new multicultural reality for yourself. Continue with your language studies. Join clubs on campus that have an international flair (including perhaps a welcoming committee for new international students on your campus…remember those first awkward moments on a new campus?). Apply to become a TEAN Student Ambassador on your campus, so you can continue talking around your study abroad experience by advising those who are getting ready to embark on a similar journey. Win! Throw yourself into salsa dancing classes, pick up some martial arts tricks, or jump into an ethnic cooking class. You’ll meet more people who have the same interests as you and continue to have a connection to your experience abroad.
As an organization, TEAN is involved with a group called “Lessons from Abroad” which hosts re-entry conferences throughout the US (including in our neighborhood, Chicago). Check out their website and try to attend an event. You’ll meet others who have just returned from studying abroad and also get exposure to future opportunities abroad.
Also, don’t beat yourself up when you realize in the middle of an education class that the last thing you want to be is a teacher (ahem, not like that happened to anyone here!) or that your weekly viewings of “The Bachelorette” are no longer relatable. The things that interested you before leaving may not have the same holding power that they once did. It’s fine and natural! Cheesy or not, embrace the new you!
Fantastically, you live in a world where it is almost more work to not be connected than to connect internationally. Take Google maps for a spin around your old neighborhood. Instagram a photo of your pho and hashtag with #vietnamforever and #ilovepho. Totally acceptable these days! Thanks to Facebook, I still connect regularly with those that I studied abroad with in the UK. It’s fantastic to reminisce and, truthfully, there are some things in my life that only those people can really understand.
And hello? You live in a pretty cool country yourself! I just spent a short time in Yellowstone and there was a sizeable smattering of accents exclaiming about bison crossing the road. People travel around the world to experience what we have so get out your inner tourist and explore your backyard!
Final tip — We’ve all had meltdowns at LAX (or your other arrival point in the US). The shock of going from generally pleasant air travel abroad to the American TSA nightmare is definitely not going to rank on anyone’s “Top 10 Happiest Moments.” We’ve all been screamed at so don’t take it personally.
“You know, in Australia, they have adorable beagles that sniff bags in customs…”
A Senior Program Manager with TEAN, Rachel Dorsey studied abroad in England, caught the wanderlust bug, and hasn’t looked back since.