Coming (Back) to America

Thoughts from Abroad is a periodic column written by an Exponent staff member studying abroad. The column serves to illustrate differences in culture, issues and perspectives observed by the way-faring student. Elise Byle has just finished studying in Spain.

I am not going to give you a comprehensive list of reasons why you should study abroad; it is pandering and has been done before. Likely, your opinion about semester or year-long sojourns to foreign countries has already been formed. Instead, I would like to address a much less common topic: how to deal with people who are returning from overseas.  

In the weeks before I returned from Spain, I received increasingly frequent messages saying “Can’t wait to catch up!” or “So excited to hear about your study abroad experience.” I never expected to recount the past semester in excruciating detail but I was surprised when those conversations were pared down to “‘How was your trip?’ ‘Good!’ ‘Great! So, how are you liking this Montana weather?’” I can’t succinctly summarize the cliché, “life changing” experience in one word. Quite frankly, I was disappointed people expected that of me.

I still mentally translate all of my food orders into Spanish. Sometimes I accidentally walk up an extra floor because I forget that the U.S. counts the ground level as the first floor. Inadvertently, I find myself comparing little things, like sidewalk construction material and the number of people rollerblading in absurdly tight clothing. I had a different life for the past five months; different house, different friends, different pace of living. I understand that is a sentiment that doesn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of people. But in this area, as in so many others, empathy makes all the difference.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of unspoken rules. You can talk about a trip for a week or so after returning but any longer indicates a socially unacceptable level of self absorption. There is a limit to the number of times you can reference foreign countries before you are just being pretentious. I feel obnoxious when I say “One time in London …” or “At a bar in Belgium …” Cue the exasperated sighs. I promise I’m not intentionally alienating myself from my peers. It is an attempt to give context. For an unknown reason, because some experiences occurred outside the continental U.S., they are less valid and more pompous. One should be able to share as freely an experience in Amsterdam, Montana, as they would a story from Amsterdam, Netherlands.

I am not asking that you maintain an incessant stream of extraneous questions or that you dedicate hours of your life to hearing someone else’s story. But with studying abroad, like with any important event in someone’s life, it means a lot to them. As a considerate friend, if they bring it up, I hope you would listen patiently. Maybe toss in a few questions if you are feeling bold. With any luck or modicum of respect, they will extend that same courtesy to you the next time you are jazzed up about your passions and experiences.