Life After Study Abroad: Lessons in Shania Twain

As my boyfriend and I laid on my couch, watching our local news channel cover a story entitled “Largest Coin Show in South Dakota,” I was left reeling from the whiplash my last few days had been. One week prior, I had been trekking across Southeast Asia. Just a few days earlier, I had been drinking scorpion whiskey in Laos, riding motorbikes through the chaotic streets of Saigon, and temple hopping in Thailand. The speed at which my daily activities had slowed down to, left me dazed.

During the first several months of 2018, I had been living and studying in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And when I wasn’t busy studying, hanging out with my new friends, or exploring the city, I was traveling throughout Vietnam and its neighboring countries. But, like all good things, my time in Asia came to end. Soon, I found myself stepping off a plane in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and making the drive back to my hometown in South Dakota.

Besides my suitcases, sunburn, and stories, I found that I was bringing something else back with me that I hadn’t prepared for. There was a lingering heaviness in my chest that I couldn’t quite place.

Before I ever left for Vietnam, the program I was studying with had made sure to warn the students about culture shock. This is the phenomenon that can occur when a person is suddenly exposed to an environment that may seem strange or out of the norm they are used to. It can leave someone feeling stressed, out-of-place, or confused and overwhelmed.

“Vietnam is going to be different,” my program advisors said. “You may find yourself longing for comforts from home.”

And at the end of the day, culture shock did manage to knock me flat on my back. But not in the way I had been expecting.

 

Instead, my transition into life in Asia was smooth and painless, eased along by my hunger for new adventures and wide-eyed excitement over everything I encountered. I loved Vietnam. The people, food, culture, noise, motorbikes, music, smells, architecture, temples, beaches, mountains, fashion, everything… It all pulled me in the moment I stepped out of the airport and into the stiflingly humid air.

Of course, there were things that I didn’t love. I’ve never sweat more in my life than during the days I spent climbing mountains. And it was difficult to feel like I was making strides in the language, only to find myself unable to understand what someone was saying. But my good days far, far outnumbered the bad.

What I found ultimately kicked me down and left me breathless, was my return.

The culture shock upon coming home to the states was more than I was prepared for. Don’t get me wrong, I missed my family and my friends back home more than one can imagine. However, I would rather have transported them all to Vietnam with me, so that they could experience the country that I had fallen in love with.

In the months leading up to our departure for Vietnam, my fellow students and I were filled with energy and an excited apprehension. Nights were spent dreaming about what our lives would be like, and days were filled with researching what we could expect in just a few short weeks. It was a buildup, and a gradual easing into what our reality would be transitioning to.

And, of course, that reality was beyond incredible. We were able to fully submerge ourselves into a culture and dynamic that was so unlike anything we could have experienced in Chicago. I distinctly remember walking along a roadway with bikes whizzing by and road-side vendors tearing down for the night, and reminiscing on how much more immersive this study abroad experience was. This is not to knock a study abroad experience in a more Western country. But where Europe falls short, in my opinion, as a study abroad destination, is in how comfortable and accessible it is for Americans.

The morning that I flew out of the states, headed toward Asia, I remember setting my Spotify playlist on a random shuffle. It was then that I heard Shania Twain’s song, “Life’s About to Get Good.”

The lyrics of the song are all about how life will bring joy and pain alike, and it is up to us to walk away from what has hurt us and embrace the adventures that are to come. Such a song could not have hit me harder than it did in that moment, as I was about to cross an ocean and start the biggest journey of my life. It reminded me to reflect on where I was, in every moment. To simply breath through what I was living, and to know that incredible things were on the horizon.

 

In the few short months that I lived there, Saigon became a city unlike any other I had lived in. There was a rawness to it that I found myself gravitating toward. Every day, in every class, we tied readings and discussions to what we had seen walking along the streets that week. What was assigned in our readings were things that we could tangibly observe. Assignments typically involved a level of throwing ourselves into the research by going out and watching, recording data, and asking people questions.

Through losing myself in the charm and energy of Saigon, I found so much more.

But what really helped forever tie my heart to Vietnam was the program’s partner students. They were Vietnamese university students who could speak English and were there to be our friends. We played soccer with them, ate meals with them, went shopping and sightseeing with them, and learned how to navigate the dynamics of a friendship that surpasses cultures and norms.

