There’s a graphic that exists out there, one easily accessible by a simple google search, that shows the general culture shock and reverse culture shock stages. It’s incredibly accurate, describing the ways being in a different culture both upsets and excites you and when. For example, a new culture is always exciting and fun when you first land – but as both personal experience and the graphic show us, that initial excitement wears off once things like language barriers and loneliness show up. Similarly, reverse culture shock works along the lines of initially being happy to reunite with family and friends at home, followed by a dip in feeling isolated from them for not understanding the ways you’ve changed and the experiences you have had, with an eventual return to your regular level of stability and well-being back home. Right now, I am in the second reverse culture shock stage, feeling like my regular life just cannot compare to the brilliance of these past few weeks in France.
It’s hard to mark what exactly makes studying abroad so transformative. Why do I feel stronger and happier? At what part, exactly, did the old me shed and the new me take over? Though I suppose there isn’t exactly an “old me” and a “new me” – just me, the same girl with brown eyes and brown skin and a hijab on her head that I was before I left, only with eyes that have seen too much of the world now to not feel immense love for it and its inhabitant.
It does hit hard. Especially for those of us who live in small towns. Freedom, excitement, fun, and new experiences become a normal part of your life and to let go of that to go back home feels like the ultimate downgrade. I want to keep exploring and traveling and never stop. I’ve lost much of my fears, see, and now traveling and leaving home only excites me. I don’t know how and I don’t know exactly where. All I know is that studying abroad, in ways you cannot expect and some that are so subtle you don’t notice them, changes you in so many ways for the better. All I know is that it’s impossible to see so much of the world, meet so many cool people, travel and explore a foreign country without finding yourself growing – impossible to try things you’ve never tried before, take care of yourself as an independent adult, and open up to complete strangers and over the course of days let them become some of your favorite people in the world without feeling smarter and more confident and better rooted in yourself and your life. What are my everyday battles when I have traveled to different countries with just me and my friends, when I have taken a french course in France when I knew none of the language beforehand, and when I lived without air conditioning during France’s heat wave a few weeks ago? My old problems now all seem trivial. Travel has a way of shifting your perspective.
Here is the best perspective I can offer: life is spontaneously splendid and you never know when something good will happen. Do not forget, though, that sadness is valid, living with a mental or physical illness or disability can make adjusting to change and then having to leave that change and adjust to your regular life all over again infinitely harder than it is for those without one, and you have to let yourself feel what you feel. It’s okay if it hurts. I dare say there would be something disappointing about your experience if it wasn’t one you missed when it ended. But along with that sadness should exist joy in all the colors it can exist in, even if the only colors you can pull up immediately afterwards are the most dull, worn out ones. Be kind to yourself. Eventually, your regular life will appear colorful again.
Until then, remember these things: missing people is a privilege and a huge honor because it means you have people in your life you love enough to be able to miss them. You will always have your memories and if not your memories and photographs to remind you of your time abroad, you will always carry the transformations within you it brought about. Some of these transformations you may not even be aware of, but no matter – the important thing is that they happened and they exist in you and from the moment you return to the United States until your last moment in the world, you will carry the bits and pieces of you that come from your time in a different country and with the people you met. Logan Huntzberger from Gilmore Girls said it best after Rory agrees to bungee jump off a tall, dangerously-rickety building with him that she was originally too scared to do. When they reach the ground, she says, “Once in a lifetime experience!” He responds with, “Only if you want it to be.” The world is not going anywhere. You can return to the country you were staying in. Maybe it won’t be now. Maybe it will be in a few years. Maybe you’ll have kids in tow or a spouse or maybe you’ll bring your parents and show them the spots you visited. We have plenty of time to travel more. But if you want to be back now, there are also hundreds of study and work abroad opportunities available online. Talk to your school’s study abroad department. Do plenty of research online. Ask people who’ve travelled abroad. Check out MedLife, WorldPackers, and IVHQ. Whether you’re studying or you’re helping others, there are so many ways you can return to a place that, for a time at least, became your home.
Stay in touch with the people you met who you really found yourself in. Text and call and visit them if you’re able to. Share your pictures with your loved ones. And your stories. And your memories. Hold onto the things the class you took taught you. Write about your experiences. If you’re financially able to, get photos printed out and create a physical album. A tangible timeline of your memories can be immensely heartwarming to look at. There are more experiences you will have. There are plenty of adventures out there. Look forward to those but remember the beauty in reflecting and cherishing every moment you had on your previous adventure. It’s okay to hold onto it. I do not plan on ever letting go of the amazing time I had abroad, but I refuse to let it be a means of staying stuck in the past and hindering my growth. No; this is the beginning of a new journey that’s just getting started, one where I no longer let depression or anxiety inhibit me and the past ruin my future. From now on, I will treat my past gently and with gratitude and love for bringing me to where I am today. Above all, put love and kindness forward and the universe will naturally reward you with good things and good people. Thank you for following along with my experience, Gilman readers.