On Reverse Culture Shock

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This week’s travel essay is on what happens to you when you stop traveling. (All past travel essays here)

People called me “brave” for moving to France on my own.

It did take a certain amount of courage to pack up and leave behind all my friends, my family, and my then-boyfriend, but to be honest, I moved to France because I had graduated from college with no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and the program I entered was one a trusted advisor in the French department had recommended to me, and also two friends of mine had done it the year previously.

I wasn’t being brave so much as doing the next thing that made sense to me. Because you see, the thing I can’t remember learning at school was what exactly to do with yourself once they stop laying your life out for you. Grade school, high school college, grad school … then what?

Some people thrive on that kind of uncertainty. I, in my early twenties, was not one of those people. Moving to France, I encountered my fair share of challenges–but it was nothing compared to what came next.

When my year in France was up, I had to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I had the choice to stay another year, but I turned it down. I’d had an unforgettable time abroad, but by the time it was over, I was tired of, in no particular order:

1. Teaching (I found out quite quickly that I was definitely NOT cut out to be a middle school teacher)

2. French banks

3. France Telecom

4. Having to rely on public transport to get everywhere

5. Being poor

6. Living in a place with no hot water

7. Being hit on way too aggressively and way too often

Also I missed my boyfriend, who was living in New York the entire time.

My homecoming was sweet, to be sure. But after I took a little time to settle in, something odd happened.

I became extremely, unprecedentedly depressed.

I think I had this idea in my head that somehow there was some larger plan for me, so I didn’t really bother to make one for myself. My whole life had operated that way that so far; why wouldn’t it continue?  I was living with my parents in Jersey, applying for jobs in New York, fairly confident I’d get one sooner or later. I’d send out my resume, and the thing I was supposed to be doing would find me. Simple.

But it didn’t quite happen like that.

I did find a job quickly, at a French travel agency, but besides the French-speaking part, it was horrible: near minimum wage, no breaks, no AC, and pretty much straight-up clerical work. I quit after two weeks and went back to the waitressing job I’d held during previous summers. Though at that point, most of my coworkers were younger than me, and I felt a little stab every time I went to work that everyone else had moved on with their lives; I was still there.

This went on for the entire summer, which was unequivocally the worst in my life. I panicked about the present, I panicked about the future. I had always been successful: straight As, good internships. Where had I gone wrong? I found myself longing for France, for my bratty students and for unreliable French buses, even looking back fondly on my lukewarm showers and arguments with the lady at Banque Populaire. I should have stayed, I thought. Things weren’t perfect there, but at least I was there. I was doing something. Now, for the first time in my life I was stagnant, uncertain, a failure.

I expected to feel this uncertainty when moving abroad; I never expected to feel that way coming home.

So what happened?

Slowly, I realized I was not the only one who’d ever felt this way. (It’s amazing how helpful that realization can be.) All of my friends had gone through something similar the year after college. Leaving a safe, planned-out life for the unknown doesn’t only happen to people who move to France and back; it happens to mostly everyone.

I calmed down, continued applying to jobs, and in September, I got one that I liked. Several years later, I’ve built a career for myself. Somewhere along the way I figured out the thing that I really want to do: write novels. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m still working towards that.

My point is: reverse culture shock is a thing that will suck, but it’s a thing you will get through. I did, so how hard can it be?

Image of the beach in Deauville taken by me, 2007

2 thoughts on “On Reverse Culture Shock

  1. I am living in Turkey by myself on my own at 19 and it’s scary as hell. I am stationed at Incirlik AB so I am going through this all right now any advice… Very lonely at times been blogging a lot about my experience 🙂 thanks for the share!

    Like

  2. I haven’t had a chance to get to Europe, but I have been to parts of Asia. I’ve been to the bustling Shanghai, where the airport itself was as large as most mega malls. And I’ve been to the Philippines, where people live in bamboo huts in the sticks, or in plywood and tin roof homes in the dirt in the cities. It really put into perspective what I had access to here in Oregon. I then tried to live in Hawaii for two years while going to college there. I hated it. I hated being a poor married college student who never got to see his wife because he was too busy with school and work. Didn’t get to enjoy the beaches because of those same things.

    It put into perspective a lot of things about my life. I realized a lot of what I didn’t want in my life. I hadn’t quite figured out what I wanted to do with my life at that point, but it definitely pointed me in the right direction.

    Now, I know where I want to be. I’m working on getting there.

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