My reverse culture shock: returning from a year abroad is tough

Mənbə: The Guardian

Language barriers. Culture shock. Homesickness. These are the things you might worry about before departing to study abroad. But for me, returning home proved the hardest of all.

After the whirlwind experience of a year abroad – constantly meeting new people, having new experiences and gaining independence – coming home can feel like an anti-climax. Like many other exchange students I found myself living with my parents again after a year in Canada. It felt like I’d taken several steps backwards.

At first, I indulged in everything I had always loved about being home: days spent lounging with cups of tea and books, tranquil walks and home-cooked dinners. But once the jetlag subsided, I found myself strangely lacking energy and motivation. I felt constantly restless and slept very little.

Why was I feeling so detached? I realised that I had done two things while I was away: I had idealised home in my mind, and I’d expected everything to remain exactly the same while I was gone. When I got back and the reality fell short of these ideals, I experienced what I’d call a reverse culture shock.

The idea might seem a bit over the top, especially for exchange students who have only spent a year or less away from home. But as you immerse yourself in a new culture, you quickly adapt to a different way of life. Meanwhile, everyone at home changes. It was like waking up from a strange dream, where everything was almost the same as I remembered, yet a few details weren’t right. Some friendships had drifted apart whilst others had become closer together. On top of that, I felt as if I’d changed too.

It turns out I wasn’t alone: Georgia Zimmer, who studied in France, experienced something similar. She says she found herself asking: “How do I fit back into the life I had before when I feel so different? Why is everyone expecting me to be the same as I’ve always been, when I feel unrecognisable?”

When you arrive in an unknown place, it takes effort to acclimatise to your new surroundings. Your days are packed with new interests and trips on a tight budget and hectic schedule. So it’s hardly surprising that once it’s over, many exchange students feel at a loose end. It seems odd to me that no one at university warns you about this beforehand.

For Orla Lavery, who studied in New York, the change of pace wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I really felt an unanticipated sense of relief,” she says. “I lost the constant feeling of needing to be making the most of my time.”

But she also admits, “I definitely saw the UK in a very different light when I returned.”

The feeling of alienation can be hard to shake off. I kept wondering how long it would take to feel normal again.

For Anne Kooijman, returning from Canada to the Netherlands, it was a case of accepting that it would take time, while trying to integrate some of her new habits and hobbies into her old life.

“I am certainly friendlier and less self-oriented, but I am also more open-minded, and want to continue to experiment with doing new things outside of my comfort zone,” she says.

Getting a part-time job would eventually help ease my own sense of dissociation, as it gave me the structure I needed and the added incentive of earning money. Spending more time with family and friends helped too.

Readjusting at home has been harder than life abroad. But as I inject some of the things I loved about living abroad into my home life, while realising that there are some feelings I can’t replace, I’m starting to find a new normal.

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