Leaving life abroad isn’t easy when homebound students are hit with a wave of reverse culture shock.
You can find them in Tanzania and Turkey, the Czech Republic and China. They hail from the United States in almost every continent worldwide. From late 2006 to early 2007, there were approximately 250,000 of them deployed around the globe.
But they aren’t diplomats or military personnel or employees of multinational corporations or international institutions. They are students studying abroad.
Many students go overseas in search of culturally enriching experiences, but there is little discussion on what life is like after they return.
I studied abroad in Rome during the Fall 2006 and Fall 2007 semesters. I thought the culture shock – what Princeton University’s WordNet describes as “a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or set of attitudes” – from my abrupt foreign immersion would be intense.
What I endured, though, was an even more oddly vexing phenomenon: reverse culture shock.
While things in Rome were different than what I was accustomed to, the sight of water closet signs where the words “Restrooms” should’ve been written was hardly emotionally jarring.
After spending four months in a city where everyone is thin, fit and so well-dressed even a trip to the grocery store necessitates a pair of well-fitting jeans, trendy T-shirt and aviator sunglasses, watching the burly, unkempt masses squeeze in some last minute shopping in a Philadelphia mall was far more disturbing.
It wasn’t the lack of salad dressing choices or eating a daily breakfast of a cappuccino and flaky “cornetti” pastries in Rome and the ten other European countries I traveled to that garnered that powerfully uncomfortable moment of “disorientation” – it was returning home.
Middlebury College has dedicated an entire page to coping with “re-entry,” or “the often unexpected and sometimes difficult experience of re-adjusting to life in one’s home culture after living abroad … [and a] degree of stress upon returning home.”
Some people, however, never quite get used to being home.
Call it wanderlust or the travel bug, but the thrill and uncertainty of complete cultural immersion gives travelers an immense desire to leave the U.S. again, to find a new country, a new experience. Maybe it boils down to the humbling realization that we are truly part of the world community, but returning travelers begin making decisions for their future on the basis of travel, whether they will have the chance to go overseas once again or not.
Proof of this notion is not hard to find. Just look at my Skype contacts; I could press a single button and be connected to my friend Kate in Yantai, China, Giuliana and Cortney in Seoul, South Korea, Adam in Milan, and Katie in Barcelona – all alumni of Temple Rome or the American University of Rome, none of whom are quite ready to settle back down in the U.S.
My good friend Jackie Black, a Temple Rome alumna and recent graduate of Kutztown University, is leaving for Cambridge, England later this month “indefinitely.”
“Rome definitely changed my view of what I want to do with my life,” she said. “Exploring Europe made me realize my passion for travel, and I will hopefully make the passion into a career.”
So take heed, potential study abroad students: Four short months in another country will have serious implications on the rest of your life. I often find myself referring to a poignant quote by St. Augustine of Hippo to adequately convey this notion.
“The world is a book,” he said, “and those who do not travel read only one page.”
Chase Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.