Today’s guest post is by Katy Rosenbaum. Katy holds the rank of “almost a Melibee intern” – which is a story for another blog post! Our recent conversation sparked the following reflection. When she shared it with me, I simply had no choice but to share it with Melibee readers. You’ll understand why when you find yourself nodding your head and thinking that you too need to share this piece.
As a program leader for Morocco Exchange, I worked extensively with university students who were studying abroad in Spain and came to Morocco on a four to five day cultural immersion program. The days were long and carefully programmed, and the experience—though short—was quite intense.
On the last night in Morocco, we would always have an integration or reflection session where students shared and began processing the experience. Inevitably, the topic of re-entry came up often.
“It’s been such an amazing experience! I don’t know how to cope with going back to Spain and the normalcy of classes there.”
“This has been so powerful that I don’t know how I can explain it to people when I go back to the States. They won’t GET it.”
“I’m worried that I’ll forget things when I go home and don’t know how to deal when things go back to normal.”
My responses became almost habitual. I’d encourage them to use each other as resources to keep processing their experiences in Morocco. I’d nearly beg them to keep in touch with the Moroccan students or homestay families that made such an impression on them. I’d give them handouts with ideas about other opportunities like volunteering abroad, joining the Peace Corps, or even traveling with Hospitality Club or Servas. We’d discuss that re-entry can be harder than the culture shock process when they first came to Spain or Morocco, and I’d do my best to encourage them to use their resources and make a plan.
But I knew that that probably wasn’t enough. There are many orientations and resources for how to cope with the stressful parts of going abroad, but it can be much harder to support students and prepare them for re-entry.
When I reflect back my own powerful and transformative experiences abroad, it becomes clear that I developed a variety of positive and negative coping mechanisms for re-entry.
My first meaningful experience abroad was a three-week program with People to People Student Ambassadors to Western Europe. I was 16, and had just finished tenth grade. The whirlwind experience was mind blowing. I had my first homestay with an amazingly generous family in the small village of Samoens, France; a few of us got lost in Paris during the Bastille Day celebration on the Seine, my friends and I tried unsuccessfully to hand wash laundry in a Barcelona hotel with disastrous results, I proudly managed to have a few limited conversations in a language other than English, and I felt like each day was more incredible and amazing then the day before.
The crash coming home was inevitable, and it was rough. To combat my longing to be back in such an invigorating atmosphere, I made a scrapbook: I typed up the journal I had kept every day, printed all my photographs, copied maps, and put everything from museum and train tickets to used candy wrappers and receipts in two large books. I probably spent several hours a day for over a month pouring over it all, trying to capture the moments, the tastes, the experiences, and the exhilaration. I played the same four CDs I had bought in Spain and France non-stop for over six months, and memorized an entire French musical… even though I had never studied French!
I also threw myself into learning French over the next year, since the homestay family and the kind people in Paris had burst every stereotype about the French I had ever heard. Their hospitality and understanding of my limited vocabulary made quite an impression, and I delved in, devouring French movies, French music, and anything I could get my hands on involving French culture.
My first coping mechanism as a teenager was to funnel my energy into creating a way to preserve the memories that were so important, and to immerse myself in the language and culture as a way to connect back to those few amazing weeks.
A few years later, I studied in China for a semester during my junior year of college. Towards the end of the semester, I began to feel anxious just thinking about re-entry. I knew it would be hard.
About two weeks before flying back to the States, I called my mom.
“Well… I decided to do something. And you’re going to think I’m crazy, but, trust me. I need to do it.”
Silence. “Um… okay.”
“The day after my flight lands… I’m going on a road trip to follow my favorite band for four days. Alone.”
“You’re… taking a road trip… ALONE… to follow a band? The DAY after you come back from a SEMESTER in CHINA??!”
“Yeah! It’s going to be great!”
It was great.
Rather than focus on China, I pushed myself to the limit with something that I enjoyed and loved, but was out of my comfort zone. I was able to take the experience of constantly challenging my norms and what made me comfortable in China, and bring it to the States. I suppose to some people, road-tripping to follow a band might not be all that odd, but for me, it was quite out of character and that made it exhilarating.
And that exhilaration made coming home a little easier.
Today, I am still stuck somewhere in the re-entry phase after living abroad. I returned to my hometown after four years in Morocco last July, and though it’s been almost a year, I still haven’t quite processed everything. Because of life circumstances, I’ve had to hit the ground running—applying for jobs, starting a new job, living in my parents’ basement, moving to an apartment, marriage, adjusting to married life, adjusting to cross-cultural married life, buying two cars, dealing with my husband’s immigration journey, supporting my husband through culture shock process, and creating a social network—all in the period of eight months! Needless to say, I haven’t had the time to really understand how being back in the States is effecting me.
I forget about the need to process until it hits me when I least expect it. I forget not to throw in an Arabic word that doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English. I try to talk about events or moments that have so much unfamiliar context that I can’t really tell the stories effectively. I forget that not everyone wants to hear any more than the 30-second elevator spiel about Morocco. I struggle to not become preachy when I see things here that use excessive resources.
But the hardest part of processing are the struggles I have with defining and understanding my own identity: when I don’t feel comfortable with situations, attitudes, or philosophies that were ingrained in me since I was a child, but can’t outright reject them either because they are learned, ingrained, and a part of my history.
And that’s when it hits me. Re-entry is a process, but also a revealing journey.
Sometimes the journey is fast and relatively easy, and some of the typical coping mechanisms are enough. For many people, doing presentations to groups of interested people, keeping in touch with new friends abroad, talking with students who were on the same program and are processing at the same time, journaling, writing articles or blogs, or using the energy to volunteer, create, or learn things related to the experience are all important and helpful ways of integrating back into American life.
But when these mechanisms didn’t make it any easier to work through re-entry, I found it helpful to embrace the challenges of the journey as a true learning experience about myself.
I’ve learned to be grateful for the awkward and uncomfortable moments in my home country. By questioning and examining these moments and struggles, I’m able to learn more about who I am and what I believe and can break away from who I have been socially conditioned to be.
And that’s what I want in my re-entry process. I don’t want to distract myself, or to try to recreate the highs or intensities of being abroad. If going abroad is about an intense experience or a prolonged high, I may as well save time and money and find an adrenaline rush in the States.
I want to struggle with what it means to be an American who has lived outside American norms and doesn’t quite feel comfortable in either place. I want to discover what I believe when freed from a few things that my home society has conditioned me to believe.
When I see my re-entry in that light, the journey can take as long as it needs to. I can be comfortable knowing that for every awkward moment I have and every time I feel conflicted, I will learn about myself and have a small glimpse of who I am at my core.
About the Author: Kathryn (Katy) Rosenbaum’s love of exploring cultures and language stemmed from an early age when she kept a “foreign treasures” drawer under her bed with maps, stamps, coins, and even candy wrappers in foreign languages. This interest in knowing “The Other” continued as an adult, and after working with immigrants and refugees in Atlanta at a women’s health clinic, Kathryn joined Peace Corps Morocco as a health education volunteer. She stayed in-country with Morocco Exchange, where she developed, managed, and led short-term cultural immersion programs for U.S. university students. Kathryn recently moved back to Raleigh, North Carolina and is currently working on a grant project out of N.C. State that partners with local communities to improve access to healthy, affordable foods and places to be active. She is constantly seeking opportunities to encourage students and young adults to experience studying, volunteering, or working abroad.