What is reverse culture shock? I had heard from friends who studied abroad for a semester in college that they experienced it when they came home. One friend noticed crowds of people were louder or more impolite in the U.S. than in the country where she had been studying. A few lamented missing the “slower pace of life” over in Europe. (This observation may have a grain of truth to it, though I often wonder if it’s easier for a guest in a foreign culture to have a misconception that there is a slower pace of life simply because he/she is not at home and has no strenuous social, work, school, or family obligations. I wonder if someone lived in Europe for a number of years, for example, and built up the same social and work networks that he/she has at home, if he/she would still think the pace of life was slow.)
In any case, I didn’t experience any reverse culture shock in the normal sense of the term. I had somehow split my brain into two parts: one which found the U.S. to be normal and familiar, and one which found Slovenia to be normal and familiar. I was not shocked by anything when I came home. It simply felt like I’d walked right back into my same life–except that a year had passed and a few things had changed, naturally. Boston was still Boston; my parents’ house still had pretty summer flowers the way I remembered; and the air felt crisp, familiar, and welcoming. I had expected the first week to be a strange transition, but I even got over my jet lag within 48 hours of touching down. Within a few weeks, I was already re-immersed into my old life, packing my bags to head to the University of Connecticut to start my MA/PhD studies after a round of welcome home parties with my extended family.
Had I escaped culture shock, then?
In short: no. But it came in waves of emotion that, at first, I couldn’t piece apart or express. In fact, I couldn’t even recognize them. It came in a suppressed longing: a longing for the unfamiliarity that had become so familiar, a wish that one day I could go back and see those newly-familiar places and faces. I had a recess of memories that I did not access during the day but which came to startle me at various moments, or as I slept.
To be sure, I didn’t stop talking about my 10 months away from home in Slovenia, and my 6 weeks in England for a long time. With my family and my very best friends, it is a constant backdrop in conversation: Oh! Back in Slovenia, I used to… In Slovenia, they don’t… This one time, when I was in Slovenia…
Yet quickly, I realized, that for most people, my time in Slovenia was not as important as it was to me. Sure, if something came up organically in conversation, it was fine to mention it, but if not–well, my stories were often irrelevant or uninteresting to my audience… or else I risked offending someone because a constant mention of my year in Europe made it sound like I was bragging. Really, I never meant to sound that way; Slovenia is simply a place I lived for 10 months, and any incessant talk about it revealed a sadness within myself that it is impossible to live in two places I love at the same time.
It is also impossible to be with all the people I care about at the same time. They are scattered all over the world: in various states around the U.S., in Slovenia, in Russia, in Germany, and in several other European countries. I’ve kept in good touch with my friends from far away places. But then you realize: if you live your life on Skype, you can’t live in the moment. You can’t keep being a boat against the current, as Fitzgerald would say, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
There is a process of letting go and yet still holding on that is uniquely painful as I move forward. On Friday afternoon, after a long day at work on three hours of sleep, I laid down to take an hour-long nap before continuing with my studying. When I woke up, I felt like there was a heavy weight holding me down to my bed, my head was groggy, and a tear or two had escaped my eyes and fallen on my pillow. Why was I so disoriented? I’d had a perfectly pleasant day at work and school, and yet… Then I remembered. In the moments between sleep and wakefulness, it is still possible to remember a fraction of a second in a dream. In this dream, two of my best friends from Slovenia were standing before me, and one of them said: “Kristina, even if it is a long, long time before we see each other again, I will still be your friend. Always.”
Writing that out sounds so sappy and Hallmark card-ish that I want to gag. But in the moment, that was very real to me: the concern that it wasn’t just the place, but the people I’d known and loved, the people who had made me so happy when I was in Slovenia. It was the realization that the longing I felt was not just for a place but for a time when all those people were in that place with me. It was the realization that the longing I felt was a form of missing people–more deeply, perhaps, than I’d missed anyone from the U.S. when I went to Slovenia.
That’s because when I went to Ljubljana, I always knew I’d come home soon; I knew I wasn’t saying good-bye to anyone or anything but simply saying farewell for 10 months. But when I left Ljubljana, I didn’t know when, if ever, I’d be back. I wanted to go back. Very badly. But the best laid plans often go wrong. I thought I could go back every July to Ljubljana to continue my language studies and visit with friends and family. I thought I’d have enough money to go visit my roommate in Ljubljana, Meleah, in Russia this year. But unexpected school expenses ate the money I thought I’d have, and this year, neither of those things are a real possibility.
When I said good-bye in July, I had to face the realization that it might actually be good-bye: not just to a place that had become familiar and home-like, but to people who helped open my eyes to new experiences and change me in positive ways over the past ten months.
That’s what the little cultural details of Slovenia remind me of. It’s not about the food I ate there that I liked, the cafes I frequented, the theaters, the schools, or even the confusing language itself. It’s what they all stand for. But they are the triggers: the things that crop up in strange moments or in my dreams most often, reminding me of what I left behind.
So, when I see chestnuts in the grocery stores and suddenly remember roasting and peeling them with friends in Slovenia; when I drink a cup of tea and realize that I no longer crave chai lattes as much as I crave the thin warmth of a Slovenian herbal tea; when a word in Slovenian enters my mind when I am speaking English, and I gently push it away to make room for the correct English word; when something happens, and I reach for my phone to call someone with a Slovenian number rather than someone with an American one and then realize I can’t…
In other words, when the experiences that were supposed to be temporary in turn temporarily overwrite the experiences I have known my whole life with a pang of longing…
That is when I know what reverse culture shock means.