Photography by Brianne Lee

Photography by Brianne Lee

Reverse Culture Shock

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The moment I got in the car with my family at the airport to go home, it felt as if my entire semester in Florence had been a dream. In my jet-lagged daze, I remember quietly asking myself if the past four months had been real or if I had just had imagined them. The ending to my semester in Europe was probably the most sudden ending to anything in my life. For almost five months, living in Europe was my life and in less than 24 hours, I was back to my “normal” life.

Before any student leaves to study abroad, there are countless thoughts swirling through their minds as they wonder what life will be like over these next few months. The mental battle waged between the fear of the unknown and the thrill of adventure penetrates the whole pre-departure process. I know that I personally a multitude of emotions before leaving, but while I was so consumed by thinking about the challenges I would face abroad, I never stopped to think about the challenges I would face when returning home. This is one aspect of a study abroad experience that I think gets overlooked by students until they actually experience it. But the thing is, there is no way to truly prepare someone for it.

I’ve heard various perspectives about reverse culture shock but one that’s been repeated time and again says that when you return from studying abroad, you will have changed dramatically as an individual but everything and everyone back home will have remained the same. I speak from experience when I say it’s a very surreal realization. You return home after so much has happened to you and you can’t quite grasp why it feels like you were out of touch with “reality” for so long. It’s like you just woke up from a one of those very realistic dreams and realize that only a few hours has passed when it felt like days. I recall coming home after four months in Italy and seeing that my town looked exactly the same, the baristas I have come to know at Starbucks were still there, and my room looked just as I had left it. I had missed my family and friends and felt overjoyed to see them again, but it was hard to accept that nothing and no one had truly changed, except me. I was seeing the same things I remembered, but through a very different pair of eyes.

The first few weeks back were very strange to say the least. On the one hand it was easy; I could use English everywhere I went, confidently order a coffee without feeling ignorant, and I no longer had to mentally convert Euros to Dollars. 

On the other hand though, the same things that came back quickly reminded me of what I was missing. Trying to pass myself off as an Italian, casually grabbing gelato after class and living life at a slower, more relaxed pace. But the absence that I felt most was the indescribable feeling of discovery, the distinct rush I felt as I realized that I was experiencing Italy firsthand and that I was actually living on my own as a resident of a foreign country. Pair this with the sense that even when I performed a mundane task, like walking down a city street, I was surrounded by history and culture on a truly magnificent scale, something I had never experienced before. 

Time, as they say, heals all and the initial awkwardness I felt being back home was eventually replaced by old routines taking over like muscle memory. Reality began to fall back into place as I realized that I had responsibilities and priorities to deal with. As I started to resume my daily life, another realization began to sink in. I understood that there was one final, unstated, side of reverse culture shock that could take effect if I wasn’t careful. It’s a subtle development that doesn’t even feel like it’s happening. As I started to remember my life in the States, I was at risk of forgetting my life in Florence. The true challenge of reverse culture shock is not remembering life back home, given enough time that’s an inevitable result. As the pattern of everyday life consumes your attention, the much more difficult challenge will present itself to those who don’t want to forget their time abroad.

I know this sounds like a negative situation, but there is no doubt that this can be spun into something positive. While remembering can be difficult, the word “difficult” is certainly not the same as “impossible”. I have found plenty of ways to keep my time in Italy alive and well in my memory and in my everyday life. And that right there is a very big reward for those who are able to see reverse culture shock in a different light and appreciate the incredible perspective it bestows.


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