May 19, 2017

How to Come Back to “Real Life” when we Don’t Want To.

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I stared blankly out the window, eyes flitting from bare tree to bare tree.

The twang of country music accosted my eardrums. A grating scrape shunned fat, grey raindrops from the windshield onto the fat, grey highway.

In this moment, I felt a pang of loss that brought a salty mist to my eyes.

In New Zealand, the windshield would have been called a windscreen.

In New Zealand, I would have been smiling out the window, eyes flitting from sheep to sheep grazing free in the green ocean of hills, as my friend’s song selections sweetened my eardrums.

But I was not in the passenger seat of cramped hatchback on a highway in New Zealand. I was in a boxy, gas-guzzling Jeep in Alabama, and that was exactly the problem.

Everyone said it would be a “life-changing experience.” Promises were made of growth, perspective, independence, memories. I boarded the plane, melting in a down jacket in the heat of summer, and arrived deliciously delirious in Middle Earth with a handful of smiling strangers.

How could I have known then that “the boy”—to whom I so referred those first few days because his name failed to take root in my head—would become my dearest friend and make me feel known in ways I had never before experienced?

Or that I would meet so many kind, interesting, and generous people simply by allowing myself to trust in the goodness of humanity as I hitchhiked hundreds of miles?

Or that in my last few days in that beautiful place, I would be blissfully at peace in a car I rented and drove on the “wrong side” of the road, completely alone except for the company of my own voice uninhibitedly belting out songs I knew by heart?

Peace is something that evades me now.

It vanished the instant the first person engaged me in the maddeningly repetitive conversation we have with people who have traveled, because we feel like we have to.

Let me tell you how it goes.

They start: “How was abroad? Your pictures were amazing!”

You smile back, but no crinkles form around your eyes: “Thanks! It was really amazing. I loved it.”

Their turn: “Are you so happy to be back though?”

Lie: “Yeah, it’s nice being with everyone again.”

Repeat. Repeat until you no longer even care that they don’t really care, until you no longer feel the frustration of not being able to convey the changes that have been made deep within you, in places you didn’t even know you had, because you can’t even identify or articulate them to yourself.

You are numb. 

This numbness endured as I proceeded through the first week of an 18-hour course load, keeping me as ice-cold as my dear friend’s hands were that fateful day abroad when they froze into useless claws in the snow falling mute over the beautiful Tararua mountains. Yet unlike her hands, which eventually thawed and returned to normal, I felt no warmth, no sense of life returning to normal.

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Soon, physical fatigue mounted on top of the emotional detachment—an unhelpful combination as I tried to take care of myself and stay positive and be pleasant and laugh.

Although I didn’t feel at ease, I took comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only person to experience this emptiness. Many of the same grief processes that occur when leaving home also occur when returning.

Research suggests that these low feelings I experienced may be a product of the cognitive dissonance I experienced at reentry to the United States as I attempted to make sense of expectations and values that were subtly different than they used to be.

This cognitive dissonance is most powerful and destabilizing among those who resolve “identity conflicts” abroad and become zealously converted to a new set of values, as they feel deeply reluctant to relinquish the self-security they had finally achieved abroad now that they are back at home. [1]

The term “identity conflict” may seem extreme, but New Zealand truly did provide me an irreplaceable context for growth. It was not so much that I changed while I was abroad. Rather, I was drawn back into myself in such a way that the person I was always meant to be could finally come out—out from behind years and years of trying to be who I thought the world wanted me to be.

As I wrote in my journal about a week after my return to the States, “I am afraid to re-assimilate entirely, because doing so would mean I could lose some of changes I made, and I like the things New Zealand brought out in me.” I was afraid that my resolved identity conflict would become unresolved once more if I let myself fall back into old patterns and habits now that I was back home.

But at the same time, this fear led me to feel disconnected from my old friends, old life.

The weary struggle I experienced in trying to maintain my personal well-being upon my return stood in stark contrast to my life in New Zealand, where things required little thought or effort.

My body grew stronger than ever as I smile-grimaced my way up Mount Ruapehu, the first of many mountains I summited with new feelings of self-efficacy and spiritual invigoration.

My abs were sore from the hysterical, care-free joy at the silly jokes made about “Surprise Peas” that I could try to explain here but won’t, because they will only ever make sense to the seven of us who, after greedily consuming a failed attempt at Thai curry, huddled in the shadows created by flames and headlamps around the marred table of John Tait Hut deep in the backcountry bush of the South Island.

