This past summer, I found myself walking alone along a quiet residential road in Hokkaido, Japan. I was following faded street signs toward a vague idea of my destination, my Google Maps long-forgotton, and I was growing more confident as I heard the distant sound of waves and seagulls drawing near. The small, brightly painted homes petered out, and I finally set my eyes on the ocean as the road sharply turned up the steep slope of a cliff, narrowly carved out between a large cemetery that sprawled across the incline as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of gravestones dotted the cliffside, and I could see people quietly picking their way among them as they visited the resting places of their ancestors. I smelled incense in the air as I started the long trek up the slope, only stopping where the cliff’s highest point jutted out into the ocean. I stayed there for as long as I dared, trying to ingrain the sensation of the wind on my skin, the humid sea air hanging heavy on my clothes and the feeling of awe that swelled under my ribcage as I gazed out across Cape Tachimachi.
I can’t fully describe the feeling I had when I set out on my own that day. My footsteps felt insignificant against the cracked pavement that led me to the cliff’s edge, like a ship passing silently in the night, as I came and left with no evidence of my ever being there, except for a couple of photos and memories. I was utterly alone, thousands of miles away from home or friends, yet I don’t think I’ve ever breathed easier in my entire life.
It was the only day I traveled by myself during my two-month study abroad program in Japan, this past summer. I wasn’t ready to return to Chiba after a long weekend of traveling, and when my friends were reluctant to make any detours, the day before we were expected back in class, I did what I thought I’d never have the guts to do: I set out alone. I woke up at dawn that morning, tip-toeing around my sleeping friends, as I left the small Airbnb we were renting in Sapporo. I hopped on an early train and travelled to Cape Tachimachi on the southern edge of Hokkaido, before making the rest of the eight-hour journey back to my host family and an impending week of school work. I returned late that Sunday night with a mixed feeling of accomplishment and bone-deep desire to do more. I was surprised by my courage to leave the safety net of my friends and proud of the new-found confidence and energy that led me to some of the most amazing places throughout my time in Japan. I felt like a different person while I was there, a version of me that was self-assured, brimming with a sense of wanderlust and ambition that I didn’t know I possessed. In many ways, studying abroad was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Two months passed by in the blink of an eye, however, and before I knew it, I was giving my host family tearful goodbye hugs at Narita International Airport. I was on the verge of tears throughout the 13-hour flight back home, a feeling of loss settled deep in the pit of my stomach. Of course I was happy to be reunited with my family, but I couldn’t fight off the exhaustion and sense of disappointment that had made itself at home inside my chest. It was easy to blame the jet lag for the first week, but as the days dragged on, I realised that I wasn’t bouncing back to normalcy. We were warned about “reverse culture shock” during predeparture meetings and in study abroad pamphlets, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for my epic crash back into everyday life.
Even though I only spent one summer studying abroad, that awesome person I saw myself becoming during my time there seemed to disappear when my plane touched back down in the United States. Oh, how I miss her.
It took a lot of work to pick myself back up, these past few weeks, and as dramatic as it sounds, I often found myself thinking that studying abroad was kind of the worst thing that could have happened to my mental health. Acknowledging that I’ve got a bad case of post-study abroad blues was a step in the right direction though, and some self-awareness can come a long way in dealing with the depression that I faced when starting the new semester. Thousands of students return from abroad feeling the same way, and, short of selling all my earthly possessions on eBay to be able to fly back to Japan, I want to share a few tips and reminders I’ve been trying to follow to keep myself out of this particularly fun downward spiral:
1. It’s okay to feel or think differently when you return from abroad. Embrace it!
2. Find friends or peers who went abroad with you, or who travelled in previous years. Talking about shared experiences is a great way to feel less isolated and stay connected.
3. Try to find activities to do in your area and keep yourself busy, no matter how small or mundane it may seem at the time. I personally go grocery shopping and hiking with friends around campus, and I picked up two fun internships.
4. Reach out to friends or host families abroad; they most likely miss you just as much as you miss them.
5. Make a scrapbook or photo album of everything you collected during your travels. Reminiscing is bittersweet, mostly in a good way.
6. If all else fails, watch cute pet videos online (that always cheers me up) and start planning your next trip abroad. Use this feeling as the fuel you need to make your traveling dreams happen in the future.
Being back home can still feel disappointing on some days, but for now, I think it’s okay to conquer my next class assignment or grocery trip before going out to conquer the world again.