Before any student leaves to study abroad, there are countless thoughts swirling through their minds as they wonder what life will be like over these next few weeks or even months. The mental battle waged between the fear of the unknown and the thrill of adventure permeates the entire pre-departure process. I know that I personally felt many different emotions before leaving, but while I was so consumed by thinking about the challenges I would face abroad, I never stopped to think about the challenges I would face when returning home. This is one aspect of a study abroad experience that I think goes overlooked by students until they actually experience it. But there is no way to truly prepare someone for it because when it happens, it does so on many different and personal levels.
I’ve heard various perspectives and musings about reverse culture shock but one that’s been repeated again and again says that when you return from studying abroad, you have changed dramatically as an individual but everything and everyone back home remained the same. I speak from experience when I say it’s a very “Twilight Zone” realization. I was expecting Rod Serling to emerge from the vastness of space and tell me this was actually an alternate reality. You return home after so much has happened to you and you can’t quite grasp why it feels like you were out of touch with “reality” for so long. It’s like you just woke up from a one of those very realistic dreams and realize that only a few hours has passed when it felt like days. In this case you need to take that feeling and multiply it by a thousand, where only a few months abroad feels like centuries. I recall coming home after four months in Italy and seeing that my family looked exactly the same, my father’s car was the same one that dropped me off in January, and the amount of traffic leaving JFK was still as chaotic as ever. I had missed my family and friends and felt so happy to see them again, but it was hard to accept that nothing and no one had changed except me. I was seeing the same things I remembered, but through a very different pair of eyes.
The first few weeks back in New York were very strange to say the least. On the one hand it was easy; I could use my native tongue of English everywhere I went, speed walking through the streets was the rule not the exception, and I no longer had to mentally convert Euros to Dollars. On the other hand though, the same things that came back quickly reminded me of what I was missing. I missed attempting (sometimes in vain) to pass myself off as an Italian-speaking local, I missed being forced to walk at a slower, more relaxed pace, and I even missed the, at first annoying but eventually useful, little Euro coins. It seems like it was the little nuances that struck me the most. Even though I didn’t even mention the bigger and far more obvious details, like missing the great friends I made or the fascinating people I met.
But the absence that I most keenly felt was that indescribable feeling of discovery, the unique rush I felt as I realized that I was experiencing Italy firsthand and that I was actually living on my own as a resident of a foreign country and city that I had so often wondered about. Couple this with the sense that even when I performed a mundane task, like walking down a city street, I was surrounded by history and culture on a truly magnificent scale, the likes of which I had never experienced before. The sights I’m used to seeing on an everyday basis are in their infancy compared to what I saw in Italy. I’ve been guilty of staring at the Empire State Building and wishing it was Giotto’s Bell Tower or sitting in Central Park and pretending I was in Piazza Del Duomo. There was a sense of antiquity there that I had only read about but was never able to experience personally.
Time, as they say, heals all and the initial awkwardness I felt at being back home was eventually replaced by old routines taking over like muscle memory. Reality began to fall back into place as I realized that I had responsibilities and priorities to deal with. As I started to resume my busy life, another realization began to sink in. I understood that there was one final, unstated, facet of reverse culture shock that could take effect if I wasn’t vigilant. It’s a truly insidious development as it doesn’t even feel like it’s happening. As I started to remember my life in New York City, I was in danger of forgetting my life in Florence. The true challenge of reverse culture shock is not remembering life back home, given enough time that’s an unavoidable result. As the ebbs and flows of everyday life consume your attention, the much more difficult challenge will present itself to those who don’t want to forget their time abroad.
I know this sounds like a negative situation but there is no doubt that this can absolutely be spun into a positive. While remembering can be difficult, the word “difficult” is certainly not synonymous with “impossible”. I have found plenty of ways to keep my time in Italy alive and well in my memory and in my everyday life. And there is a very big reward in store for those who are able to see reverse culture shock in a different light and appreciate the incredible perspective it bestows. I’ll save these for Part II though…..
Part 1 of 2 – To be continued…