The Reality of Reverse Culture Shock and Ten Months Abroad
When I arrived in Prague on a hot summer day in August 2017, I felt completely taken back. I was suddenly in a brand new country where the language was so, wildly distant from English. The culture was different, the public transportation was confusing, and every salad I ordered had potatoes in it. To put it simply, I experienced culture shock. I was in a new place, a place that I would soon call home, but the adjustment period was never-ending and that's just the reality of living somewhere brand new.
During my TEFL course, our instructors told us that returning to the United States after a few months abroad would be a greater challenge than we could imagine. One of my instructors explained that after she taught in South Korea for a number of months, she returned home and had a hard time communicating with people. Although English is her native language, she was no longer used to hearing it. She explained that she ordered a coffee in the airport and felt overwhelmed by the man asking her so many questions in easy-to-understand English. While we laughed and sympathized with her, it was hard to imagine that I would ever possibly be overwhelmed with a barista speaking native English to me.
I am currently back in the United States for a few weeks to visit family and friends. This is my third time being back since I moved to Prague ten months ago; although, this time is a bit different than the first two. The first time coming back was completely unexpected. After my best friend took his life in January, I immediately hopped on the first morning flight. That week of being home was busy. I spent the majority of my time driving between Gwinnett, Atlanta, and Newnan and I was in a serious mourning state. That week was such a blur and I didn't have the time nor the energy to take in what was happening around me. Fast forward to April, my boyfriend and I came home for the wedding of one of my boyfriend's best friends. We had every day planned, almost down to the hour, and it was, again, extremely busy between visiting with family, friends, and attending the wedding itself.
And then there is now: June 2018. Round three. I'm back for a few weeks by myself. Kyle is still in Europe and I'm staying with my parents in the house that I grew up in. And now, for the first time, I'm experiencing this reverse culture shock that my TEFL instructors told us so much about.
The first big, woah-I'm-not-used-to-this moment happened at my local farmer's market. Saturday morning, I woke up and drove to the same farmer's market that I worked at for an entire summer in college. I walked around for a bit and finally settled on buying some Georgia-grown, summer sun ripened, heirloom tomatoes. When asking the lady working to please not put the tomatoes in a plastic bag, I realized that I could fully explain this sentiment to this woman and she would actually understand me. I've been inadvertently trained to talk slow while living abroad. It's funny because growing up, I was constantly told that I talked too fast. I never actually slowed down until I was thrown into a place where people spoke minimal English and the speed at which I spoke depended on what a server would bring me for dinner.
After my visit to the farmer's market, I took the long way home and drove past my old high school. I realized how strange it was to be somewhere familiar again. Both of the places I've lived in Europe have eventually become home-feeling and I got to know my neighborhoods pretty quickly, yet there is something comforting yet so strange about being in the place you grew up. How strange it was to drive on the back roads that took me to school every morning. How strange it was to see the building that I went to for eight hours a day. The building where I would see my friends, where I experienced love and break ups and everything in between. How strange it was to see it still standing in the same place I left it, even after I've moved around to different countries and laid on rocky beaches in Southern France and taught English in the Czech Republic and skied down the Alps in Austria and drank wine in the rolling hills of Tuscany and stood under the Eiffel Tower with tears in my eyes in utter awe that I was truly there, in Paris, seeing it. How surreal to have seen these places and experienced these cultures and then to suddenly be back in the small, southern town where I grew up, and pass the high school where I used to go every day. How strange to see everything almost the exact same. How strange. How shocking. But not shocking at all.
When I was in eleventh grade, I participated in a pageant. Unlike most pageants, this pageant was not based on looks or dress, but instead on talent, fitness, and intelligence. You had to do a workout on stage, perform a talent, and grades were also considered. Fitness and grades were fine with me, but I'll be honest, I'm no musician or singer. I sat there thinking, "what talent do I have to perform?". It took me a while, but eventually, it came to me. Writing, of course, is what I settled on. Around the same time, in my AP Language class, we were studying Walt Whitman (my very favorite poet to this day) and we spent time reading his "Song of Myself". Our homework was to write our own "Song of Myself". So for the Junior Miss Pageant, I performed my poem, my song of myself.
Let me set the scene for you here. Imagine an empty stage except for a simple bench in the middle. The auditorium is dark except for a spotlight on the bench. And now here I come, sixteen years old, my long hair falling down my back, wearing a light teal, whimsical dress. As I walk onto the stage, I am rolling a suitcase behind me. And I begin reciting in my most theatrical voice, my very own "Song of Myself". Here it is:
I am a globe seeker
I desire to have the world in my hands
To cover it with my long blonde hair
And drift through the oceans
I want to travel to places that are nowhere close
Embrace every culture and immerse myself in a newfound lifestyle
To read in new languages
And devour a different type of food
Float away to wherever I please
Curious George, no just curious me
Hungry for life
Starving for adventure
I want to watch as the Mediterranean rolls in
Eat grapes and feel my skin brown
Watch the moon as it lights up the sky
And the sun as it carelessly fades down
I long to explore the Parisian culture
And lounge patiently and lazily in my classy loft
And write and read and drink fresh un cafe
And then travel on to the next place and drink that up as well
I crave for the world to be my own
Knowing every place there is
I never want to stop exploration
So I want to need to feel to dream to live.
Back then, at sixteen years old, I had dreams to see the world. I had dreams to leave the small, southern town where I grew up, to leave that high school where I never truly fit in, and to see the world. I opened a drawer in my room the other day and found my poem. I read it and I smiled. I remember writing it. I was in chemistry class (HATED that class) and I was staring at the globe on one of the shelves. And I just put pen to paper and wrote. And now, here I am, only twenty-three years old, back in the small, southern town for a few weeks, but ready to continue on this great European adventure that I have made my life. I must say, I was fortunate enough to meet the perfect person for me who loves travel, food, and adventure as much as I do. And soon I get to go back to Europe to him and we get to continue on our many adventures.
Life is crazy. It's unpredictable. It's wild. And it is so beautiful. I'm so glad I've been able to experience this time at home. Relaxing and freelance writing on my parent's back porch, and remembering what it's like to feel (too) comfortable in a place.
I'm ready to get back to my uncomfortable life, where sometimes communication is a struggle, but where I am living out my dreams of seeing this beautiful, diverse world. Reverse culture shock is real. If you ever go abroad for an extended period of time (you should), then you will know this sentiment all too well.
Thank you for staying how I left you, Newnan. And thank you, Europe, for changing me and shaking me to my core in a way I could have never imagined until I lived through it. The adventures aren't over quite yet. Let's keep exploring.