Culture Shock: The Psychology of Moving Abroad (and Back)

All four times I’ve prepared to move overseas, the exact same rollercoaster of emotions have come. It probably doesn’t help that I left each time from Folly Beach, South Carolina, one of the more pleasant places on this planet. The two weeks before I leave are two weeks of swinging back and forth between excitement and homesickness. These highs and lows can come minutes apart from each another. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion.

It’s only when this ride starts I start thinking, “Why am I leaving Folly Beach?” It’s then I really notice how the salt air smells, the marsh reeds blowing in the breeze. I meet all my friends to say goodbye, wondering why I haven’t spent more time with them while I was around. I end each night staring at the stars on the beach, hearing the black waves roll in and out, knowing I’m getting ready to fly over that giant moving mass, a far distance to me, a minuscule one for the universe. Clearly, I get way too introspective.

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Home Sweet Home:  Folly Beach

 

But leaving’s always been romantic. Mom and I would always get lunch at the mediocre airport restaurant before I left the continent. I’d always feel nervous and sad, and we wouldn’t say much. The last one, before I left for Budapest, I remember feeling especially wistful when Michelle Shocked’s “Anchorage” played over the speakers. Saying goodbye is supposed to be hard, but there is also something sweet to it to. And there’s always the other part of the rollercoaster tailing that homesick feeling—excitement. It’s the feeling of adventure, venturing somewhere more exotic, preparing to be immersed in a whole new language, a whole new culture. A few hours after that lunch, I remember sitting on the runway at JFK. As the giant jet engines roared, and the plane sped down the runway, ready to cross that ocean once more, I couldn’t help but feel like a badass.


(Note: Leaving did become normal, less romantic, to a degree. Over time, I began to recognize the rollercoaster for what it was, instead of being overwhelmed by the ride. This is not unlike how I conquered The Fear—being able to recognize the feeling of extreme anxiety, knowing that it was just anxiety going on and nothing horrible was happening. But even though rationality can curb certain emotions, it doesn’t mean they disappear.)


 

Everything changes once you arrive in your brand new far away home. While it can take awhile for the homesickness to completely drop off after moving abroad (especially before you find friends), the excitement of being someplace new somehow overtakes the negative. It’s the honeymoon phase. Everything is exotic, and it’s fun looking at the old architecture, seeing how people dress, being surrounded by brand new sounds.

However, after a few months living in your new overseas home, this excitement wears off. You focus on the negative, the differences you don’t like. You roll your eyes at the shopkeeper who won’t change your twenty. You groan at the lack of options at the supermarket. Anything can be perceived as inferior. In Germany I had plenty to complain about. The cold, gray, snowy winters. The cold, gray, rainy spring. The cold, gray, windy fall.

Eventually, though, you get comfortable with your surroundings, and it becomes home. I remember waking up in Kiel some days, realizing I was thousands of miles away from where I grew up. It seemed unreal. Not because I was so far away, but that living in Kiel had become so routine, so normal. It was hard to believe I wasn’t close to Folly. The city streets were now a part of my route. The impressive opera house was just that building I passed before getting to the ATM. You needed to take a left before the art museum to get to Christine’s.

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The Kiel Opera House. More importantly, Deutsche Bank is to the left of the frame.

Eventually, I’d find myself headed home before I was ready. It’s funny with the constant boomeranging of emotions initially, coming home from Germany was always harder for me, though much less intense, much less scary. It makes sense though. Besides seeing family and friends (and maybe your first hamburger), there’s nothing exciting about being back. It’s exactly what the author of the article I blasted was talking about. For me, reverse culture shock has always been harder than regular culture shock.


(It should be noted that I haven’t abroad in harsh conditions, where I might imagine hot water and electricity would be easier to get adjusted to than the other way around.)


 

Reverse culture shock is an interesting process. The first thing you notice when returning home sounds obvious: being surrounded by your native language. But after so long abroad, it is an unusual experience hearing English everywhere, being able to understand background noise without paying much attention. Speaking your native language correctly, however, can take awhile. After studying abroad where all the Americans spoke Denglish* to each other, I struggled with English for about two weeks—searching for common words, translating German to English in my head. Some phrases took longer to correct: I was still “driving my bike” places a year later.

I’d notice the little differences between the countries as well. Portions. Things being open on Sunday. Grocery stores with no liquor. Open container laws. Buying ibuprofen over the counter. The list keeps going, but the adjustment phase doesn’t last long.

Some differences do take longer to get used to. For me, after returning from Germany, I had a hard time with small talk. German culture had rubbed off on me to some extent, and Germans just don’t believe in quatschen with strangers. Once I was back in the States, I’d sometimes take small talk friendliness as genuine interest. That waitress definitely wants my number. Trying small talk out myself, I struggled to find the balance between way too personal versus being rude. I remember trying to talk to a shoe salesman, feeling nervous, trying not to go overboard. I’m sure I looked as awkward as some of those German tourists I meet in Charleston.

It’s a weird feeling being unused to the culture you grew up in. But things always go back to normal, life slides into routine, and then it’s like you never left. Occasionally, years later, it may even feel like it never really happened, that the whole experience was just one of those old, dusty dreams.

2 thoughts on “Culture Shock: The Psychology of Moving Abroad (and Back)

  1. I second your phases of entering a new country. If you speak the language it is at first things are better, second things are worse, finally some good some bad. If you do not speak the language it is just confusing and frustrating. At least it was for me. Being reduced to baby talk and hand gestures is no fun when you are an adult. How did you get on in Hungary?

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    • Similarly–hand gestures and pigeon speak. I learned a few stock phrases, picked up a few dozen words, but not speaking it was alienating. I wish I had made a more concerted effort to learn. But everyone told me it took a whole year just to be proficient, so I eventually gave up.

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