The Post-Study Abroad Blues

Well, I’ve been back for two weeks now. How did that happen? I knew it would go by fast, but man I swear all I did was blink. I flew out of Schipol on June 26th, nearly 24 hours of traveling later I was back in Utah. 15 days later here I am. BOY do I miss it, I missed it the instant I left.

Warning: This is not the typical upbeat travel post. This is what comes after the adventure is over, and the emotions that follow. There’s nothing quite like putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard in this case, to help make sense of the cluster of thoughts and emotions experienced after returning from a life changing experience.

I was warned that adjusting back into life at home would be a challenge, and I knew it would be. The term reverse culture shock was thrown around a lot during the weeks leading up to all of us leaving.

Reverse culture shock, or re-entry, is simply a common reaction to returning home from studying abroad. It is an emotional and psychological stage of re-adjustment, similar to your initial adjustment to living abroad. Symptoms can range from feeling like no one understands you or how you’ve changed to feeling panicked that you will lose part of your identity if you don’t have an outlet to pursue new interests that were sparked abroad. Your reactions to re-entry may vary, but common signs are:

  • Restlessness
  • Rootlessness
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Uncertainty
  • Confusion
  • Isolation
  • Wanting to be alone
  • “Reverse homesickness”

(thank you marquette.edu)

I am going to add a few more symptoms courtesy of studentsabroad.com and expatica.com

  • Irritability and hostility
  • You can’t explain
  • Relationships have changed
  • People misunderstand you
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
  • Loss/compartmentalization of experience

Without any hesitation I will say I can attest to reverse culture shock. I haven’t experienced all of these symptoms, but I can relate to good majority of them. I am not naïve enough to think this is anything but normal. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be 2,740,000 hits on google for the term. For those curious about what it feels like from someone experiencing it right now, know this… There’s an overwhelming feeling of being out of place. Because yes, you feel like people just don’t get it. They don’t get your new perspectives, what you experienced, what it is like for you to return home. You roll your eyes at your own culture because those norms don’t seem so normal anymore. There’s a battle between feeling restless for adventure and just wanting to be alone. You miss the place you grew a love for and the people who shared it with you. You’re irritable, at everything and everyone and you can’t rationalize it. And there’s the looming question, where do I go from here? Once you get bit by the travel bug there’s no going back. You hunger for the next big thing, but know it’s a long time coming. So, where do you go?

I was told that everything would be the same and yet everything would be different when I got back. I was warned that I would get slapped with real life. The ways in which I’ve “changed” will stand out in the ways that everything else has stayed the same. And the things that have changed while I was gone will be the things I least wanted to.

I came back to: unemployment. The house I’ve been living in for the past 8 years having been sold. My sister moved to another state. A near empty bank account. Revoked car registration. Bald tires on that car. Bills. Difficult family dynamics. The question – how am I going to pay for my last two semesters of school, pay my bills, and eat all at the same time? Real life. I had managed to avoid it for five months.

First world problems right? Disclaimer: I realize there are much, much bigger problems people are facing at this very moment. As my mom graciously reminded me when I called her during one of my many meltdowns, these are minor and will work themselves out. However, I am a human being and succumb to the stresses trivial challenges from time to time.

What I’m doing about it: I got hired on at a new job (a great job at that). I’m moving in September. I proved to the DMV that there was no need for my car to have liability insurance while I was out of the country. I bought new tires. I applied for students loans.

Not everything can get settled at once, but I’ve made some positive progress in diminishing my to-do list. I know I will adjust, and this will be normal life once again. But for now, I’m going to let the stages of “reverse culture shock” run their course.

That being said, my heart is constantly filled with gratitude for the AMAZING experience I had. As cliché as it is, there’s a quote that holds a lot of meaning to me in this time, and I know many of my friends from Groningen. “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I am incredibly blessed to have spent five months in a very special city. I saw the places I always dreamed of. I have grown, and truly lived. I refuse to let myself lose sight of that for a second.

To lighten things up a bit, here are some of the little things I thought were strange/I had forgotten were normal when I got back:

  • Sitting in the passenger seat of a car.
  • DRIVING a car, and man mine is so low to the ground!
  • An LDS missionary being welcomed back at the same time as me in the airport, Toto I am back in Utah now.
  • How big and comfortable my bed is.
  • How many clothes I have, do I really need that many?
  • Having an entire bathroom to myself. No need for shower shoes. No need to line the toilet seat with toilet paper.
  • My bedroom being on ground level.
  • An oven.
  • Good customer service, polite employees who ask you if you’re finding everything all right.
  • Being able to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. And American accents, EVERYWHERE.
  • GIANT stores. I.e. Wal-Mart, Smith’s, Target. I can get everything I need in one place! And as an added bonus, I can read the labels so I actually know what I’m buying.
  • Soooooo many cereal options.
  • People moving out of your way, not body checking you while you’re walking through the store, and even apologizing if they do get in your way. (I swear the Dutch purposefully get in your way)
  • Minimal alcohol choices at the grocery store.
  • USD’s feel funny $ < €.
  • Nobody walking. Anywhere.
  • If there happens to be one bicycle on the street (a true rarity) cars veer clear into the next lane to give the cyclist space.
  • Helmets.
  • H&M is much cheaper in Europe.
  • Constant refills on my giant glass of water when I eat out.
  • I have to tip??
  • Everyone is SO TAN.
  • Perfectly styled hair, along with perfectly done (dare I say overdone) makeup.
  • Trucks, SUV’s, and minivans.
  • Hills and mountains.
  • Having to watch the potty mouth I accrued while abroad.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do- well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

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