Culture Shock. It is a term we have all heard a hundred times before and it is something that every university will mention in pre-departure meetings. As Erasmus students, we all associate these two words with the beginning of our time abroad. But what do they actually mean? And is it possible to get “culture shocked” twice?
By Elinor Terry / 10.2.2017
The term culture shock is essentially a fancy, academic way to describe homesickness… OK, maybe it is slightly more significant than homesickness. The term itself describes the initial alienation we feel when we move to a new country. It is most likely to affect us when we first arrive. Like the chicken pox, culture shock usually gets worse before it can get better but, once it does get better, it seems to be gone for good. Or at least that’s what I thought…
I never expected to catch the culture shock bug twice in one year, especially as I only lived in one country for the entirety of my year abroad. I felt quite comfortable in Berlin after only a week of living there, which meant that, when August finally rolled around, I had completely wiped the words culture shock, and the feelings associated with it, from my memory. What no one ever tells you, as you frantically write notes, research your destination and worry that this year will be the worst of your life, is that the hardest part of the whole experience is coming back.
Now the experts like to call this “reverse culture shock” and, apparently, it develops, not just because of the upsetting realisation that our time abroad is over, but because we have an idealised view of the place we are returning to. An expectation that nothing during our time away has changed and that we can easily slide directly back into our old life, as if the last semester or year never happened. While, for most of us, our time abroad significantly exceeds our expectations, the exact opposite is likely to happen when we return. It definitely did for me, anyway!
Personally, my real worry was that my year abroad would not feel real anymore; settling back into life in Cardiff, it almost felt like I was never away and, in some respects, as if I had woken up from a year-long dream. My feelings didn’t initially make themselves known. On the contrary, after the upset of saying goodbye to my housemates and friends in Berlin, I couldn’t have felt more thrilled to be back; I was ready to stuff my face with cheddar cheese, Cadbury’s chocolate and all the other goodies that I had missed. But this initial elation didn’t last long and, as I began to realise that I had to start “real university” again, the butterflies started to nest in my stomach. The familiar faces of friends I had met outside my course were gone, graduated and moved on. Instead I was faced with new, younger students and, in not knowing anyone, I suddenly felt a lot like a first year again. My first few weeks back at university were spent either yearning to be back abroad, or asking people, at every opportunity, whether they felt the same.
Perhaps, for my current year, the shock of our return is made more distressing by the fact that the Britain we left last September is not the same Britain we are returning to. We have arrived to an aftershock, to Brexit Britain, a country now isolated by its own xenophobia and not afraid to flaunt it. Over here, the prospect of “our future” is now just a little more blurred and, for the near future at least, we will have to put up with the mess we’ve come back to.
It’s been three months now since I swapped Kreuzberg for Cathays, kebabs for cheesy chips and beer for cider, and how do I feel? Well, I no longer get overwhelmed when I hold a fifty pence piece and marvel at its seven-sided glory, but a certain feeling of isolation still remains. I’m actually quite lucky that a lot of my fellow Berliners have returned to Cardiff with me, so that my drunken lamentations about the beauty of Germany’s greatest city do not go under-appreciated and I always have someone who understands to share an anecdote with.
I suppose, in a way, that’s all we can do; look back and remember that, no matter what happens this year, we will always have those experiences and the people we met along the way. I’m not suggesting that this is the only coping mechanism, I’m not a therapist and I don’t believe that simple contemplation will solve all of our problems. But it is a start at least, a way in which we can move closer to the realm of acceptance.
But for now, whether you’re stuck at denial, anger, bargaining or depression, my advice for you is this: share your experiences with someone else this week, even if that simply means showing someone a picture of the best meal you had abroad, or a song that reminds you of a certain city. Next time, I want to explore some more ways that we can collectively tackle our reverse culture shock and I would love to hear your methods and ideas too!