When You Don't Belong Anywhere — Experiencing Reverse Culture Shock as an International Student

I’m welcomed to our apartment by the smell of burning hot croissants coming from the kitchen. As I take a look around, I notice that new photos have been hung up. I take a deep breath and start eating mindlessly — jet lag makes you really hungry. 

I missed my mom. I missed Paris. I want to say more, but for some reason, making long sentences is hard. I hear myself making grammar mistakes out loud. 

Things feel a bit foreign. And trust me, I know the feeling. I’ve been studying abroad in the United States for a semester now.  

Today is my first day home. The journey back has felt almost spiritual, and I can’t quite put words on the odd realization that I’m now stepping on French soil.

My brothers are on vacation in another part of the country, so I’ll soon be taking the train to join them. And when I hop off it, hugging them in the cold winter night feels absolutely magical. We leave the train station and I’m in a dream.

But dreams get old when you find yourself unable to wake up. A week goes by, and I start getting inexplicably frustrated. I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel like I’m an audience watching a movie after missing its beginning. I don’t feel like I’m a part of my family anymore. It’s almost like I’m a shiny Christmas decoration on a tree — I’ll be gone in a matter of days.

At the dinner table, my family asks me what I learned, and I can’t quite explain. It’s nothing like the French education system, so no comparison makes sense to them. Suddenly, it looks like nothing I’ve worked so hard for in America will be recognized here anytime soon. 

They make fun of my need for constant snacks rather than the usual French three-course meal — to them, it’s a sign I’ve picked up on American habits and turned away from my roots.

Maybe I did. But how is it fair of them to expect me to be the same person who I was when I left?  

I get terribly sick — I spend December 25th in bed, coughing so hard I wake everyone up at night. But spending time alone in my room isn’t so bad. When I’m hiding behind that door, I get to be whoever I want to be. No American or French person is judging me and my cultural fluency.

With closed doors come angry parents and friends, who have been waiting for my return. The truth is, I loved this short honeymoon phase, but I don’t know how many more social events I can handle. I really just want a break from the efforts it takes to adapt back to French norms. And I blame myself for not having the strength to do better. Isn’t going home what I’ve been longing for all this time?

When I come back for the summer, the feeling of not belonging follows me. I solve this the only way I know how to solve every life problem I’ve ever had — I Google it. Articles come up. They mention something called reverse culture shock. And they speak of the situations I’ve been so confused by.

An article from Expatica says, “Returning brings a blanket of fog on perception; it’s like an audience member walking around in a setting that’s familiar but still unreal.”

Reverse culture shock is the emotional distress and frustration you can experience when returning home after living abroad. After putting so much work into adjusting to your host country, it’s hard to go back to the culture and values of your home country. You see things with different eyes. What was once familiar has become unfamiliar. Reverse culture shock causes mood swings, unrest, anger, depression, and alienation. Sometimes, I feel seasick just lying in bed at home. 

After experiencing the “honeymoon stage” and enjoying every second with your family and friends where you grew up, the euphoria wears off and you quickly start feeling alienated and out of place in your own culture.

When you come home after studying abroad, you have a very idealized view of home and expect nothing to have changed while you have been away. You expect to be able to pick up exactly where you left off, but people have changed. Your friends and family have their own lives, and things have happened since you've been gone. Listening to my brothers talk about their new routines after they started middle and high school was startling. I realized I had missed out on these new beginnings for them, and now my family was in a completely different place than when I had left.

Studying abroad is a blessing. I get to be independent and learn so much about the world. But sometimes, it breaks my heart to realize I don’t quite belong anywhere. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I get the best of both worlds. I feel like I get half of each world, and I’m left wanting more.  

Maybe, just maybe, I’m not truly a foreigner everywhere I go. Maybe I’m a bridge over the whole Atlantic ocean — a bridge between culture and love languages. And maybe, just maybe, my unique perception won’t be lost somewhere in the middle of that ocean on a plane.

I used to pray I would find someone who made the whole world go round again. After studying abroad, I know that person is me. No matter how high I am in the sky, I don’t have any reason to be scared. I’ve got my own back. I can hold onto my own hands when turbulences arise, whether in the air or on the ground. 

To all the international freshmen awaiting winter break, please prepare yourselves. It’s going to be a wild ride. But you are not an imposter. You are so brave and strong for choosing to leave your home for the unknown. You have earned the right to live your truth unapologetically anywhere in the world.

 

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