When you go abroad, people always talk about culture being like water and the people of that culture being like fish. If you were to ask a fish what the water is like, that fish would have a hard time answering you. The fish lives in the water all the time, and hasn’t thought too much about it. The water is just there. But when you are exposed to a new culture, it can sometimes feel like you’re drowning in unfamiliar ideas and customs. It takes some time to get adjusted. Once you have, you often wonder how life felt so difficult during that adjustment period. You forget what the culture shock felt like, and your new environment starts to feel like home. And then you go back.
On July 20, 2017, my plane from Madrid landed in Dallas, Texas. I got off the plane and was almost blown against the opposite wall of the walkway by the industrial-grade AC they had cranking. I was back in my home state, but nothing felt quite right.
Returning home for an extended stay – or moving back there – always hits you a lot harder than a vacation does. During my first year of living in Madrid, I came back to the U.S. twice – once for a winter break and again in April. Each time, I was excited to reconnect with family and friends and enjoy some of the comforts of home that you forget about when you live abroad. But coming back to live here even for a little while? Nothing feels comfortable.
Several people asked me how I was adjusting to being back home. But when they asked the question, they were by and large referring to the transition from the large-European-city life I had been living to the small-town-Texas life I was returning to for two-and-a-half months. For me, that adjustment isn’t too hard. I know what to expect here, and for the most part I haven’t been too surprised since I’ve been back. I like my life here, too. But the part you’re never ready for is how strange “normal” can feel.
It took me weeks to figure out how to put it into words, and this is my second time around with intense reverse culture shock. But to me, reverse culture shock is feeling uncomfortable in your own skin. You know that things are, mostly, the way they are supposed to be in this place. You’re used to them. You’ve been around them before. But none of it feels like it’s actually normal. It’s all different from your new normal – what you’ve become accustomed to abroad.
In my first few days back, I tried to explain to a friend how things were weird here. She didn’t quite understand what I meant. I wasn’t trying to say that things were odd, but rather that they felt odd to me. And how unsettling it was to feel like you didn’t belong exactly where you are supposed to. You come home, and it’s like you don’t fit. You become a triangular peg for a square hole. And you have a whole new adjustment to face: trying to figure out where you fit now.
In a lot of ways, being back in the U.S. has felt to me like being a fish put back in water. I’ve been out of my home element for a long time now, and it’s just going to take me a little while to feel back at home.
by Emma Schultz