Before I left for France, I did a lot of research. Like a lot. I perused too many websites that claimed to offer me esteemed advice in order to prepare me for my time abroad. I had everything figured out.
Biggest advice: throw aside all those flashy, tight, and brightly colored clothes in your closet. And while packing was a lot easier (even if it did feel like I was packing for a five month funeral for my social life), I would have saved bunches of money while in France if I had just brought my favorite items instead of trying to be someone I wasn’t.
But what’s important here isn’t that I was forced to live five months in a wardrobe I didn’t love. It’s about a key lesson I learned the hard way:
No amount of self help books, travel guides, or advice from so-called friends can actually prepare you for the real deal. And here’s why:
In May when I returned from a trip to Italy, I received some pretty eye-opening (and quite frankly, pretty rude) advice from a friend. He told me that I would “never be French.” I’ll admit that at first I was pretty stunned. Mostly by his abrupt lack of concern for my feelings, but also because my world was pretty much left crashing down.
I had studied French for seven years, took courses and read books on French art and culture, and I had just spent thousands of dollars and four months of my life living in his damn country.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe I don’t want to be French?” I screamed back.
That didn’t go over too well. But nearly three months later, I still think about it quite often. Especially since I’m back in the U.S., and major life decisions are right around the corner.
The problem with self-help articles is that they’re too wishy-washy. It takes them forever to give advice, and even when they do it’s often generalized to the point that no one truly knows what to do with it. So you’re left in the situation of trying to decipher a few words that you’ll eventually consider valuable enough to take with you.
So I’ll be blunt.
How did I transition back to life in the U.S. of A? Short answer: I didn’t. I haven’t as of today, and I probably never will.
But before you tell me to fact-check myself, you’re right. Obviously I had to transition. I don’t walk around the streets of Chicago pretending to be in Reims, asking for pain au chocolat and champagne. I certainly don’t get upset when stores are open past 8 p.m. or miss having a higher concentration of cigarette smoke in the air than oxygen. My BlablaCar account is no longer active; I’m more than happy to drive my own car. I haven’t complained once about having to live in something bigger than the shoebox some refer to as Residium. And I absolutely am not about to trade 35,000 overly supportive Mizzou fans and Truman the Tiger for a wooden beaver (sorry, Sciences Po).
My point (10 paragraphs into this post) is that France changed me, and all that “reverse culture shock” shit is, in fact, bullshit. The person I was when I left for France in January is simply not the person I am today. But I’m also not the 16 year-old version of myself who spent Saturdays wearing a suit and talking to walls for speech competitions (hey, it’s a real thing).
Believe it or not, humans are capable of change. And change–not rain, Luke Bryan–is a good thing. Just ask the 2008 version of Barack Obama, gumball machines, or someone who’s forgotten to switch positions while suntanning (throwback to myself in Greece).
If you Google “How to handle reverse culture shock,” you’ll receive answers from Forbes, Marquette University, and of course incredibly reliable and reputable sources like lifeafterstudyabroad.com
And while their advice is seemingly quite helpful, it’s also kind of just like well DUH.
- Reconnect with old friends. Obviously. But 1) how do you summarize 5 months into a conversation 2) you might share a lot of memories with them, but they don’t understand the memories you’re trying to cope with
- Make a photo album. Just in case you wanted to see your tears fall on physical photographs
- Stay connected with the friends you made there. Group messaging is great, but a 7-hour time difference? Not so much
- And the worst advice: keep traveling. ****If this were possible, would we really be Googling reverse culture shock?******
So this is where I reiterate my point: you can’t beat culture shock. I wasn’t 100% happy with America before I left for France, I wasn’t 100% happy with France when I lived there, and now that I’m back I’m still not truly satisfied with either country or culture.
I’ve woken up to realize that I want to live among people who care about their appearance, but don’t judge me if I want to wear sweatpants and a tshirt to the grocery store when I’m hungry at 1 a.m. I can’t seem to reconcile between people who are cultured enough to learn another language without being a snob about their own. I want to eat meals that have the luxury of endless time without terrible service. I want my friends to be people who care about art and literature while still being able to laugh and be loud in public without caring about what other people think (exchange friends, you covered that one).
Transition is defined most basically as “a change from one state or condition to another.” So I juggled with the idea for quite some time. To me, that word meant moving on. Moving on, of course then, meant forgetting.
Transitioned: no. Instead, I’ve learned that I have to deal with the situation. To cope, to evolve, to figure out some way to mesh all these different experiences together. The opportunity to live in another country–regardless of the degree it differs from your own–is an experience that shouldn’t be tossed aside and forgotten about.
A geographical location and a culture have a lot of influence over the person you are and the person you’ll become, along with a variety of other factors. Europe taught me a lot of lessons that the U.S. never could have, and I know it still has a lot to teach me.
I will miss the culture of France the most. In France, people are just on a different level than in the U.S. They tend to care a lot more about academics, quality of life, and the arts. There is a larger focus on personal development and time with family and friends. They really take the time to stop and appreciate the little things.
At the same time, the U.S. will forever be “home,” and I will always be proud to be an American citizen.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that your time shouldn’t be spent balling your eyes out because your study abroad experience is over. Trust me, I’ve been there. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t woken up in my room and freaked out that Reims wasn’t outside my window and that some of my greatest friends live thousands of miles away. But it didn’t help.
Here’s where I’ll insert some inspiring quotes:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” -FDR
“Don’t cry because it’s over smile because it happened”-Dr. Seuss
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on” -Robert Frost
Great quotes from three pretty amazing people. But my favorite advice?
“I think you’re just remembering the good stuff. Next time you look back, I, uh, I really think you should look again.” -500 Days of Summer
I’m not encouraging you to think negatively; rather, I’m pinpointing the very real human reaction we often attribute to the past. As moments in our life fade, we tend to blanket them. It was either “the best time of my life” or “the worst vacation ever.” We either “loved every second of high school” or “couldn’t wait to graduate.” Our ex-boyfriends and girlfriends are either “the only person I’ll ever truly love and lost” or “a total loser.” It just seems easier–especially in reference to the whole story-telling aspect I mentioned early–to generalize.
So while my study abroad experience may seem to be “breathtakingly amazing” when a Tuesday night means going to bed at 10 p.m. because I have work the next morning, it’s important that I remind myself that life without a working cell phone and real pizza wasn’t all that great either. Or when I think to myself “wow, Mizzou is the best journalism school in the world,” that I remember that it also, sadly, has maybe 50 people in total who appreciate that French language for its real beauty.
That’s the secret. Life in the past (whether it was in May or in fifth grade) was awesome. It also had really shitty moments. And guess what? I can pretty much promise you that by May 2016, the sting from “reverse culture shock” will be replaced with the sting of graduation.
No matter how hard we try, life throws us curve balls (yay for cliches!!). We can’t predict it (though some people say they can). All we can do is know there will be moments that make us laugh, cry, or both. There will people we fall in love with, people we can’t stand, etc. There will always be a “transition” to make. But if it wasn’t for transitions 1) a lot of people would write run-on sentences and that would probably be the end of advanced society 2) we wouldn’t grow.