Tonight I happened upon my “reverse culture shock” manual. It’s my Xeroxed guide to reentering American life after a semester abroad in New Zealand. This little unstapled book is supposed to help me adjust to the isolation, disorientation, and bouts of rage (because, hey, Missouri is not New Zealand) that I’ll undoubtedly face now that I’m stateside. It first asks me how much I have changed (physically, socially, emotionally, politically, nationally, academically, financially, and spiritually) in the last several months.
Well, physically I’m working on burning off several pastry pounds, my hair is an inch or two longer (minus the section I accidentally set on fire), and I bought a new shirt. Nationally I now know to sometimes lie and say I’m Canadian. And financially things are much the same (except for the fact that I now have no money). Not exactly shocking changes.
After the experience of living and studying abroad, the manual urges me to reexamine every aspect of both my person and my personality. I don’t really have a problem with that. Actually, I was thinking about these things all along. And what surprised me in the process was actually the lack of change I witnessed in myself. Or I suppose, the lack of radical change.
I was expecting something big to happen to me while abroad. I was expecting be shaken up and reassembled. What I got was, well, not nearly enough fodder for an early memoir. My semester abroad wasn’t some kind of disjointed, isolated event—it was more like a continuation of the steady upheaval and unrelenting change that I’ve experienced each year here at Wash. U. (but in Auckland, the upheaval came with accents!). I went to the other side of the world, and guess what? I couldn’t escape growing up.
The manual exhorts me to “develop realistic expectations.” It says I should “read and reflect on the myths [I] might subconsciously believe.” Such as, “everything will be the same as it was when I left.” Or, “I can pick up friendships where I left off.” Or, “people will be interested in hearing about my exciting experiences in New Zealand” (no, I wasn’t planning on telling you all about them).
Okay, I get why they’re warning about these things, but with a healthy nod to my still-expanding social savvy, I’d like to think I learned these lessons a while ago. Heck, it doesn’t take study abroad to change my friendships—that happens just after coming back from summer break. I mean, everything is always changing whether or not you’re climbing glaciers in some foreign country somewhere. If I’ve learned one lesson in college, it’s that one. None of this holds still. I’ve been away for a while, and, yes, things are different. Most of my friends are 21, and I’m not. The construction is finished on campus and the South 40 is a giant hole. I’m a senior, and I should have plans. Like it or not, I guess that’s life.
As transformative as traveling can be and as jarring as the return might seem, I guess I’m still waiting for the shock to hit me. Honestly, my return to Wash. U. has felt pretty natural. Sure, the cheese and crackers they sell in Whispers have vastly improved, and I can go sit on a giant beanbag in the DUC whenever I want. But beyond that my disorientation has felt more like mild confusion (and that’s more of an overall state of being).
The little book warns me to be wary of the myths betraying my subconscious, but maybe “reverse culture shock” is the myth. Or maybe life is just plain shocking, and we’re just not used to be shocked in such new and shocking ways. How about that, eh? So far, though, I am not in need of recovery, readjustment, or some radical reassessment (at least not any more than I was before study abroad.) My reentry manual cautions me: be skeptical of the myth that, “I will not experience any reverse culture shock.” Well here’s another myth: that manuals ever help you figure anything out.