Marissa Fretes: Coping with reverse culture shock after study abroad

Media Credit: Cartoon by Jay Fondin

Cartoon by Jay Fondin

Cartoon by Jay Fondin
Cartoon by Jay Fondin

Marissa Fretes, a junior majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

It was 85 degrees when I got onto the plane in Rio de Janeiro, sad to leave my friends I had met on my semester abroad. Hours later, I got off of the plane in New York City – in 25 degree weather. My body was in some kind of strange thermal shock, but I was excited to return home.

And now, two weeks into a new semester in the G-World, I can’t help but think of a reminder I was given before I left: “Reverse culture shock is real. Good luck.”

Before I left, the Office of Study Abroad walked me through the stages of a semester overseas. First, you’ll experience the initial thrill of being in a new place. Things change as time goes on, when you start making stupid mistakes, like asking for a vulgar curse word instead of “bread” at the supermarket. You’ll find yourself frustrated, alone, and homesick. Why don’t street signs make sense? Why does it rain all the time? Is this over yet?

But time continues to pass. Soon, you start to really appreciate your surroundings, even with all of these annoyances, and you feel that thrill of being in a new place again. And then, your time abroad ends. You’re home. And here’s the scary part: the entire process of adjusting happens again once you return home. (Except, of course, here in U.S. you don’t greet everyone you meet with a big smooch on each cheek.)

The reverse culture-shock is overwhelming. I’ve had more moments just short of dramatic crises than I’d like to count, and the semester’s barely begun.

Now that I’ve been on campus for a few weeks, I’ve experienced the ups-and-downs of a typical weekend night, complete with just the right amounts of unnecessary drama and gallons of tears. I’ve stood at the bookstore and wondered what kind of far away warehouse my political science textbook was coming from that it would be “in-transit” for more than a month. It’s all stuff I’ve done before, and done for years, but this semester, it felt foreign and new – and I didn’t know what to do.

I’ve gotten lost walking around a campus I’ve spent nearly three years at. I even made my way to a sticky-floored frat party filled with scantily-clad lower-classmen. Trust me: I’ve been to fraternity parties before – but for some reason, the experience was strangely different after having been away for so long. I felt like I didn’t belong, and maybe that I didn’t even want to belong in the first place.

While abroad, I immersed myself in a new language, met people from all over the world and got to experience the quirky customs of another culture. I explored a city and got horrifically lost more often than not – giving me a bunch of stories I’ll never forget.

But after getting a taste of the semester to come – and as I slowly wade my way through this sometimes awkward culture shock – I realize that there was so much about the GW experience that I took for granted, and a lot that I shouldn’t have cared about nearly as much.

Things that used to be annoying (like the lines at Whole Foods) are no longer quite as annoying, when put in perspective. And other stuff (like fraternity parties) I should have realized were sometimes a waste of time earlier.

And I guess this means that while I don’t mind waiting through the lunch rush for a burrito bowl at the on-campus Chipotle, I do mind standing on months-old beer stains.

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