A week ago, after a 10-hour flight, a 6-hour layover, and another 2-hour flight, my plane finally touched down at the Minneapolis airport. To be honest, it seems like it was ages ago.
During study abroad orientation, they talk about reverse culture shock. They say that returning to your home country could elicit a similar psychological/emotional response to arriving in your host country. I nodded along during this presentation, but I didn’t truly believe the words on the screen.
Now, however, I realize that it’s not as if reverse culture shock doesn’t exist. It’s just not what I imagined it would be.
For me, the most startling part of the transition was arriving in the Houston airport for my layover. When I forgot my jacket on the plane, I prepared an explanation in Spanish as I approached the lady manning the immigration line. Two seconds later, I nearly greeted the man at the immigrations desk with an “hola.” I felt a tinge of sadness and disappointment each time my mind caught up with my reality—I was back in the U.S. now. English was expected.
The unpleasantness continued as I ventured further into the airport. At security, I had to remove my shoes (usually not the case in South America), and for the first time in five months my suitcase was pulled aside for further inspection (turns out alfajores pose a threat to U.S. security). People also just seemed…, well, rude! As the security woman pulled my bag across the table, she commented in an obnoxiously superior manner, “Young lady, why is your bag so heavy?” My brain, frazzled from the 10-hour plane ride, barely gathered itself in time to hold back the sharp retort I had all good and ready.
As I returned home and settled back into my routine, the transition became effortless within a matter of days. This surprised me—I'd expected it to last for several weeks. Within two days, I no longer felt the urge to say “chau” to the receptionist as I walked out the door of my gym. I also quickly re-learned how to ignore the strangers around me during my workouts, as if they weren’t even there. Unlike in Argentina, I was once again cruising through my exercises with minimal human interaction.
The transition was smooth and quick in terms of what people notice on the outside, but the aspect of reverse culture shock that has most affected me has been grief and fear. Grief for what I left behind in Buenos Aires, and fear that I’ll forget it. Now, it feels like I never left home, and that’s the worst feeling in the world. I miss the challenge of speaking Spanish everyday and the thrill of knowing that my skills were always improving. My daily podcasts in Spanish are hardly a replacement. I also miss the daily traditions I developed and the friends I made because of them. I miss the heladería we had right around the corner from our apartment, and I miss waving hello to the owner every time we walked by. I miss getting my caramel latte at Café Negro every morning, and I miss scouring through the treasure trove of pastries at Gamas Panadería with my friends.
I even miss how complete strangers at the gym or in line at a store would approach me out of nowhere and ask rather personal questions as if it were nothing. Where are you from? Do you like Buenos Aires? I actually thought I would miss that the least—I’m normally the type of person who avoids socializing and small talk at all costs—but instead, I now find the customary lack of acknowledgement from my fellow Americans a bit lonely.
But most of all, I miss the friends I made in Argentina, both Argentines and fellow IES Abroad students.
Grief is a natural part of returning home. Now, I’ve only been home for a week, but I’ve adopted a few strategies that may or may not be working (It’s too early to tell).
First, stay in touch with the friends you made abroad. Since they likely live all over the U.S., if not all over the world, it’s easy to forget and go months without speaking. Remember, they’re the only ones who can really understand what you’re going through, so sending each of them a text now and again hits two birds with one stone: you maintain contact, and you have company as you re-adjust to life at home.
Another good strategy that's been working for me is to find a way to remember and reflect. I’m afraid of forgetting what it was like to live in Buenos Aires, so I’ve been journaling (and writing blog posts of course) and I plan on making a scrapbook with the millions of pictures that I took during the trip.
Finally, re-integrate into your life at home with purpose. By this, I mean take advantage of being at home by working toward something or doing something that you couldn’t do while abroad. For me, this has taken two forms. First, I’ve refocused on establishing and following a healthy routine, like eating healthy, learning to cook, and going to the gym regularly. That was hard for me to do abroad because sampling the cuisine is an integral part of how I explore new places. At home, I’ve also invested myself in my job search. I’d put that on hold in Buenos Aires because I had so many other things to focus on, but now that I’m home and have a whole summer to myself, I can pour my attention into finding a job that I'm passionate about.
In short, reverse culture shock does not mean forgetting how to live in your home country. At least, it didn’t for me. It’s more about missing what you left behind and fearing that you’ll forget. Just remember that this is all natural. There are purposeful ways to handle these emotions, if you choose to do so. If anything, at least remember that just because your study abroad experience is over does not mean you cannot return to your host country, and it does not mean that your life of exploring and learning is over. Now that you’ve studied abroad, a whole new set of opportunities has opened up to you at home. It’s just a matter of pursuing them.
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<p>I’m studying for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I hope to improve my Spanish language skills and learn more about the country’s women’s rights movement. I’m from the U.S. state of Minnesota, where I also attend college and study Spanish, Political Science, and English. I’m on a pre-law track and hope to pursue a career in immigration law.</p>