The Beginnings of Reverse Culture Shock

The days leading up to my departure from Norway I felt a bittersweet combination of contentment and regret. I thought a lot about what all I had done in the semester. I had managed to travel to Norway, Italy, France, Sweden, Britain, Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Sweden. I had learned a lot about culture and countless new ideas. I had made life-long friends at the American College of Norway. Yet there was a small voice in the back of my head that said, “You did a lot, but you could have done more.” When I first arrived in Norway, I was shy and completely out of my comfort zone. I held back. I was anti-social. I can’t help but think how much different things would have been if I had started out my semester with the confidence that I ended it in. How many more friends could I have made? How many more chances would I have taken on the trips that I went on?

Thank God I spilled coffee on my laptop a couple months in. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise! Had I not wrecked my laptop, I never would have been forced out of my comfortable apartment. I wouldn’t have had to do all my work at the school where I ended up visiting with lots of people that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the courage to introduce myself to. Spilling coffee on my computer turned out to jumpstart my social life at ACN!

More. This word has been a recurring theme in my thoughts lately.  If there’s one thing that studying abroad has disappointed me in it is satisfaction. I had hoped that finally getting to travel and see new places would help to defray my desire to constantly be changing places. I’ve always had trouble sitting still. Whether it be with a job, a major, or an opinion. I never seem to quite have a solid grasp on anything. I thought that seeing more of the world would help me to solidify my identity and my restlessness. It hasn’t. I find myself wanting to travel more and less certain about all of my beliefs. I feel like I just dived into the pool of human identity. Before I only had one foot in. And now I’m drowning. There’s nothing to grab onto and call my own. There are so many ideas, so many places, so many people out there! Where do I fit in?  I have a better idea of who I am in other’s eyes, but am even more lost as to how I see myself. There is such a discrepancy between how the rest of the world views America and Americans and what the reality of it is.

When I said my goodbyes to my friends at the American College of Norway, I only cried once.  It was an unsettling feeling to think that I might never see them again.  But as one friend told me, “You will see them again so long as you set your mind on it.”  So what was more disheartening is the fact that I knew we would never all be in the same place again.  We would never all be in Moss, Norway, again.  And even if we were to have some sort of reunion, we will never all have the same mindsets that we have now.  I felt like I was in high school again.  All of my friends going off to different universities, to different states, all set on changing in different ways.  So in a way, I wasn’t saying goodbye to the person.  I was saying goodbye to the person as they are in that moment.

Ever since I left my hometown of Dickinson, North Dakota, I have realized that goodbyes are more complex than what I thought they were.  I realized that the sad part of goodbyes is not the act of not seeing a person for a period of time.  It’s the fact that you both are going to change in profound ways during that period and when you meet again, there is the tiny probability that the dynamics of your relationship will have shifted dramatically.

Coming back has been hard not only because I see huge changes in the people around me, but also because I sense huge changes in myself.  So my subconscious has an identity dilemma.  Do I let these changes override my old self or do I let my old self take control?  I was reading about reverse culture shock and I guess it is common for people to compartmentalize their study abroad experience and only revisit it when they are feeling nostalgic.  When the experience is such a break from the normal routine of life, it is hard to integrate it upon return.  Already the past semester holds a dream-like quality in my memory.  I feel as though I am looking back on someone else’s life or looking far back in the past.

I remember when I was little and I moved to a different house I was so worried that I would forget my old house that I became obsessed with trying to remember it.  For weeks after I moved, I would mentally go through every room and think of every table, every picture hanging on the wall, and every pillow.  I would mentally go back to my old house and arrange everything just how it had been before it was all packed in boxes.  I had to or else I couldn’t fall asleep in my new foreign home.  But eventually, I stopped this tradition and forgot about the placement of all the pictures and figurines on the side tables.  I moved on.

I suppose that same fear that was in me as a little kid still lives on.  I don’t want to forget about my study abroad experience so the only way I can think to do that is to continually try to remind myself about what Moss looked like.  What my apartment looked like.  What the weather was like.  What the grocery store looked like.  But lets face it.  These are just things.  What I’m really trying to recreate is the atmosphere.  And I can’t do that.  We forget because our memories can’t recreate perfect replicas of what we want to remember.  And then we stop revisiting the imperfect replicas altogether.

For anyone who is still reading my rambling it must be quite obvious that I am in the mopey “I feel like I just arrived there, how can it possibly be over?” stage of culture shock.  I apologize for going on and on and on!  I’m afraid I don’t even have any pictures for you this time!

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2 comments on “The Beginnings of Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Wow – your post is spot on! So many of us struggle with how to move on from our time abroad because it was such a significant part of our lives. I first felt reverse culture shock back in 2005 when I was returning from my own study abroad experience in Italy. And, just last year I went through it again after returning from Costa Rica.

    I think you’re absolutely right that you can never replicate the situation that you had. Even if you and your friends meet again, you will all be different people and in different stages of your life. But, I guess the good thing is that you never know what exciting adventures are still in front of you.

    I launched a digital magazine called Native Foreigner for travelers going through this difficult transition period. Feel free to check out the website (www.nativeforeignermag.com) and even send in your own contribution. It’s hard for those at home to understand the difficulty in returning home…I hope this helps in some small way!

    Best of luck,

    Lindsay Hartfiel

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