ON SUNDAY I’ll be returning home to the U.S. for the first time in two years. I’ve been living abroad now for eight years this month and sometimes I can’t believe it, while other times it feels like time hasn’t changed at all. There’s this weird state of limbo in a life abroad, a sense that you have become a perpetual outsider, no longer quite who you were and yet still irrevocably yourself. Forever out of place and out of time.
A lot of people talk about the phenomenon of culture shock, where you leave your bubble for the first time to experience another culture for the first time. This can happen during the course of a holiday, but the true impact is felt when you relocate to another part of the world for a longer period of time. Almost everything is different: the language, the customs and traditions, the smells, the grocery stores, the music, the money, those daily types of interactions you take for granted.
This can indeed be shocking, because society is more or less similar from one part of the globe to another, but altered just enough to feel entirely foreign. I’ve likened the experience to looking in a funhouse mirror when people have asked me what it’s like living in the Czech Republic or France. In essence, it’s the same, but different in subtle ways.
Granted, I realize Europe is not most extreme example when comparing the way of life to America, but I had similar impressions during my brief stays in places as varied as Tunisia or Thailand, Marrakech or Madrid, Berlin or Dubai. Disclaimer: I am fully aware of my luck and privilege, which has afforded me the opportunity to travel widely as a native speaker of English, able to avoid poverty, famine, war, racism, sexism, and the tyranny of poor government. If only we all were so fortunate.
The key to surviving as a stranger in a strange land is the ability to adapt. I believe most people know within six months if this is something they’re built for. More than 75% of the people I know who went to Prague to teach English had washed out within that time period, the rest were gone for good by the end of the year. The reasons vary, from homesickness to job opportunities to a loved one left behind. Distance is a powerful force on the psyche, similar to the effects of gravity. Imagine, for a moment, the plight of refugees forced from their homes and homeland, unable to return, and imagine the chasm between dreams and reality.
The language barrier is not a wall. Instead, it’s kind of like cuisine. You grow up eating mama’s home cooking and it’s delicious, of course, but it’s all you know, so you learn the recipes by heart without even trying. When it’s time for you to enter the kitchen, you have at your disposal every ingredient, every utensil, and every technique to recreate those dishes.
Then, if and when you start to learn a new language, it’s like deciding you’ll learn (in my case) how to make French cuisine. The ingredients are similar but not quite the same, the techniques are similar but not quite the same, the flavors are all new. It takes time to become proficient, much less master.
The primary challenge, at least at first, is speed. Words flow from mouths at hypersonic speeds. When I arrived in France in December 2010, I didn’t speak a lick of French. Well, okay, I had a few crucial phrases: bonjour, au revoir, merci, je voudrais une biere, and the most essential for the first year, desole, je ne comprends pas, je suis americain. It’s embarrassing to be utterly clueless, but gradually you become able to pick out a piece here and a piece there and puzzle it together. Then be able to reproduce those sounds without sounding like a complete fool.
Even after living in France for nearly seven years, it’s not like I have completely absorbed the language. I still have to pay attention. I can communicate well enough when engaged in conversation (we’ll skip discussing accents for now), but if others are talking and I lose focus and stop listening, the language quickly devolves into the white noise of syllables. I imagine most of you know this sensation if you’ve been at a restaurant in another country and sit at your table listening to the natives talk.
Which leads me to my first experience of reverse culture shock, that strange phenomenon when you return after having spent a long time away from home.
I had tickets to fly from Prague to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Minneapolis, and Minneapolis to St. Louis. The first leg was short and sweet. On the second leg, I sat next to a young Czech man who was on his way to live in Alaska for a year. Now, normally when I travel I always have a few things on me: my passport, my iPod, and at least one book.
Upon landing in Minneapolis, I had earbuds nestled in my ears and music playing. I had about a 4 hour layover, so I got comfortable in a chair at my gate, and dug into whatever I was reading at the time. This is well and good, but sometimes you’ve gotta mix things up, so I turned off the iPod, closed the books, and paid attention to my surroundings.
I slowly came to the realization that I could understand — without even trying — everything that everyone was saying around me. Believe me when I tell you it was horrifying. The TV blared with talking heads babbling about Obamacare. Two teenage girls were sitting behind me filling every pause in their train of thought with, like, “like.”
It all started to drive me crazy. Situations that were terrifying/thrilling adventures in a foreign country, like ordering food, asking for stamps, or directions were so preposterously easy once back in America that I felt like I was being tricked. As I said above, it’s easy to take for granted such seemingly simple things.
To cope with this sudden shock, I took the advice of the wise blues sage, one John Lee Hooker, and found my way to the nearest airport bar, where I proceeded to order one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer. A fellow American saw the condition I was in and asked where I was heading. I told him and we chatted for an hour or so, and that casual conversation eased me back into the rhythms of the land. Before he left, he offered to pay my tab. I gave him my thanks. We shook hands and he said, “Hey, don’t mention it. Welcome home.”
This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.
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