As the semester came to an end our conversations naturally centered around our excitement about going home:
What’s the first thing you’ll eat when you get back?
Who are you most excited to see?
What will your pets do when you walk in the door?
How nice is it going to be to sleep on a mattress?
We’re going to be able to drink water straight out of the tap soon!
It was nice and exciting to talk about the comforts of home. Personally, I was already having a hard time accepting that we would be leaving India so soon, but even I can admit that it made me smile to think about meeting my parents at the airport, snuggling with my cat on the couch and watching Star Trek while eating gluten-free mac n’ cheese.
In the final weeks in India, “reverse-culture shock” was mentioned in passing several times. We all talked about how strange it would be to see western toilets all the time, obey traffic rules, drive on the right side of the road, and blend into the crowd again instead of being stared out. And I guess I naively figured that’s what “reverse-culture shock” was in essence. Getting used to those small, daily culture differences. I figured it wouldn’t be so bad. I had acclimated to a drastically different culture when I moved to India four months ago, how difficult could it be to re-acclimate to something that had been familiar to me my whole life?
It turns out, much more difficult than I thought.
Probably because it’s more unexpected the other way around, reverse-culture shock has been a lot more to handle than initial culture shock was.
I’ve held off on finishing this post for over a week now because–to be completely honest–I was not doing so hot when I got back to the US. I wanted to wait for a little balance and perspective (balance and perspective that has thankfully resurfaced) before sitting down to finish writing about my reverse-culture shock experience.
As expected, I was thrilled to see my parents again, to sleep in my bed (where I actually needed a big comforter to keep warm), to cook food for myself and to watch some of my favorite shows inside a warm home with snow falling soundlessly outside the window. But after the initial joy of slipping on my worn sweatshirts, just waiting for me in a heap in my room the whole semester, and the euphoria of the first trip to Chipotle had worn off my parents headed off to work for the day and I’ll admit the first week was a struggle.
What I didn’t expect about reverse-culture shock, and I write this in the hopes that it will provide whatever insignificant foresight it might to someone else returning home, was that it would change the way that home felt.
In the first few days, I returned to a place expecting it to feel one way and finding it to be entirely different. After my semester abroad, I felt a pit in my stomach looking around my room at all of the things that had accumulated there over time–things that I no longer use–it didn’t help that all of the stuff I have to take back to college in a month is piled in a looming pyre in the center of the room. I was frustrated walking through the supermarket seeing all the unnecessarily packages on food in the aisles. And it felt ridiculous to hear people honking and getting angry about the traffic when all the cars were in a lane where they should be, using turn signals and following the speed limit.
But worse than that, I found myself disenchanted with some of the things I love most about my home. The empty gray, snow covered, suburban streets of my town didn’t have a single person walking on them. It felt lonely instead of silently beautiful. In Pune, I couldn’t walk a block without literally physically colliding with at least one stranger. Physical presence and physical contact was everywhere. The food that I had looked forward to so much in America, after only a couple of days felt bland and a little repetitive. I was craving the forced company of hundreds of strangers on the streets and the oils and spices of India that burn your tongue and make your stomach curse your mouth for eating so much the night before. What I really wanted was to sink my fingers into warm freshly-cooked dhal and rice and to eat with my hands–utensils felt silly too.
My mistake was, I didn’t take into account before I got home how much I had changed over the course of the semester. It was kind of sneaky and I didn’t really notice it as it was happening, but it turns out I’ve grown altered quite a bit.
Home wasn’t what was different, I was. And that meant I couldn’t interact with home in exactly the same way that I was used to.
For the first week or so that was terrifying and a little depressing. I didn’t feel like I belonged to this place anymore, and I knew I didn’t belong in India either–that was made abundantly clear by the staring that never ceased in our four months, not as we learned more Marathi, not as we became more skilled at catching rickshaws, not as we learned how to haggle for a reasonable price. During that first week back, it felt a lot like I didn’t belong anywhere.
I’d left two homes in August–one in Ohio, one in Massachusetts–to gain a third in India, and returned in December to find that I had none.
Another thing I wasn’t prepared for about reverse-culture shock was how lonely it would feel to return from an experience like that and not have a single soul nearby who shared the experience to grab a cup of coffee and talk through things. Because of the nature of our program, we all came from different colleges and different parts of the country and at the end of the program we were scattered back across the states. Our support system for an entire semester, dissipated instantly.
Luckily, with some effort, the absurd US-India mental comparisons have lessened since that first week. I’m learning to appreciate my home for what it is again and India for what it is too. Neither idealized, neither perfect. And with a new appreciation for how much a place can really change the way you look, feel, taste, smell and hear the world.
I guess that’s kind of beautiful.
Just as I look lovingly back at the colors, the chaos, the smells and the spices of India, I simultaneously rediscover what I love about winter in New England: the stillness, the gray, the lights, and the hours spent wrapped in a blanket reading.
Looking back now at that last week in India, this is the advice I wish someone had given me before I left.
1. Consciously recognize before you go home that you’ve changed and things will feel different.
2. Focus on the little things you love about home and be open to seeing beauty there too.
3. Talk about your time abroad–with people who went with you and with those who didn’t.
4. Eat your favorite foods from both places.
5. Put pen to paper and take some time to reflect on everything.
Once I figured that out I could value both places for what they mean and meant to me.