The minute our plane hovered over Fort Lauderdale, with tall buildings and wetlands in sight as the sun set, my friend from study abroad and I looked at each other in glee. How surreal to be landing back in our home country!
My friend, a Floridian, was home, but I had only completed the first leg of my journey. Finding my way around the airport, I began to understand the concept of reverse culture shock. Everywhere I turned, people were speaking in English, and loudly at that. I felt inundated with this “foreign” culture, once again reminded of its old annoyances like rudeness and selfishness: people pushing in lines and an incessant need to rush from place to place like no one else had anywhere to be. I was in a state of shock and wandered around my terminal like a lost puppy with wide eyes and a half-opened jaw. Everything seemed strange: the shitty food options, the lack of Spanish, and the presence of American brands everywhere. After bidding my friend a final goodbye, I was actually on my own. I found myself impulse buying a bag of BarkThins, a vegan fair trade chocolate treat, and despite a stomach affliction, eating the whole bag in one sitting. Was I falling back into the U.S. pattern of overindulging anything or just treating myself to something I didn’t have access to in Costa Rica? Guilt aside, I made it onto my second plane, sans friends, and eagerly anticipated my arrival in Detroit where my dad would be picking me up.
I watched The Hunger Games to pass the time (with Spanish subtitles of course) and, after a little less than 3 hours, the flight attendant announced it was time to put away electronics because our landing in Detroit was 30 min away- which they added, had overcast weather and (to my dismay) a balmy 28 degrees. Tears welled up in my eyes as we neared the tarmac; it felt so good to be home. I could feel the cold immediately and knew my rain jacket wasn’t sufficient. After borrowing a stranger’s phone, I located my dad and met him with a huge hug. Thankfully, the heat was blasting in his truck and we began our ride home. I was in a daze as we passed familiar places I hadn’t even thought of in 17 weeks. The welcome from my beloved canine friend brought me joy, and I could tell my dad missed me by the four hours we spent talking. I was exhausted, but felt too strange to get a good night’s sleep.
The next day I woke up in a confused state early to go get a new phone (mine broke 15 days prior in Nicaragua). While I am grateful to have access to technology, this was the beginning of the sadness and distress of my return. As soon as I got that new phone into my hands, I felt like I was shackling myself to the way things used to be, before my meaningful journey and blissful two weeks sans much technology. I didn’t even want a phone truthfully, and the stress of notifications led me to cut myself off from social media almost immediately. I needed a smoother transition from my meditative thoughtful state in paradise and my adjustment to home life in the brutal Michigan winter. As a kid, I loved our winters but now I was disgusted. I was wearing shorts and swimming just a week ago! I longed to return to the comforts of Costa Rica: my friends, family, warm weather, and purposeful days. Now, I arrived with an empty plate but one that was only inevitably going to be filled.
I cried a ton the first few days when home alone. I felt that my life had become pointless and mundane, and that no one else in Michigan had been transformed like I had. I couldn’t relate to anyone but my study abroad friends so I still texted them. These are common effects of post-abroad experiences, and I had known this but not foreseen just how difficult it would be to adjust back to surroundings that just didn’t seem to fit who I became while abroad. I had fear of falling into old ways, but I have acknowledged the many evident ways in which I’ve changed and will incorporate them into my lifestyle. Outsiders won’t fully understand my perspective, but that’s something I need to accept. I own my experience, and nothing could change the impact it has had on me, regardless of if I surround myself with old comforts.
I had fear of falling into old ways, but I have acknowledged the many evident ways in which I’ve changed and will incorporate them into my lifestyle.
It’s been a couple weeks since I returned but it feels like way longer. I discovered a new passion in teaching yoga for kids and working for folks with special needs, which led into me securing new employment serving this community. I’m at a new stage of my life in which I am adapting to my first apartment, a new job, and looking towards my summer internship and where that will take me post-grad. Life in the States pursuing two majors and various other fields of study while holding many volunteer and employment positions is overwhelming, but I am working on not letting it overtake me. I have many responsibilities, and I’ll have to learn to handle them like I know I masterfully can. Being independent again has been a change, but a mostly positive one. I appreciated everything my host mom did for me, but I enjoy having autonomy over my decisions. It’s also been great to rekindle my relationships with loved ones; distance definitely makes it hard to connect.
That being said, I feel my relationships with others have changed as I have discovered new parts of my being that deserve respect, recognition, and sometimes, distance. The most difficult part about this transition has been integrating my feelings from Costa Rica with my current feelings, both including positives and negatives for their own reasons. The hurdle is understanding that I have not lived two different lives in two different countries, but two parts of the same, unique life of varied experiences, the best of which are yet to come. Having lived such a remarkable experience, it is easy to compare everything back home and undermine its importance because it pales in comparison, but I shouldn’t do this. Every experience has value for some reason, and I must continue to seek this out in even the minute happenings of everyday. I can’t fall into sadness of my study abroad being over, which was something I struggled with for a while upon my return. In a desperate time, I searched for articles from other students who had studied abroad about their adjustment and something that has stuck with me is that the reason why it’s so special is because it is only a temporary experience, which explains why everyday I lived in Costa Rica I pulsated with purpose: to make the most of those seventeen weeks. I have no regrets about how I did it; something in me changed and I didn’t pass up any opportunity for discovery. The more I have made plans with others at home, I have realized how this has become a part of me now; when previously, I was filled with hesitation and anxiousness around decisive plans, now I embrace, if not gravitate towards, the uncertainty of random adventures. I feel reinvigorated with a carefree spirit and attitude of making the most of every single day, because that was my mode of survival in such an uncertain time. I am fundamentally changed and know even though my study abroad is over, the adventure doesn’t stop here, no matter how stagnant this winter break seems.
Despite the difficulties returning home I am grateful to be welcomed so lovingly. I am reveling in all of my surrounding blessings, and continuing to reflect on the most life-changing thing I’ve ever done. I’m so proud of the growth I accomplished and the challenges I embraced in leaving my home country for four months, and my reverse culture shock upon returning proves how well I adapted. I’m staying introspective by embracing my familiar and new characteristics, maintaining my peace by holding my priorities dearest, and unfolding my purpose by staying focused on putting my knowledge to global use, all while gaining a new view of old things. Only travel could do so much for a mind.
For now, pura vida!( actually been crying missing saying that)
Sarah Merrifield studied abroad in Heredia, Costa Rica. This article originally appeared on Sarah’s blog and you can read more about her adventures in Heredia on her blog, Merri Words.