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Reverse Culture Shock: Coping with Coming Home

by Hannah Hubbard


For many students fortunate enough to experience the life-changing journey of study abroad, it is the language barriers, culture shock, travel mishaps, convenience, and especially homesickness that are some of the hardest challenges to overcome during their time overseas. But for a few others, including myself, it wasn’t what happened across the pond that was the most emotionally draining. Instead, it was returning home to the United States and trying to dive back into life as it once was. And still to this day, it continues to be the hardest challenge of them all.

Living in Barcelona felt like an everlasting dream. But, as the semester quickly came to a close, that dream rapidly turned back into reality; a reality for which I wasn’t ready for. While we were abroad, we wrote our own stories — bit by bit. Each day was a new page added to that beautiful book of our life-changing adventures. Days were filled with meeting new people, trying new foods, taking part in cultural activities, spending time outside, and absorbing all of the wonderful opportunities that life had to offer us. Our experiences abroad changed us for the better, and as Mary Anne Radmacher once said, “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

Everything I had known for the past five months — particularly the fascinating Spanish lifestyle, language differences, daily habits, means of transportation, and weekend travels across Europe — all changed within the matter of minutes after stepping off the plane in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For me, returning home felt like a big letdown. I felt sad and depressed my very first week back, and I cried myself to sleep practically every night for at least a month. My heart and mind constantly yearned to be back in my other home of Barcelona. At first, I thought it was related to jet lag: the lack of energy, restless nights, and a feeling of emptiness that burrowed deep down into my stomach. But as days and weeks passed, the tears still flowed, and I still felt that unbearable loneliness, sadness, and heartache for Barcelona. The people I had grown to love and spent every waking second with were now scattered throughout the U.S., and around the world, for that matter. I found I often asked myself, how will I do life without them?

I found myself comparing everything back to Spain, from the taste of coffee to grocery store prices, even the way people looked and acted. I was disinterested in the culture in United States and solely talked about how I wanted to go back to Spain. Why was I having such a hard time transitioning back into the U.S. lifestyle? I felt disconnected with some of the people that I would’ve considered my closest friends before leaving. Why was that so?

I would be lying if I said I don’t think about Barcelona on a daily basis, because I most definitely do. I would also be lying if I didn’t say that there are nights where I sit in bed reminiscing over photos, videos, and memories while tears stream down my face in longing for my friends and experiences abroad.

It took some time for me to realize and even comprehend that my life and who I was had changed drastically over the course of five months. While my life was spinning 100 mph everyday, constantly being fulfilled with thrilling adventures, everyone back home continued to live the routine lifestyle as they always had.

It turns out that I was experiencing reverse culture shock, and the lifestyle that once seemed “normal” to me now seemed unfamiliar and foreign. At that point, time was the only thing that would be able to heal.

The transition from life abroad back into life as I previously knew it was an endless emotional rollercoaster. Re-entry is a long, difficult, and ongoing process that I continue to battle daily, and most likely will for a long time. Throughout this transition, I have learned that acceptance comforts me. I am coming to terms with the fact that my study abroad experiences and my life back home in Minnesota are two completely separate circumstances, both having shaped me into the individual I am today.

Though I wish my semester abroad could have lasted forever, unfortunately it couldn’t. There were many days overseas where I found myself engulfed in a study abroad dream, and often forgot that my experiences weren’t infinite. While cliché, it is true: all good things must eventually come to an end. With time, I’ve come to believe that’s the special thing about our study abroad experiences — they are temporary. As I look back and reflect, knowing that it didn’t last forever helped to push me out of my comfort zone. It allowed me to try things I normally wouldn’t try because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, permitting me to seize opportunities that I may never have the chance to encounter again.

Studying abroad gives someone the courage and passion to live life to the fullest, to be adventurous, take risks, and explore this glorious Earth every spare second we get. Nothing compares to my experiences abroad, so why compare it? The things I saw, the places I went, and most importantly, the people I experienced it with are forever a part of who I am, and most certainly hold a very special place in my heart.

Barcelona was an experience of a lifetime, one that has forever changed who I am and has ignited a fire within my soul. It was an exhilarating experience that has forever changed my life; one that I will continue to carry with me daily, for it is an experience that i’m incredibly blessed to have had.

This post was contributed by Hannah Hubbard, an AIFS Alumni Ambassador who spent a semester studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain.

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