By Corey Heller
This originally appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.
As many of us know and have experienced, living in another country changes you forever. You will never be the same and will never see things the same way again. I mentioned this to a friend after having lived abroad for a year. She looked at me confused and responded, “Oh come on, don’t be so depressing!”
Yet, for those of us who have lived abroad, this is simply the way it is.
The first time I experienced what experts call “Reverse Culture Shock” was after returning home from a Year Abroad Program in Galway, Ireland. My home town, which before had given me a sense of comfort and belonging, upon returning seemed stifling and bereft of warmth. I moved about my days feeling that something was missing but I had no idea what it could be. I eventually came face to face with the starling reality that my home would never, ever again feel the same as it had before. I had sealed my fate the moment I had boarded that plane the year before.
I don’t think there is really any way to describe this feeling to those who haven’t experienced it themselves. It’s a little like free-falling. It feels as if we are floating aimlessly on restless waters. We feel distinctly ungrounded.
What, exactly, is it that causes us to feel this way? Why is it more pronounced when living in a different country than just living in a different city? Does the degree of difference between our home country and the target country determine the degree of change we will experience upon returning?
Many descriptions of Reverse Culture Shock describe it as part of a continuum whereby eventually we’ll feel at home again in our native country and the vestiges of the “shock” will slowly wear off.
Although it is true that those initial feelings of strangeness have subsided, I still feel that something will never be the same even now, so many years later. What I constantly contend with now is a continual pull to go back; a pull to go back anywhere as long as it isn’t here. Yet when I am back there, I feel the pull to return here, the place I call home. It is as if I am living in a kind of suspended reality, never really here and never really there; restless.
The joy of having spent time in another country is that you slowly become a part of it and bit-by-bit one of its people. Our attention to detail is heightened and we make a concerted effort to understand and fit in until we become one with our new location. What I have seen and felt and heard and smelled in each of the places I have lived has made me who I am, like a wine having picking up its surrounding elements.
I would never want the clocks to be turned back to the person I was before I set foot on that first airplane. Instead, what I want more than anything is to have my favorite elements from each country right here with me now. I want to have an Irish pub around the corner here in Seattle, full of laughter and music and incessant chatter. After all these years, I still crave the smell of burning peat in the air and delight when I hear an Irish lilt.
But I also want to have the sights and smells and family and friends from Germany and Italy and France. I want to experience Tasmanian joviality and mainland Australian kindness on a daily basis. I want to somehow piece them all together into a patchwork quilt of sorts; to wear it day in and day out to bring me a kind of multicultural comfort of my own making.
Ultimately what I have lost in hometown comfort, I have gained in international familiarity. Whereas once boarding an airplane was an amazing feat and arriving in another country 10 hours later unthinkable, I now feel a safe sense of deja-vu when we are snuggled down into our seats for our long flight. I have a pretty good idea of the sequence of events whereby we will get from here to there and I cherish this opportunity to head to my “other home” of Germany for an extended visit. And after being there for a while, I can’t wait to snuggle back into my bed in my home in Seattle.
Thus, the final question I ask myself is no longer whether I will ever have that complete sense of home again, that sense of knowing I belong in one place above all others without doubt. I now ask myself how I can feel at home where I am at this very moment, in this place, with these experiences; each moment finding my way back home.
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