At the study abroad meeting waaaay back in November, before I left for France, I was given a timeline of culture adaptation stages and told that my emotions would roughly mirror this:
I agreed with everything except that I would get reverse culture shock. At the time, I was dreading leaving so much that I considered the next 5 months to just be some sort of cruel self-inflicted torture designed to force me into maturity (or something somewhat resembling it). Once I settled into my life in Grenoble, though, I realized that leaving was probably not going to be as easy as I had originally thought. In fact, I was absolutely dreading it. I mean, who would want to eat dinner at any other table, with any other decoration?
And so when the opportunity arose to take the roadtrip of a lifetime – commencing three hours after I landed in America – I took it, and said to myself: “If there is anything at all you have learned over these months, Sarah, it is this: Pourquoi pas?”
So when three of my best friends showed up on my doorstep the night I came home from France, I left with them. Bags still packed, circadian rhythm out of whack, hair dreadfully unwashed. It was impulsive and possibly foolish and to be honest, we didn’t really know if it would work out until the day before – but we went. And by doing so, I discovered the cure to reverse culture shock.
Nineteen hours in a car can teach you a lot. It can teach you what your friends look like when they are at the end of their rope, when they fall asleep in the middle of a sentence after driving four hours straight through the middle of the inky black Indiana-highway night. It can teach you what sleeping positions you can actually live with when unable to lie down. It can teach you that drinking soda can probably make you bloated, and thus either very uncomfortable or very embarrassed.
Nineteen hours in a car can also show you a lot. Everything you pass is somewhat slightly different. Scrub-table diners in the middle of scrub-field towns. Enormous water parks, across the street from one another. Ridiculous grammatically incorrect sign after ridiculous grammatically incorrect sign. Unfamiliar faces from unknown walks of life.
To avoid – yes, avoid, not get stuck in and subsequently have to conquer – the phenomenon known as reverse culture shock, you must throw yourself into your home culture. Stop preaching about Belgian beer, and start laughing as you choke down Milwaukee’s Best Light. Stop throwing around your French catchphrases, and learn the new slang that you missed when you were gone. Flop down on a manicured lawn and suck in the scent of the well-tended earth.
Shake hands with America. Memorize every road sign, giggle about the ridiculous town names you pass. Roll your eyes once – but just once, no more than once – about the ridiculously wasteful size and probable gas mileage of the innumerable Chevy SUVs that cut you off on I-80. Stare, stunned, at the Chicago skyline at dawn, orange sunlight cascading through the car windows. Marvel at the fact that you can now see the stars , and go for a run without having to cough up smog for the next two days. Let yourself be amazed – not disgusted – by the sheer number of Wheat Thins flavors, brands of orange juice, and types of cereal.
To avoid reverse culture shock, you must not let yourself be shocked. Explore the parts of this indescribably enormous country that you do not think of when you think of the word “home” – the parts that are so utterly different from the culture you left, and your hometown, that you find yourself not disoriented and melancholy, but instead exhausted with taking it all in.
And then – return home.
The things you have learned from living abroad don’t go away. The sense of wonder, independence, and adaptability are engrained within you, it doesn’t go away. Yes, you have lost your boulangeries. You have lost your ability to buy and drink €1 bottles of wine in a park. You have lost the thrill of constantly speaking, learning, and loving a second language. You have lost the people you have called your family and best friends for the past four months; they are flung out around the world now, and the chances of seeing them all in the same place again are slim to none. But you have not lost yourself. So push the still-sharp, bittersweet nostalgia to the back of your head. It doesn’t matter anymore – what matters is the sense of adventure that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
Embrace this next adventure of home.