Rocky, exasperating, frustrating, overwhelming, and hard are a few of the words I would use to describe my first few weeks in Spain, where I was transplanted for my Junior year of college. However, those aren’t any of the words I actually use to describe my study abroad experience, mind you. I look back on my study abroad experience with happiness, excitement, pride, and a deep yearning to go back. In fact, I have a number of stories about things that I experienced when I first arrived that I laugh about now, but that I did not find funny at all at the time. So, having a child go overseas for his semester abroad program, has reminded me of the not often talked about parts of study abroad: the culture shock. We used the terms “culture shock” and “reverse culture shock” before and after my study abroad experience, back in the day. But, talking about it and learning what types of feelings are bundled under the umbrella of the term “culture shock,” does not prepare you for it happening to you. Funny thing about feelings. And, while I believe that everyone experiences some sort of culture shock, not everyone’s culture shock manifests in the same way. But, I guess, it was helpful to have the idea that what one is experiencing is normal. Although, I don’t once recall thinking, “Oh, yes. This is my culture shock talking,” when I was having a frustrated moment.And, communication has changed so much since I lived in Spain, it is mind-boggling to me. While I had pushed all of my entry into Spain and Spanish culture issues (READ: my culture shock) well to the back of my mind, I was brought back face to face with them through my son.
And, while it was a bit uncomfortable to hear he was experiencing his culture shock, it was nice to be able to say, “Yeah, I remember that. I felt that way, too.” So, while the sum total of our parenting advice has been something along the lines of, “Hang in there!” and “You can do it!” I had more peace about the place my son found himself in those early weeks of his Junior year. I knew that he was so close to getting over the biggest hump and would be fine. It just takes time.
While I mentally wrestled with ways I could “help” him, I began thinking about thirty years ago. One thing that came to me was an analogy. Undertaking a study abroad program is like panning for gold in the late 1800s. The conditions are physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. You’re standing in unfamiliar waters, performing unfamiliar tasks, like bending down and scooping up rocks and dirt and water and shaking out the unwanted parts. It’s demanding all of your attention to find the gold nuggets. But, you find them. Some are small, some a little bigger, and every now and then, you find a sizeable chunk of gold. You put all the nuggets that you find in a pouch or off to the side and continue panning. When you stop at the end of the day, you may not find that you have many nuggets. But, at the end of the week or month or semester, you will have lots of gold nuggets. Those gold nuggets are what you will be proud of, thankful for, and will be what you remember about your study abroad experience. The lack of reliable 24/7 WiFi will fade into the deep recesses of your mind, crowded out by the awesome, shiny gold nuggets you are holding.
Another thing that came to me was a word of advice: Don’t compare your insides (READ: what you are feeling) to somebody else’s SnapChat stories, Instagram pictures, Facebook posts, or tweets on Twitter. Seeing people who are also studying abroad appearing to be having an amazing time without any of the culture shock piece does not mean they are not also struggling to come to terms with their new environment. They are. And, just a P.S. Everyone is thinking the same thing about your cool photos and posts on social media.
And finally, I thought, it’s important to find your inner warrior. Be fearless. Face the day resolving to do your best, make the best of every situation, and have fun. I used to picture a map of the world and then picture where I was compared to my family and friends. I used that image to propel me through days I didn’t want to get out bed, as well as days I was having so much fun, I didn’t want to go to sleep.