Scene from a hike out of the village of Santa Marta.
by Jessica Bazan
Driving home at night from the airport after returning from El Salvador, I was taken aback by the light pouring out from the windows of the 24-hour grocery store just off the highway exit of my home town. Riding in the car beside my boyfriend down clean streets, past well-kept houses and convenience stores, I began to cry. When we got home, I started to explain my tears, but then I stopped. How could I possibly put into words everything I’d experienced for the last two weeks? I didn’t know it at the time, but reverse culture shock had already started.
When the plane touched down in El Salvador at the beginning of my study abroad experience, I was somewhat prepared for the feelings that came over me. Not only had I been told how different the culture I’d be visiting was, but these feelings seemed normal--a new place, new sights and smells, more vibrant colors, and a humidity I’d never felt before. Of course the result would be slightly overwhelming. What I hadn’t expected was feeling just the same way coming back to my home.
What I know now is that this feeling--this reverse culture shock--is normal. In an attempt to prepare others coming back from initial study abroad or intense international traveling programs, here are some situations I found myself in upon returning home, and a few suggestions for how to cope.
Everyday acts had the ability to make my stomach turn if I thought about them in the right light. In El Salvador, a warm shower is a luxury not had by many; in fact, a shower at all is something most people don’t have readily available to them throughout their lives. Standing in my shower at home the morning after I returned, I found myself relishing the temperature control, turning it up hotter and hotter against the cool morning air, until I had a flashback of standing outside at night giving myself a freezing cold bucket shower that my host family had graciously offered me. A shower they had offered even though the pilla (a deep concrete basin used to store clean water, usually collected from rain or limited wells) I was actively taking water from to bathe housed the only water available to the entire family for cooking, drinking, and bathing themselves for the time being. I felt guilty about my privilege.
Even the small act of throwing my garbage into the kitchen trash can and knowing it would be ultimately picked up and disposed of with limited effort on my part was enough to give me small surges of guilt. I had the opportunity to stay in a small jungle village called Santa Marta while I was in El Salvador. Santa Marta is a village rich with a tumultuous history and a strong sense of community, but also a village that just got electricity within the year that has no formalized trash pickup. This lapse in cleanliness was not due to laziness on the part of the village inhabitants. It simply wasn’t something offered them--something they were fighting to have, but hadn’t yet been granted by local government. Yes, disposing of trash in the United States costs money, but at least it’s an option.
Feelings of Loss
I’d been taught in social work courses about feelings of grief and loss people experience from situations other than that of a death, but I had never identified these feelings within myself until I came home from El Salvador. My study abroad experience was full of people who opened their homes and businesses to me, told personal testimonies full of heartbreaking and gut wrenching moments, then sent me on my way to be filled with information from someone else. Never in my life had I been exposed to so much in such a short amount of time, and coming back to my daily routine was difficult. I felt as if I had experienced the death of someone close to me when I got on that plane in San Salvador.
Looking back at that time, I don’t think I was simply grieving the loss of a routine and a group of people I’d come to know on an intimate level. I was grieving the loss of the life I’d been living previous to my trip. Looking back at my old self, I saw a woman who was blissfully ignorant about the way people had been treated in Central America around the time I was born--ways people are still being treated today. To say my past-self was ignorant to the way of the world would be accurate. But to say I had no idea what to do with my newly-gained information would also be true. As thankful as I am for having been involved in such an opportunity for growth, I also find myself sometimes wishing for the simplicity associated with being ignorant.
Trouble Sharing Experiences
I avoided speaking in detail to my parents about my trip for quite some time, because I knew they would be full of questions that I didn’t know how to answer. During my trip, I experienced everything from hiking up a volcano, to being at ground zero in a crowd of people for Oscar Romero’s Beatification Ceremony, to sitting on a lawn in the mountains hearing a man’s personal testimony about fording a river to safety in the middle of the night while his oppressive government fired machine gun rounds at his family and friends. How does a person even begin to put these life experiences into words people can understand while keeping all the emotional value? You can’t.
Just thinking about some of the things I had been privy to was enough to make me break down--something I did quite frequently those first few weeks home--and I wanted to be a strong advocate for the stories I had accrued. I felt as if I wasn’t in a collected enough space personally to be giving out such important information to people yet, so I found myself avoiding situations in which I knew there would be people with questions about my trip. I wanted to share what I had learned, but also knew I needed time to decompress and comb through all my memories first.
After I had given myself the time to collect my thoughts, I found myself wanting to talk about nothing but El Salvador. In my planning, I had come to terms with the fact that not everyone would want to hear the more emotionally-loaded stories I had to tell, but I still wasn’t ready when the first person asked me, “So, how was your vacation?”
When I began telling people about everything I’d witnessed while abroad, the first few listeners I had were incredibly receptive to everything I had to say. But then I ran into the first person who asked me about my “vacation.” Instantly, I was angry. Vacation? My vacation?! Didn’t they realize how much that downgraded my experience and everything I had witnessed, accomplished, and lived through? The short answer is no.
In time, I developed two different stories: one for people who had the time and energy to devote to listening, and one for people who only had the capacity to hear the positive and non-polarizing moments. I also had to realize that even though this trip was a life-changing event for me, that doesn’t mean everyone else has a similar experience to compare it to, or even a desire to learn about what I have seen and done.
All of this being said, there are some ways to help combat, or even ready yourself for, the effects of reverse culture shock.
Before I left for my study abroad trip, the class I was going with met a few times to discuss how to prepare for being abroad. I remember it being brought up briefly that we should expect culture shock both upon arriving in El Salvador and when coming back to the United States, but the actual feelings attached to those actions weren’t discussed at length. I also remember thinking that coming home would be no big deal after I had been away from my friends, family, and home for weeks.
I wish I had researched reverse culture shock and what kind of feelings to expect before I left. There are resources available at our fingertips now, thanks to the interconnectedness the Internet brings. Use them. Find out how others have felt after studying abroad, and anticipate that some of those feelings may also happen to you. You know yourself. There is no guarantee that reverse culture shock will happen to everyone studying abroad, but in knowing that it’s a possibility, you can at least go into the coming home experience more informed than many are. It’s also important to realize that upon coming back home, there may be people who aren’t interested in hearing what you have to say--even people who are very close to you in other respects.
Take Some Time to Reflect
A large part of our graded assignments for my study abroad trip came from daily journaling. After returning home, looking back at that journal helped me to remember all of the amazing life-altering things I had been a part of while away. I also took solace in looking at the marked-up itinerary I’d carried with me each day while abroad, and pictures of all the places I had visited. It’s important not to dwell on the past, but revisiting it can also prove beneficial while trying to gather your thoughts and move on.
Journaling also came in handy for me as a way to cope with the stress I felt upon coming home. When I didn’t have anyone available to talk to, I wrote down what I was feeling and could reflect on it personally later. Sometimes the best sounding board you have is your own mind.
Tap into Your Resources
I was fortunate to go on my study abroad trip with a group of other students, a very approachable faculty liaison, and one of my closest friends (a fellow social work student). Because I traveled as part of a group, I knew that if I needed to talk there would always be someone an e-mail or phone call away who was most likely going through the same things I was. Both during and after the trip, our group had periodic debriefing sessions where we were asked to speak on a specific topic, or simply talk about how we were feeling, coping with emergent situations, and/or discuss any hesitations we felt. Remembering how open and accepted I felt in those moments of confidential and safe release with my peers also brought me comfort later in the reentry process when I had trouble articulating my experiences to others.
Traveling alone is liberating for some people, but my personality type lent itself well to traveling as part of a group. As this trip is a yearly option for social work students in my program at Ferris State University, I also took solace in knowing that there were a fair number of people in my classes who had either gone before or would be going in the future.
When I came home and started to research the reverse culture shock phenomena, I also stumbled upon umpteen number of message boards, forums, and entire websites devoted to stories from other students experiencing the same things I was--an endless number of people who are coping with similar stressors are only one mouse click away.
Know that You Have Changed
If nothing else, try to look at this experience as a positive one, even when you find yourself hurting for one reason or another upon coming home. Traveling abroad makes you unique, employable, and shows your ability to adapt to change and leave your comfort zone--something that is a struggle for many people. Take those feelings of guilt, loss, and anger and channel them into your passion. Become a stronger, more competent advocate for others based on the things you have seen, done, and personally overcome.
Those of us who live in the United States are privileged for many reasons. Know and accept this, but also try to move past the guilty feelings this can bring on after studying in a more impoverished country. Yes, we are privileged, so take that privilege--that loud voice--and use it to make a change.
Jessica Bazan is currently a senior in the BSW Program at Ferris State University with plans to continue on to an MSW Program in Michigan upon graduation. She remains thankful for the multitude of growth opportunities studying abroad in El Salvador brought to her and encourages all students to take the leap and go abroad at some point in their educational careers.