When I moved back to the United States, in March 2007, after eight and a half years of living abroad, I felt “back” just as Webster’s Dictionary defines it: a: ‚in a reverse or contrary direction or way b: toward the past c: toward a worse state‘. Yes, that’s exactly how I felt.
The way I was raised, before religion, race or any other creed, I was first and foremost an American. Thus, it was shocking, at age 33 when most people were settling down, that I decided to do something few Americans would barely think of: leaving their beloved homeland to study in a foreign country. When I returned to the States six months later, the excitement of New York City suddenly paled in comparison to Florence. I had reverse culture shock for the first time.
It was short lived, as I soon figured out how to return to Europe. Two and a half years later, after moving from Italy to Germany, marrying my German husband and having my twins in a Hamburg hospital, I truly planned to live my life on foreign shores. Yet, I write this article now from the other side of the pond. Why we returned to live in the United States is another story itself. We now reside in San Diego, CA: a paradise to most people. But why not me? Could I really desire 200 days a year of German rain to 350 days of California sun? Well, maybe I do like the sun, but it comes with smog, mini-vans, lack of public transport.
After six months in San Diego, I felt blue. It takes time to establish yourself and get used to a new vibe. I knew the problem was deeper than just a new American city; the problem was the same old country and narrow-mindedness. In an email to family and friends soon after my return from Europe, I tried to explain why I was not so pleased to be back. I began to relate how every day in Italy or Germany was a new adventure. Waking up, having no idea how to do things with lack of language skills or cultural knowledge, I had to fight a battle of “newness” for every simple task in Europe. Mind you, these things would be possible to do with my eyes closed back in America. My European life was not a vacation where you do what the guidebook tells you. There was no manual for daily living, and I missed the challenge after I returned to America. Reverse culture shock again.
Also, in the friendships I had created abroad, there seemed to be a “sisterhood”of native English speakers and American women; some of you are now reading this issue of Currents. This bond, often created by fighting that same daily struggle, intensified these relationships. Friendships of this caliber have been slow to come by back here in America. In fact, I now have more European friends here than Americans. Interesting, eh?
Living abroad has created a new me, a person who has experienced cultural differences and awesome life challenges. I could go on about life in the States being different than life in Europe, but I question how to continue moving forward while holding on to those experiences that so drastically changed, shaped and created the new me and my larger world picture. I have decided the answer is integration. I can continue to be a fanatic recycler, I can continue to go to the local farmer‘s market, even if it pales in comparison to the Isemarkt, and I can continue to watch American Idol but secretly check Deutschland sucht den Superstar. Furthermore, I can continue to give my children a bi-lingual education, keep my German language skills proficient, and maybe the most important aspect for myself, I can continue to always share my life story, as it is valuable and worthwhile. By continuing to integrate my past into my future, I become less dissatisfied with America, and my new role here. These things remind me that it is not possible to go back to being the person I was before I left, nor do I want to!
originally published in Currents Dec 2008/Jan 2009