I was blessed enough to go to the homes of several of my friends, and see what life was like for a person my age who grew up on the other side of the world. We laughed over my improving Vietnamese skills and spent hours asking each other questions. Together, we traded music recommendations, climbed mountains, swam in the ocean, and, in one of my most treasured memories, sang songs around a campfire.

It is important for me, however, to acknowledge the fact that I experienced everything I did because of and along with my privilege as a white woman from America. I had the money and time to go travel Asia, and I understand that what I lived through was only aided, never hindered, by who I was and what I look like. And yet, I strove to look past the tourist traps and to move beyond stereotypes people had warned me about. My entire trip was a lesson in balance. I never wanted to sugarcoat or romanticize life in Vietnam. Yet I consistently found myself in awe over the sheer beauty, kindness, and love that I found around in my surroundings.

All of this being said, coming home was not something I was prepared for. It felt as though I was running a hundred miles an hour in one direction, before slamming straight into a brick wall.

In the weeks leading up to my departure from Asia, I found myself in a very strong state of denial. Instead of building up excitement for what was to come, I actively tried to block out how little time I had left in Vietnam. Rather than mentally preparing myself for a huge transition, I pushed it away and out of my mind until it had already happened.

Thus, the heaviness that I carried with me the entire summer in South Dakota. The reverse culture shock that I experienced upon returning home not only felt daunting, but seemed like something I couldn’t talk about with anyone around me. After all, there is the stereotype of ‘The Girl Who Goes Abroad and Doesn’t Stop Talking About Her Trip.’ And I’ve been on the other end, where people have returned home from vacations or pilgrimages and done nothing but talked about their experiences. I get it!

But still, I was plagued with a gnawing emptiness. Every bite of food was a reminder of the difference in tastes I had become accustomed to. Every ride in a car was a far cry from the freedom and blistering heat of a motorbike. I found myself desperate to facetime my friends back in Vietnam and to hold on to the life I had not arranged to let go of.

Consequently, I kept my feelings locked away and buried deep inside. I was hoping that returning to Chicago in the fall would heal my hurt and help me get out of the quiet slump I found myself in all summer long.

Of course, I was wrong.

It became a frustrating mystery. Why couldn’t I move on? What was causing me to feel a sinking sadness whenever I got quiet? How come I found myself, at least once a week, looking through all of my pictures from Vietnam and crying?

Ultimately, there are no easy answers. And yet, there is a simple idea. We find homes wherever we feel love. Where we find homes, we will pour our own selves into. And it’s incredibly difficult to navigate that outpouring, once you are no longer there. It’s a homesickness that is accompanied with the knowledge of how difficult it will be to return home. It is a love that must be long-distance.

And yet, that’s alright.

The incredible Anthony Bourdain passed away just last year, shortly after I returned home to the United States. He famously did an episode of Parts Unknown in Vietnam, and those of us on the trip often referenced his recommendations.

He has a fantastic quote that reads, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you… You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Through his words, I finally started coming to terms with the fact that study abroad is supposed to challenge you. It is normal to be hurt when you must leave a place. That means that going over to that country and culture and people was the correct decision. It is from that point where we can truly experience growth.

At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, we carry those we love with us. We can use those emotions to fuel our daily activities and motivations. We can become better people.

 

I’ve got a long ways to go before I am someone with the wisdom and insight of Anthony Bourdain. And I’ve also got a long journey ahead of me in terms of being completely at peace with not living in Vietnam. But the exciting part is, there is a lot of life to live. It is comforting to know that if I could become that enamoured with a place that quickly...just think of all the other places in the world there are to explore someday. All of the new possibilities.

Oddly enough, as I was returning to Chicago this fall, I found myself listening to that Shania Twain song again. About how life is about to be good, if we just let ourselves enjoy it. And then, by chance, another one of her songs that I had not heard came on my shuffle. It was titled, “All In All,” and once again managed to be exactly what I needed to hear. The lyrics read:

 

Reach the top and start to cry

Heaven looked me in the eye

Afraid to jump, I had to try  

Exhaled and said goodbye

 

I’m flying

I’m flying

 

All is new, I had to go

Find me, I did not know

Who I’d be when I got old

Just how far the wind would blow

 

I’m sailing

I’m sailing

 

All in all, this much is true

‘Cause love and hate, and they both burn

Peace and love, they take turns

 

All in all there’s nothing new

I’m still myself, but I’ve changed

Things I always thought were strange

Aren’t that strange at all

 

All in all

All in all