And my mind calmed: After missing a flight because of my own poor planning, I simply read my book and sipped a flat white in an airport café, the micro-foamed milk soothing away the (surprisingly minimal) stress the situation had caused.

Maybe it seems like I was at the pinnacle of physical and emotional well-being simply because of the excitement of travel and new experiences.

This is probably true, at least in part. But my daily life in New Zealand’s charming capital of “Windy Wellington” brought me just as much joy as these many wild adventures, and I remained transfixed by the magic of my new home city the entire time I lived there. Even on the damp and dreary days or the Sunday mornings where I would struggle to heave the fresh market vegetables up the dreaded hill to my flat, I was filled with gratitude and would not have chosen to be anywhere else.

Wellington showed me the many blessings that come from not having a vehicle at your disposal, ranging from the built-in exercise to the opportunity to notice storefronts and faces to the realization that places are never static, even if we wish they were.

I will always cherish the intimate connection I made with that lovely city that was largely possible because I had no choice but to become acquainted with it on foot.

Back in Nashville, however, I felt unprecedented anguish each time someone suggested that we Uber or drive to the restaurant—walking was not even considered an option. Upon being seated, it wouldn’t be long before the faint blue light of phone screens illuminated everyone’s faces as they sipped wordlessly on straws, or, in a delightful moment of true friendship, leaned in to examine the same Instagram photo.

In moments like these, I silently mourned the lost Monday nights in Wellington when we all would engage in rich conversation and laughter over the food prepared by our own hands, diverse accents and backgrounds and personalities being unified together at one table under a culinary theme.

I’ll always smile nostalgically when I recall the time my Spanish friend brought “Spanish brownies” to the dessert-themed potluck: When asked what about the brownies made them “Spanish,” he cocked an eyebrow and responded, “Uhh, the cooker?” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

My awareness of this dichotomy of values overwhelmed me in these social situations, which is apparently not an uncommon response for women who have studied abroad. A study into reverse culture shock study revealed that women in particular struggle with feelings of anxiety and stress when forced to reconcile new values and beliefs that differ from those of the home country. [2]

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While I cannot be sure that the difficulty I had was because I’m a woman or because I resolved an identity conflict abroad (or some combination of these things), it was helpful to know that I wasn’t the only one experiencing these unsettling realizations about home life in light of my new discoveries. The social norms that I used to participate in fully—like relating more through technology than talking—suddenly seemed incredibly jarring in light of as the new perspective I gained abroad.

I’ve heard that all good things have to come to an end, and I knew I would eventually have to come back to “real life.” This thought was one I continuously and forcefully avoided as I fought to absorb every moment I was lucky enough to enjoy in New Zealand. However, fighting this realization did not make it any less true.

Craig Storti’s helpful handbook The Art of Coming Home provided me some useful words of wisdom for how to move forward:

You eventually reach a stage when your goal in life is no longer to go overseas again as soon as possible, when you focus on your life as it is now and not on how it used to be. This doesn’t mean that you suddenly realize you were wrong about home, nor does it mean that you deny or forget the expatriate experience and what it has meant to you. The difference, rather, is that now you have a more balanced view of your own country, and you are able to put both home and the overseas experience into perspective. [3]

I held onto this promise that I’d one day find peace in my American life, and believe that I’ve reached that equilibrium now.

Yet at that time, this promise didn’t quite erase the heartbreaking reality that my abroad experience had come to an end. I felt nostalgia and sadness as I worked daily to reintegrate my new self into my old life. I felt pain and frustration as I tried to relate to the people who were so important to me before leaving but seemed so distant upon return.

But New Zealand was my real life too—possibly the realest life I have ever experienced, as it unfolded in the contours of valleys and in the shadows of mountains too magnificent to care about the person you are striving to be or the way you think you should act.

In that humbling context, you are forced to stop taking yourself so seriously and instead take in the world as it exists in that very moment: raw, chaotic, and beautiful.




[1] Gullahorn, John T., and Jeanne E. Gullahorn. “An Extension of the U-Curve Hypothesis.” Journal of Social Issues Jul. 1963: 33-47. Online.

[2] Wielkiewicz, Richard M., and Laura W. Turkowski. “Reentry Issues Upon Returning from Study Abroad Programs.” Journal of College Student Development Nov. – Dec. 2010: 649-664. Online.

[3] Storti, Craig. The Art of Coming Home. Boston: Intercultural Press Inc., 2003. Print.



Author: Callie Rushton
Image: Author’s own

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