Reverse Culture Shock and Other Things You Won’t Learn From A Guidebook
One Student’s Study Abroad Reflections
By Sara Freund, Syracuse University
The first phone call I made back in the United States was to a Chinese restaurant for delivery. Then, you know, obviously my parents. Returning back to the United States was frustrating, because I knew my mind wasn’t in sync with the people around me.
As strange as it was to be in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, hearing a language that I understood was even stranger. Studying abroad taught me about myself and put the world into perspective. But I didn’t even realize how much until I went through reverse culture shock.
I remember sitting in the JFK airport hyper aware of all the English being spoken. I’d gotten so used to hearing foreign languages that it just became background music. I hadn’t been able to eavesdrop on a conversation, and actually comprehend it, in forever. So many things felt strange, like how there were eight different brands of water I could buy at Hudson News. Eight? Really? There were so many choices, and it was so overwhelming I felt like crying. In addition to this I noticed that everyone was glued to their phones. Six months prior, I was able to simultaneously text and talk on the phone with my mom while ordering a coffee at Starbucks. Now, I couldn’t even look at my phone screen and walk in a straight line.
Studying abroad taught me about my own culture, as well as others. Living in Madrid is different from the United States in every possible way. The hardest cultural adjustment was learning how Spanish men flirt. If you’re sitting on the metro and the man across from you is giving you an unwavering death stare—it means he’s flirting. Staring is the national sport among Spanish men, just remember that the word ‘NO’ is universal.
In addition to flirting, the language was another obstacle. I’ve taken Spanish since 6th grade, so in theory, I would be able to communicate. But even when I ordered my meal in perfect Spanish, the waiter still didn’t understand me. I knew I was using all the right words and conjugations but my American accent made me unintelligible.
More so, my clothes made it difficult to walk by without getting tagged as American. No matter how many outfits I bought at Zara, I still looked American. On the metro to class I’d be able to pick out fellow classmates by their baggy sweatpants or workout clothes. No Spaniard went out in public like that, it’s the equivalent of wearing footie-pajamas to your college classes. One more tip—wearing flip-flops, baseball hats, or backpacks instantly labels you American. I’m warning you now, its better to blend in as much as possible.
If you look like a local, or at least like you belong there, you’re less likely to be targeted by a pick-pocketer. My brother Steven, who was studying in Florence, learned the hard way. He was walking back to his host-family’s apartment, alone, around 1:00 am. A girl and two guys come out of nowhere screaming, one of them was waving a knife. He sprinted the other way, they caught up to him in a car cornering him in an alley. Thankfully they only took the cheap European cellphone and cash he had in his pocket. After that, he never walked home alone. In Spain, pick-pocketers are more sneaky than scary. They’ll ask you for directions and half way down the block you’ll realize your phone, camera, and wallet are all gone. On the street don’t stop to talk to anyone you don’t know—even if they are friendly.
Another hard thing I learned was that you will always get lost. My friends and I planned weekends in cities all over Europe. But even with countless resources like Rick Steve’s guidebooks and Trip Advisor, we always found ourselves standing in a confused group. We’d buy the wrong train ticket, catch the tram in the opposite direction and even follow to faulty directions. It’s important to figure out what kind of traveller you are so that you don’t spend an entire weekend frustrated. I’m the kind of person that likes to have a plan. I wanted to get the most I could out of everything so I researched cities and printed out itineraries and articles. A group of my friends decided to just show up at the airport and buy a plane ticket somewhere—that would drive me crazy.
It’s also important to travel with friends who think about money the same way you do. For me, it made more sense to spend a few extra Euros to stay near the city center rather than on the outskirts. The great thing about Europe is that everything you want to do is normally within 20 minutes walking distance of the main square. Most likely, the money you save staying on the outskirts of town is spent on public transportation. Or you could waste hours walking across the city to see everything. It all depends on the kind of person you are—to some getting lost on the streets of Vienna is a dream, and could even led you to an enchanting café or hole in the wall pub.
Another thing to try is solo travel. When you’re alone you meet people, and make friends. European trains are made for making friends; most of the time seats are grouped in fours around a small table. In Munich on a train by myself, a girl my age sat down across from me. I asked her if I was on the right train and we started talking. She spoke four other languages besides English and was from Albania. When you’re open to the people around you it makes travel more enriching. Even traveling with one or two other people is better than huge group of your classmates. It’s less chaotic trying to choose a place to eat or coordinating a plan to make everyone happy.
While I traveled I discovered what kind of person I am and what kind of person I want to be. Studying abroad gets a bad reputation for easy classes and binge drinking. But anyone who has actually spent a semester in a foreign country will tell you it is way more than that. It put my political views into perspective, it changed how I relate to others, it challenged me to think in totally new ways. It sparked something inside of me. Take advantage of all the adventure around you. I got in the habit of finding out what the best item on the menu was and ordering it. I ate a pig knuckle in Munich, a whole swordfish in Lisbon, mussels in Brussels, and ox-blood potatoes in Madrid. So if you have the chance to be a traveller and get under the skin of the world—take it.