When you first started planning your study abroad experience, you probably worried about language barriers, culture shock, new customs and foods, making friends, and getting lost. But now that you've been abroad for weeks, months, or years, you might wonder at all the fuss. Things that were foreign and stressful have now become familiar and routine, and you finally feel at home in your host country...just in time to pack your bags and return to your real home. Typical. Hopefully you've had such an amazing time abroad that the prospect of returning to your 'real' life in your home country makes you just a bit apprehensive. Don't worry – most international students and ex-pats struggle a bit on the return home. But if you give yourself time to readjust and keep some simple rules in mind, you'll find the transition a lot easier.
1. Beware of 'reverse-culture shock'
When you prepared to study abroad, you were probably warned that you would face some form of culture shock upon arrival, and now you have all sorts of stories about the ways in which your host-country caught you off guard. The thing is, the same can happen when you return home. Whether it's differences in food (or portion sizes), the way people behave, or the way things are done, there are many things about your home country that you may have forgotten or never noticed before, but which will now seem alien and possibly ridiculous after your time away. Try to keep this in perspective. Yes, monster-sized convenience meals could seem wasteful and unappetizing after months of Vietnamese street food, or you might find it difficult to transition back to a nine-to-five work day from the siesta culture of Italy. But if you can view your home country the way you did your host country and try to understand the 'why' of things, you'll find the transition a lot easier. Just remember that it takes time, so don't expect to be back to your 'normal' self hours after going through customs, and don't be surprised if you feel a bit out of place.
2. Understand that no one will fully understand
If you tried to explain to a local in your host country what you found so strange or surprising about their culture, they may have been sympathetic but probably didn't fully understand. The same will be true on the return home. Your friends and family may be interested to hear about your adventures, but unless they were there with you, they won't fully understand everything that was new, amazing, frustrating, and exhilarating about studying and living abroad. Realize that this is okay, and be patient and courteous. Don't inundate your family and friends with all the details of life overseas. Answer questions that are asked, but understand that most people just want to hear that you had a great time, ate some amazing new foods, and saw that one really famous landmark. And as much as you might want to sit and deconstruct the differences between your home and host countries, realize that for many people back home your new enthusiasm for bullet trains, socialized medicine, or flexible time-keeping may come across as overly critical or disloyal.
3. Keep in touch while abroad
One way to avoid the inevitable information dump once your return home is to maintain regular contact while abroad. While this can be difficult depending on time zones, logistics, and technology, it will help to continue relationships with your friends and family back home. You don't have to call or text multiple times per day, but try to keep your loved ones in the loop while you're away – arrange to call or email regularly, and don't monopolize your communication or correspondence with news from abroad. Homecoming football games and family birthdays may seem boring when you're trekking through the Australian outback or learning Korean, but news from home will help you keep a sense of continuity, and will show the people back home that you may be having the time of your life abroad, but you still care about home. Even better, keep a blog or photo-journal while your away and share it with all your friends and family. They'll be able to keep track of your adventures on their own time, and you won't feel the need to inundate everyone with a full run-down of your life overseas once you return. Plus, you can keep the blog going so that your new friends abroad can hear about life back home.
4. Prepare for and embrace change
Keeping in touch with friends and family back home is essential to a smooth transition, but it's inevitable that you will miss out on major and minor things while you're gone. Still, many returning study abroad students express a paradoxical sense that home is both very much the same and very different. Of course, life went on while you were away and you need to anticipate that your friends and family will have changed and moved on without you. But you've changed as well, as has your relationship with everything that was once familiar. Don't be afraid of the change, but don't feel that you need to revert to your old self. Your travels will have changed the way you see the world, and that's a good thing.
5. Make new connections
So instead of dwelling on your life abroad or trying to pick up where you left off at home, figure out how the new you can fit into your new reality. If you're still studying at your home university, try to get involved with international organizations on campus. Join a club related to your host country, tutor beginning language students, or work with your study abroad office. Many international studies programs need volunteers to mentor outgoing study abroad students or assist incoming international students, so see if you can become a peer adviser or a student ambassador. If you're missing your host country, scope out local restaurants and find the most authentic Argentinian asados or Jordanian masaf in a fifty-mile radius. Or better yet, explore the aisles of your local ethnic grocer and invite your friends and family for a home-away-from-home-cooked meal. And remember to use your exploring skills at home – walk the streets of your city without a plan, frequent small galleries and boutiques, or grab your friends for a spontaneous road-trip and stop at all the attractions along the way. Learn to see your home from the perspective of a traveler and you might just find that normal isn't quite what it seems.
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