Preparing to study abroad is a whirlwind of chaos and excitement. Nearly every day in the last month before departure is dedicated to getting ready for your time abroad. Advisors, parents, fellow students, and hundreds of buzzfeed articles give you advice on what to pack, see, eat, avoid and all else to ensure you are fully equipped to be far away from home. While it may feel like there is nothing else that could possibly need to know before getting on the plane and jetting off on adventure, there is one small thing that is nearly impossible to prepare for. Coming home.
After spending a semester or two in what once was a strange, unknown place, it suddenly does not feel so. It is comfortable. It is normal. It feels like home. But it’s not. There is a quiet awareness that the place truly known as “home” is still there waiting with open, welcoming arms. Ignoring this fact is an option, but not a good one. The fleeting time in this new world should be acknowledged with honesty, not denial. Each day feels like a perfectly packaged gift sitting on the door step waiting to be unwrapped. It is often said that we should live each day like it’s our last. This suddenly does not sound so cliche. September 3rd in this new city should be treated as though it is the last September 3rd.
While cherishing each day is vital, it does not diminish the panic that sets in a month or two before the time comes to an end. One day you wake up and you realize it. It is impossible to pinpoint when everything changes, but it is clear when it does. Perhaps it is when new friends start saying they are going to miss you. It could be when excited family posts a picture of you with the number of days until departure. Maybe it’s when full load of groceries turn into limited essentials, because there is no need to refill. It will be obvious when it happens and life will be different.
There is no right way to feel about coming home. Typically because there is not just one feeling A million emotions make an appearance during the last days abroad. The big players are fear, excitement, and sadness. Oddly enough, almost the exact same feelings experienced before heading off on this adventure abroad. In a way, it is not going back to where and who you are before, but preparing to leap into yet another unknown.
Upon arrival, the differences begin to reveal themselves. The abundance of English speakers is at first refreshing, but soon becomes overwhelming. Now there is no need to brace for a conversation in a different language when approaching the customs desk. While driving home from the airport, it can feel like being a puppy on its way to a new home: nervous, confused, and uncertain about what lays ahead. While looking around at the new surroundings trying to convince yourself that this is home now. It has been so long since seeing American architecture, highway designs, and now slowly entering the familiar nook of your hometown. These places that were once all that was known, seem distant and unfamiliar. Then comes the first night, laying in bed and mentally reliving the time in what was a new home, which was certainly a dream, because you were definitely sleeping in this bed just yesterday.
The first days, and weeks even, are exciting and nostalgic. Finally you get to eat that comfort food which was so missed. Reuniting with the ones you missed makes the transition bearable. Friends and family are eager to hear about the time abroad and everything experience. Going through pictures and videos gives you one more chance to relive the thrills and share the wild stories that go with each image. As months begin to pass, people become less interested in the snippets of information about your adopted culture. This was expected and you even try to avoid bringing it up so as not to seem like a broken record. This is where it can get a bit uncomfortable. The truth is, this cultural influence is now a part of who you are. It is not something that can be turned on and off.
The feeling of not fitting in is something all too familiar for those who have lived in a different culture. After spending a decent amount of time fighting to understand the new surrounding and social queues, it’s truly a skill acquired. It is simply not expected to have to do this in the place which was once called home. There are parts of your native culture that you were blissfully unaware of, but now find obvious and curious. It is normal to do or say things and wondering what the point is or why it happened. It can feel uncomfortable and even wrong to hear and see certain things that would not have been acceptable in the other, temporary culture. Suddenly, you’re a foreigner in your own home.
But that’s just it. Home has a new meaning. Home is no longer the place you came from, but it is also not where you have been. You are floating in limbo with nowhere comfortable to to take your shoes off. While this realization is first and foremost extremely terrifying and excruciatingly frustrating, it is not worth being concerned about. I read something beautiful while researching the experiences of others upon coming home:
“It’s surreal to have the realisation you no longer belong to a place, but know this: you don’t have to. You belong with yourself. And you will belong with you, always.”
Having a place that fits you like your favorite sweater certainly feels safe and secure but at what cost? Comfort is limiting. While it can be challenging to come back to the place you thought you knew and being proved wrong is troubling, but that is why we study and live abroad. Living in a different culture gives you a new pair of glasses to see your own in. It allows you to understand that just because you were raised a certain way, does not be it is the right and only way to live.
Written by Alyse Carbonell, senior communications major at Grand Valley State University. Alyse studied abroad at the University of Oslo in Oslo Norway for the academic year of 2015-2016.