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Reverse Culture Shock: What They Don’t Tell You

When you choose to study abroad in a foreign country, all the pamphlets tell you to prepare for culture shock. There is an initial jolt followed by a string of frustrations like pearls, expertly timed so that you are still reeling by the next incident.

Sure, I experienced a bit of that—living on my own in an apartment in France meant dealing with French landlords, opening a French bank account, having a French cell phone line, and other basic life tasks you take for granted in your home country. These things required paramount patience at times, but to a certain extent I expected it all (nothing to be said about the one time I was forced to go to three different bank agencies before they could tell me what I already knew—that my credit card chip was broken and I’d need to order a new one).

What they don’t advertise as adamantly is what happens upon your return. There’s a word or two about reverse culture shock, or reentry culture shock—and that’s it.DSC_3076

The phrase “culture shock” struck me as something that wouldn’t happen to me in high doses. I’d lived on my own in other cities before, I’d been to Europe a handful of times without my parents, I had studied the language for a number of years, and I’m from Miami, which, much like with most cosmopolitan cities, means I’ve been exposed to an international crowd my entire life (about 75% of my friends from Miami were born in different countries).

So what happened, big shot international girl?

My experience in France was one for the books. It was coming back that I wasn’t ready for. The daily foibles of France that might have qualified as “culture shock” I swallowed more easily. It wasn’t difficult to assimilate because I expected there to be heavy differences. And in anticipating these differences, I was able to brace myself, I quickly learned to laugh off any cultural faux pas.

Upon my return to Miami, I was immediately shocked by how loud everyone was. The customs officers were loud. The people in line were lost and they were loud. The heat was loud, the city was loud. This might be specific to Miami, because let’s face it, it’s 85% Hispanic. But as I went on throughout the week, I realized it was not just this city.

My phone was still in military time, my iPhone was still set in French. I felt compelled to utter “hello” and “goodbye” in every store I entered, regardless of its size or occupancy. I felt silly driving my car out of my neighborhood and down the block to the grocery store. I brought my reusable bags with me, forgetting that they don’t charge you for grocery bags in this country. I sat down in front of PrimeTime TV and ogled the commercials blaring in my face—we really know how to work the consumerism gig (and let me tell you, every commercial in France looked exactly like something I’d see in the states—but in French—from the Venus razors to the bags of Lays). I held a strawberry the size of my palm thinking to myself, this strawberry did not come from the ground—GMOs, how I didn’t miss you.

When you are briefed on reentry culture shock, the main fact stressed is to avoid long-winded retellings of your experience in another country because “no one cares.” People will ask you once what your time abroad was like, and they will expect you to say, “wonderful” or “ good” or some other all-encompassing, positive adjective. What they don’t want is for every sentence to start with, “Well, in Spain…” or “in France, they do this…” and I understand. I really do. After a while, thoughts of “well then go back to that country if it’s so great” creep into one’s head.

The purpose isn’t to bash “ ‘Murica.” If there’s anything living in France taught me, it’s how much I appreciate where I’m from. I missed efficient bureaucracy, air conditioning, and Easy Mac.  I missed bulk packaging, 24-hour food joints, and while I learned to do without ice cubes, it’s nice to see them freely available.

While students might be advised to keep the comments pithy, this sort of dialogue is crucial for anyone coming home from a long stay abroad. It took me two and a half weeks to find my routine again, to feel less like an alien and more like I actually live here. The key was to realize that these experiences aren’t to be divided by a “Here/There” Venn diagram, but by embracing the little part in the middle where both circles overlap.

I found ways to sneak in my experience to my American life without sounding like a braggart, by bringing a French wine I’d discovered to a friend’s house, making teacup chocolate soufflés I learned from a cooking class, or scoffing at the grocery store over the outrageous prices of brie.

Talk to your family about your experience for as long as you’d like. They’re usually the only ones dying to know, or at least the only ones obligated to listen.

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