Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock in College

The summer before my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I flew 6,683 miles out of my comfort zone to do an internship in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a mountainous country bordering China and Afghanistan in Central Asia. It was a long way to go, but I figured it would be a great chance to practice my Russian and to immerse myself into a new culture by living with a local Tajik family. 

I set out to research the importance of language and its effect on migration and poverty levels, but I discovered even more pressing development challenges like domestic violence, gender violence, traffic safety, and governance, all of which my colleagues (young expatriates from all over the world) and I discussed and wrote about as part of our summer employment.

These issues aside, the country had much to offer. Hiking the mountains made me feel I was at the edge of the world, they were so phenomenal. I looked forward to my long walks to and from work, listening to the buzzing of the bazaars and walking past little Tajik boys playing cards  beside abandoned railroad tracks. Public transportation was so convenient I could travel to any part of the city for as little as 50 cents, and a bit of haggling could secure a car for the entire weekend outside the city for the equivalent of 40 dollars. One such car ride evolved into a particular adventure. Our driver turned out to be transporting drugs to another town, a failed enterprise as the road ended up being impassable that day due to landslides.

Living with a Tajik family was also unbelievably rewarding, especially the family dinners. I soon picked up their traditions, wearing  traditional Tajik dresses, sitting on the floor by a beautifully appointed low table with enough to feed a football team. I learned enough Tajik to get myself through mealtime, how to respectfully greet the men, how to give thanks for the meal in prayer. I struck up indelible friendships with the women in the house and spent most of my free time with them and their children, babysitting and cooking. Kitchen talk proved an essential source  for the neighborhood gossip. The state of the country’s economy made daily life hard for all 12 members of the family,  but especially so for the women. Their stories quickly captivated me, and I learned as much as I could about them.

It would be a gross understatement to say that this trip changed my life. Toward the end, I learned just how unfortunately mucked up some parts of the world are—making it much harder to stomach how little I did to change that.

I was so ready to go home, but I definitely needed more time. Time to process my trip, time to see a shrink, time to get over whatever it is that makes it so hard to focus on the current world I live in. I started classes just two days after landing in DC and was shocked at how much I forgot about the sheltered place we live in. Problems of American college life are so obviously “First World problems,” hard for me to process  after living in a decidedly Third World country. But even more terrifying is that it was just too easy for me to fall under the spell of petty complaints and superficial problems. I found myself annoyed because there was no peanut butter in the dining hall at 8 o’clock in the morning.

Coming back also meant feeling isolated from my friends. I desperately want to share everything and really can’t, which creates an unfortunate barrier and  a lot of loneliness. I find it  hard to wake up in the morning for that 8:10 class and finish that critical assignment, but come on, if the world is in such horrid shape, is it really worth the trouble? 

Well, it is. Here are some things I recommend when school is just too much:

 

1. Breaking up routines.

What I loved about my time abroad was that every weekend I did something new. I traveled outside the city, cooked for my 12 person family, hiked the mountains, went to a traditional wedding etc. Being back on campus and studying every weekend or having the same parties to look forward to or the same two restaurants I could possibly order from is depressing. So when my friends and I decided to get off campus, driving with the windows rolled down, blasting some 90s hits and enjoying each other’s tone deafness, it was a moment of pure bliss. Patterns are meant to be broken, especially when midterms creep up.

2. Finding someone going through the same struggle you are.

Unexpectedly, a random connection led me to meet a wonderful woman who went through a similar transition at the same exact point in her life. Aside from making me feel more or less normal even if I was far from it, she encouraged me to look for opportunities to go back abroad and find other ways of being productive.  Brainstorming about what to do next with someone who has been through her own rough patches gives so much more hope for the future.

 

3. Forgiving yourself. 

There is a lot of hidden beauty in the world,  but it is sometimes buried underneath a pile of hate and poverty. I am lucky to be one of the few who have seen both sides. Knowing that the people I care for are stuck in a pile of rot while I am safely complaining about the temperature of my shower  makes the good days turn quickly to bad ones. Guilt and anger are terrible things to keep to yourself, and I hope to use some of it to do good. My biggest regret from the trip is leaving a friend behind while knowing in what state her life is and what direction it is headed in. Being able to forgive myself for leaving her behind is something I haven’t been able to do quite yet, but it helps to focus on learning as much as I can so that I am better equipped to help some day. I’m finding it an essential part to my story. 

 

In conclusion, reverse culture shock is exactly what I will need to get me through the next three years of college and beyond.

Image credits: Sasha Wilson