When you land in a new country as an expat, the initial days are filled with a mix of excitement and fear. While there are plenty of resources and support to help new expats cope, what happens at the end of our expat assignment. Today, our guest contributor, Michelle, discusses the difficulties of reverse culture shock and confronts the question, ‘can you ever really go home again?’
When I opened my eyes to our first morning back in the United States, it felt like my entire year abroad had been a dream. And it wasn’t just the fact that we arrived late the night before, with only energy enough to let the cats out of their carriers before collapsing into our beds. No, it was certainly more than sleep deprivation. It was shock.
Which perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising. It’s called reverse culture shock for a reason. Not reverse culture gradual acclimation. Ever the researcher, I had prepared myself to be stymied by choices and astonished by size on my return to the States. I just hadn’t anticipated that the whole of the previous year would feel like it never happened.
Over the course of that first week, while managing my frustration with the lack of traffic circles and adjusting to an entire grocery aisle for cereal, I vacillated between feeling like I was walking through a dream and feeling like my previous life was a fantasy concocted by my fevered-for-Europe brain. It was unsettling, and packed in with that swinging sense of reality came a creeping darkness. Even when I wasn’t thinking about what I would be doing if I was back in my Italian village of rosy stone, I felt empty. Joyless. And like a spoiled brat for feeling that way. I berated myself, “Really? You had a year in paradise and now feel pouty to be back? Really?” But the more I tried to deny those feelings of regret and grief, the more intolerable the joint feeling of suffocation and lowness became. Only once I gave myself permission to live the two-year old within did I begin to get my feet back underneath me.
And now? I get it. I was there then. I am here now. I can wrap my head around what should be obvious. What’s harder is this feeling that I’m shoved against the grain. It’s almost like I was three sizes larger in Italy, and now I’m back, and I have to squeeze into my normal clothes again. I was different there, by necessity, by intention, and with gratitude. That “Italian me” no longer fits in my old American life. The rat race bores me, the culture of bests only served to make me anxious until I realized I had swung onto that merry-go-round and was fully capable of stepping off. Now it just makes me tired. The constant bifurcation of time, the cultural demand to answer “How are you?” with “Busy! So busy!”—all of it chafes.
To add complexity to an emotional cocktail that is already muddled, I am having a hard time finding my voice. Living in a country where I was a language novice made me weigh my words. And speak only when it was absolutely worth the conjugation of irregular verbs. Besides, as a blogger, I grew accustomed to processing my life through writing. Me and my keyboard, what a merry team we made. I’m not used to calling a friend and talking, but I am used to baring my soul on the internet, where no one can see me blush. Now on home soil, this effortless communication thing stuns me, and I feel paradoxically muted. In social situations, I often sense I’m supposed to have something to say. But I can’t think of what’s expected or appropriate. So I weirdly want to talk about what I’m mulling over, and at the same time, would rather people not look at me head on. I am both so full and so exposed. It’s an unpleasant combination, that leads to my sometimes feeling agitated for no reason. Which is impossible to describe to those who look at me with befuddled eyes and wonder where my mind is. How can I explain? I’m right here. I’m not even thinking of my old life. I’m just prickly. And I wish it weren’t so.
Also, a year is too much to sum up in the school pick-up line. When someone asks me “How was Italy?”, I’m sort of floored. And stumped. There was so much. There was so much. The language mistakes that taught me to be comfortable making a fool of myself, the dear friendships that I never expected, the joy of living a life based on my leadings rather than others’ expectations, the challenges of watching my children suffer the pain of being outsiders and being powerless to do anything other than trust them to heal themselves, the heart wrenching process of coping with my youngest’s more literal pain of being spanked by his teacher, the upswell of gratitude when people embraced us without reason, the gratification of hearing my children effortlessly speak a language I still have to work to understand, the places my eyes were opened to the incredible beauty in this world, the meals that fairly sang, the stress of having my husband hospitalized with pneumonia and our fear that the doctors were worried he was going to have an attack until we realized that TAC was the word for CAT scan, the travels to other countries that changed how we think about the purpose of traveling, the thrill of skiing in the pink-topped Italian alps and the relief of plunging hot toes into impossibly blue Sicilian waters, the burgeoning acceptance of my own vulnerability, the love and humility that comes from looking people in the eye when you clink glasses in celebration of anything and everything.
Frankly, when people ask how my year was, I’m not sure if they even want to hear anything other than “Great!”. Few people ask more than a passing superficial query. So I’m astonished when I receive a thoughtful, in depth question about our experience and our reentry, and befuddled when it’s followed by an apology for being nosy. This is not nosy. This is care. But I do understand why so few people ask me about what it feels like to no longer write every day, what has surprised me about my old life now that I’m back, how I plan to keep my Italian self present, who I miss from this year that changed me in ways small and profound. I get it. It’s a lot to wonder about another person’s experience. And it’s not like I went to Disney for a week, I went across the Atlantic for a year. My experience is out of the mainstream and hard to grapple with enough to connect around. Kind of like I steer away from IT workers at parties because I just don’t understand what they do, so I know I can only ask broad questions, and stare vacantly while they answer. So it makes sense. It does. But I have to come to terms with the fact that there is a part of me that most people in my life, people who I love deeply, will never know. Partly because they don’t ask, and partly because I feel muted. And so sometimes I can feel alone, even when I’m surrounded by others.
Travel changes us. And so fitting back in our old routines is complicated in a way I never imagined. So what’s the answer? I wish I knew. I’m not sure I even understand the specifics of the question, i just know that I’m in a state of tension that must break somehow.
And so all I can do is hang onto the Italian phrase that became part of our DNA last year—”piano, piano.” One step at a time. It will unfold. Way will open.