Last week marked 100 days since my return to the US. The summer is gone, and I’ve begun my final year of college. It seems almost innappropriately late to be summing up my previous semester abroad, but I’ve struggled to bring myself to this point. Each time I added ideas to my draft for my last entry, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. Something about hitting the “Publish” button just made everything seem so final; like it was really the end. Certainly the experience itself has come to an end, and for that I am very, very sad. Sometimes I have Spain-related mini-breakdowns. I’ve likened this to the feelings you get after a breakup– everything little thing reminds you of them, it hurts to think about it, etc. It’s really the same way with leaving behind a wonderful home and an incredible time in your life. But the countless memories and lessons learned carry on. I want to share a little bit about those lessons and reflections.
Kcohs erutluc. Our advisors and profs told us to brace ourselves for the infamous “reverse culture shock” upon our return home. I will say that, in my experience, it is a very real phenomenon, but not in the way I was expecting. I would describe it as a more paradoxical phenomenon in which everything is amazingly familiar and “normal”, but uncomfortably foreign at the same time. You come back to your old house, your old friends, your old hang-outs, and instead of it feeling like you’ve been gone forever, it feels like everything picks right back up where it left off. The life you had abroad seems like a different life and time altogether–one that bears almost no resemblance to your “real” life you’ve returned to. It’s a frustrating feeling that is difficult to describe.
Here are a couple of more tangible, specific examples of this “reverse culture shock” that occurred on my very first day back in the US:
I remember that the day I flew into Minneapolis, my parents and I went to a Subway. This was my first time really being in “public” back home, other than at the airport. Two very strange things happened. The first was that I thought I recognized almost everyone eating in that Subway, but the chances of me actually knowing any of them were slim to none since we were still 300 miles from my home. So why did I think all of them were friends or acquaintances? For the first time in several months, I was surrounded by people who looked like myself, my American friends, and my family. In my day-to-day life I had been interacting with people who looked very different than me, so my brain must have seen these familiar-looking people and thought “Hey, look! It’s ‘so-and-so’!” Bizarre. The second strange thing that happened at that Subway was that a stranger smiled at me as she passed me on her way out the door, and I was so thrown off by it that I didn’t even smile back. I learned very quickly that in Spain, if you smile at someone, they assume you know them. This can cause for a pretty awkward convo (“Oh, sorry, I don’t know you…I was just smiling because…it’s what I do…never mind”) and therefore I learned very quickly to maintain a relatively blank expression when I met eyes with a stranger. I’m happy to say I’ve fully readjusted to the Midwest’s friendliness and I’m all smiles 🙂
Beyond the obvious hugely valuable gains in language and culture, I took away a few awesome life lessons from my time abroad. It would be a surprise to me if anyone has ever used the words “laid back” to describe me, but I think after my time in Europe I’ve definitely moved down the spectrum from away from “high-strung” and more toward “laid back.” I tend to need to plan things and don’t adjust particularly well to a deviation in plans, but there were so many situations during my travels in which things went wrong that were totally beyond my control that I was forced to adapt and chill out after awhile. Also, being in an environment where every little thing you do requires way more effort than usual (i.e. because it’s not in your native language) better equips you for many difficult situations. You can take a lot more stress and deal with it more effectively. That in itself is a pretty life-changing thing to make improvement on.
Another “life lesson” that really defined my experience abroad was learning that less IS more in regard to material things. If you were to graph the number of items I packed for each trip through the semester, you would see a steady decline. I learned that the more things you brought, the more you were responsible for, the more you had to carry, the more you had to think about, the more stressed you were, etc…I think this is a harder lesson for girls to learn than it is for guys. Guys don’t typically have to think, “Well, what shoes will I wear with this outfit? And I can’t choose between my volumizing mousse and my straightening serum….I just can’t…” But you can. And you do. You figure out how to get by with less and less, and it is the most liberating feeling ever. When I got back to the US, one of the first things I did was sell and donate over half my old wardrobe. The less I own, the less I have to store, move, and worry about in general.
The final big ticket lesson I came away with was enjoying every moment. Not to get all philosophical or sappy on you, but all you really have is this moment. You can’t guarantee anything for 5 minutes from now. Get over the hang-ups of this moment and start enjoying and appreciating all the greatness around you.
So many things gained from this experience are countless, but I’ve come up with a few examples of quantifiable things from my time abroad.
So here it is: my 5 months abroad by the numbers: