Why Coming Home is So Hard
When I studied abroad in Spain for four months, we had to take a cultural studies class for 1 credit. Most of the time, we were just goofing off and trying our hand at Spanish slang, but we also discussed difficulties with our homestay families, cultural differences, and missing home. Culture shock came up quite a bit, even a month into living in Spain. It took awhile to adjust to dinner at 10pm, the three hour siesta, the slow and relaxed pace of life, "Spanish time" (nothing is ever on time), and the bluntness of our homestay families regarding our eating and social habits. But as we eased into our lives in Spain and carved out new, comfortable routines, their culture slowly became our culture, if only for a bit.
But we also talked about reverse culture shock, and this was the first time I had heard the phrase. Reverse culture shock is the difficulty, although subtle, in adjusting to your life back home after you've been gone for awhile. By the time my four months were up in Spain, I had traveled through five different countries, knocked out a semester of classes, and eaten my weight in churros and chocolate. I was eager to come home: I missed driving my car with the windows down, drinking chocolate milkshakes, hanging out with my friends, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and seeing my boyfriend.
And then I came home. And I couldn't place my finger on it, but it just didn't feel the same. It was a subtle feeling, but it was there. It was hard for me to share my experience of four months abroad with my friends and family; sometimes I felt like my stories didn't translate well, and it just wasn't the same without the people who had actually been there. I missed my 30 minute walk to classes everyday, down the cobblestone streets of Sevilla that I had come to know so well. I hadn't seen my boyfriend in six months, and the moment I saw him (after enduring lengthy military training on his end), wasn't what I had built it up to be in my head. I felt like things had changed amongst my college roommates, although I wasn't sure because I had missed a semester. Suddenly, coming home was harder than I thought. The feelings lingered for awhile, probably a few weeks, before they faded as I adjusted back to life at home and my junior year started.
It would be three years before I traveled again, this time to Nicaragua in 2014. The trip was only 10 days, but the experience fundamentally changed how I travel. Even now, it's hard for me to put into words what that trip meant to me. There are some really specific moments of that trip that I treasure, and they replay in my head from time to time. Never before had travel been so freeing and beautiful; every single day was another adventure, and I never knew what to expect from the four guys I was traveling with. Two of them actually changed their flight to stay longer, and we ended up flying out of Managua together.
When I came home, I felt totally lost. I was bored; 48 hours earlier I had been in the back of a pick-up truck, flying down the backroads of a rural Nicaraguan town. I was stressed; I had just quit one job and was moving to a new city to start another. I was frustrated; the stories didn't sound right when I tried to share them with others. I remember feeling just totally bummed out for several days: I missed everything about Nicaragua and the people I had been traveling with. And then it was time to move, so I packed up my room over two days, loaded everything into a U-Haul, and headed to Indy. Again, the feelings faded, but it took longer.
Coming home now from Thailand, I know what to expect. I know I'll miss diving, the familiar faces, the easy walks on the beach, the simple routines that characterized each day. But I'm looking forward to being home. I always love driving my car when I get back. I'm excited to dive back into work. I can't wait to walk into my apartment and flop onto my bed. I want to eat Chipotle and get a cup of coffee at Yolk.
The more difficult part, I've come to learn, is that travel really makes you question things. It makes you question your life as it is, right now. After experiencing different cultures, meeting so many interesting people, and feeling that adrenaline rush of landing in a new country, the questions are only natural. You fall in love with places far away from home. You meet people who have quit their jobs. You look at a map and know that the possibilities are endless. And you wonder...
How much money would it take to travel for 6 months, a year, or two years? Where can I work abroad? Where do I want to go next? Who do I know in other countries? Where can I cut back on expenses so I can save some money? Will I regret not traveling? What will people think? How much can I sell my car for, my furniture, my clothes? Do I want the 8-5 job, the house with a white picket fence, and a 401k? Do I even like my job? Do I want to quit my job? What do I want in life? Am I happy?
For some people, those questions linger until they're forced to answer them and take action. For me, personally, I know the answers, for now. I love my life and I love my job. I am happy. I am a really big believer that you should do what makes you happy, and that you should take whatever steps you need to get there. As long as I'm able to travel abroad 1-2 times a year, I feel fortunate and blessed. I have a desire to see the world, but I don't have a desire to leave.
That doesn't mean I haven't tried... My senior year, I accepted a teaching English position in Chile from 2013-2014. I was pumped! But the program folded in February due to budget cuts, and I was totally devastated. Then I started an application to the Peace Corp, but never finished it. By the time I graduated, I knew that I wanted to pursue philanthropy and fundraising instead of teaching. So much so that I actually turned down an offer to pursue a MA in Education and teaching job in Spain. In early 2014, I made a savings plan and basic itinerary to backpack Central and South America for five months. Then RCF came calling, and I knew exactly what I wanted.
The questions are always lingering, particularly after a trip abroad, but I know the answers. If the time comes that I struggle to find them, I'll know that's when I have to look at my life, my happiness, and my desires. For me, that's the beauty of travel: it challenges you to not only want more out of life, but to make it happen.
I've never seen it expressed more eloquently than my favorite travel poem, "The Men that Don't Fit In" by Robert Service. I found the poem after I came back from Guatemala in 2010. The full poem can be found here.
There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.