I returned from China in June of last year. I had spent one semester with Skidmore in Beijing, China’s capital, and one semester with SIT Study Abroad in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in the southwest of the country, and I had had formative experiences in both locations. In Beijing, I had finally, after 6 years of classroom learning at home, been able to hone my Chinese so that I could communicate and have complex conversations on a daily basis with strangers and with my homestay family. In Kunming, I had used those language skills to broaden my knowledge of China’s many ethnic minorities, their histories, and their interactions with the Chinese state. Specifically, I used that knowledge combined with my language abilities to conduct a month-long independent study project in which I interviewed Chinese minority women about the effects of the rapidly developing tourism industry on their cultural practice.
I was able to travel all over the country with my programs and totally on my own, from the massive metropolises of China’s east coast to subsistence farming villages that line Tiger Leaping Gorge, from Tiananmen Square to the vineyards of the Muslim dominated far west in XinJiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. I made many Chinese friends who shared their worldviews with me, I had begun understanding the enigma that is China, and I was able to speak and write knowledgeably, in Chinese and English, about the current state of Chinese culture, politics, art, and much more. I came back feeling like I had done everything and seen everything, feeling like I could handle everything and anything that came my way, and feeling like a totally independent person.
Then I came home, and all of that changed. I felt constrained. One week I was hiking to an isolated minority village to observe a funeral without any guidance, and the next I was back in my parents’ house, playing video games with my brother, and talking about the newest TV shows and music with my friends. I felt disillusioned with American life and culture. I missed eating family style at every meal, I missed chatting with taxi drivers in Chinese, I missed how respectful and considerate people were towards each other in China, and I couldn’t stand being back in suburban Connecticut. I felt under-stimulated. In China, I had become used to rigorous, discussion based classes about serious, complex political issues, literature, and economics, sometimes in both Chinese and English, so my Sociology lecture classes and sometimes slow, dispassionate discussions made me feel like my academic flourishing had stayed behind at the Beijing airport.
Coming home from abroad can be tougher than going abroad in the first place, and I experienced this first hand. First off, you will face your home culture as if it has become foreign to you. And that’s because it has; it’s called reverse culture shock, and, depending on where you were studying and how apparent the cultural differences you experienced were, it can manifest mildly or severely. It was somewhere in the middle for me, but, however it happens for you, just give yourself time to adjust to and negotiate with your new cultural notions. I still greet strangers whenever I can and make dinner for my housemates to make sure we eat family style because I want to preserve what good I took away from China. But also be ready to sacrifice in adjusting to home, just as you made sacrifices arriving in your host country abroad. One key tip I can give if you do end up missing your host country too much is to check the news from that country, both in the native language and in English. It’s a good way of dealing with nostalgia.
Second of all, you will likely lose some of the independence you experienced abroad; this will likely feel similarly to going home after being at college. You may miss traveling. Try seeing local destinations around Skidmore. We’re only three hours away by car from New York, Boston, and Montreal, but there are also closer attractions such as Woodstock, NY, skiing all over New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and even Albany and its surrounding towns have a lot to offer. There are lots of other ways to stoke that fire of independence and responsibility: start a club, apply for an internship in a field of your interest, get involved with other student organizations, or just do a creative project to keep those juices flowing. You’re just as able to shape your own life at home as you were abroad, you just have to be willing to make the effort.
Finally, the problem of under-stimulation, academic and otherwise, is similar to the problem of independence: you get back that which you are willing to put in. If your classes aren’t living up to your standards, then talk to your professor, and ask if there is a way you can change the class to meet your needs. Ask for additional information and readings if you feel like the course isn’t as in-depth as you had hoped. Continue your abroad journey at home by taking classes that are relevant to that experience. When I got home I made sure to take a Chinese Cinema course as well as two additional Chinese courses just to keep the China bug in my system. If you studied in a non-English speaking nation, then maintaining your language learning is the best way of keeping yourself connected to your time abroad. You can do this by taking additional classes on campus, but you can also reach out to cultural clubs as well as international students from your host-country for more informal, conversational practice. If you’re shy about talking to international students, then just think about what it was like being in their situation, and just remember that everyone loves speaking and being spoken to in their own language.
Coming home is hard, but, like most obstacles in life, it is an opportunity to improve yourself. Draw on your experiences abroad to shape your home life and life on campus to fit the new you. But make sure you don’t go it alone in this process. Let your friends from abroad and your friends at home help you adjust, and make sure to make new friends that share any newfound interests you may have. If all else fails, then make plans to go back. Maybe you’ve found a place that is more home than home, and that’s a beautiful thing.