The Dam Dispatch: Returning to ‘normal’ after studying abroad

Kera Nelson photographed in France during her study abroad trip.
Kera Nelson photographed in France during her study abroad trip.
Contributed photo by Kera Nelson

Editor’s Note: This is a column and does not reflect the views or opinions of the Daily Barometer

From temporary farewells and overstuffed suitcases to foreign streets and ancient ruins, studying abroad is the opportunity of a lifetime.

We often discuss the preparation, jet lag, culture shock and unforgettable experiences that come with living in a different country. But what happens when the curtains close and the plane touches back down on home turf?

I spent my whole life dreaming of a bigger world that – beyond books, movies, and my imagination – I knew nothing about. When I learned that studying abroad was a real possibility at Oregon State University, I did everything I could to turn my dreams into reality.

Last fall, I lived in Lyon, France, studying French and sampling as many croissants as I could get my hands on. I can spend hours telling stories about those four scary, incredible months but I struggle to describe how my words no longer feel the same in my mouth.

My thoughts feel out of place in a reality almost the same as the one I left. Things that were once so remarkably normal – supermarkets, parking garages, boxed mac n’ cheese, amazon packages – are now so notably American.

My daily routine is accompanied by intermittent flashbacks of computer-free classrooms and innocent interrogations at the dinner table. I can hear my host sister asking why I eat eggs for breakfast or why the cheese on our plates is banned in America.

In some ways, being back in Corvallis feels too easy. Without language barriers and cultural faux pas, once simple tasks seem suspiciously mundane.

Daniel Steyn, a third-year business student, spent fall term in Lund, Sweden. After coming back to Oregon, he remarked how boring some activities had become.

“When I was in Sweden, there was a fun challenge when you went grocery shopping,” Steyn said. “You need to figure out what everything says. That was a lot of fun.”

Now, in the aisle at Fred Meyer, bread is just “bread.”

Adapting to cultural norms is an essential practice while living abroad and the process can be tiresome and awkward. These forced behaviors feel unnatural until they become subtle, stubborn habits long after returning home.

The first dinner I ate with my host family, my host sister stared at me and asked why I was only eating with my fork. Without any real answer, I picked up the neglected utensil and clumsily continued my meal.

I was shocked by how the knife felt more foreign in my hand than the French coming out of my mouth. I quickly learned the importance of observing, from low conversations on the subway and public formalities, to hands at the dinner table.

During my first night home in December, when my brother asked why I was eating takeout with a fork and a knife, I couldn’t explain how my left hand longed for balance with my right.

Grayson Mondeaux, a fifth-year religious studies and psychology student, spent the fall in Nepal, where there is a cultural taboo against using your left hand for eating and interacting with others.

“It’s been really hard to curb that habit,” Mondeaux said. “I gave someone a fist bump with my left hand the other day. It made my skin crawl a little bit.”

Mondeaux studied at a school in a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu. Since coming back, he’s found himself almost saying “namaste” when walking into a store.

Thea Davidson, a third-year psychology student, grew accustomed to throwing toilet paper in the trash can when she studied abroad in Querétaro, Mexico. A month after coming back to the United States, she caught herself still rolling up the toilet paper and thought “What am I doing?”

Every time I walk out the front door with my roommates, I bite my tongue to keep “On y va!” from escaping my lips. My brain feels betrayed as I swallow my words, withholding the language I immersed myself in for so long.

Learning a foreign language adds an entirely different dimension to the study abroad experience. After taking Spanish classes throughout the fall, Davidson noticed a change in her speech.

“My grammar in English got so bad and my mom commented on it,” Davidson said.

I was dumbfounded by this same effect when I came back from France. As a kid who was always excited for spelling bees, I panicked when my pencil faltered over simple words, even for a split second. Was it “musician” or “musicien”? Does that “e” belong at the end of “feminine”?

Despite the residual confusion, studying abroad provides limitless opportunities to learn more about the world – and yourself. When the comforts of your culture are peeled back and stripped away, what remains of your character?

I’ve struggled with social anxiety all my life, but after living in France, I feel miraculously assertive. Routine appointments and daunting phone calls no longer make my hands tremble; if I managed in French, I can surely do anything in English.

Haley Nix, a third-year political science and sociology student, has a newfound appreciation for storytelling and music after her term in Cork, Ireland. She also pushed herself to reach out and meet new people.

“I think I’m a lot more sympathetic to the international students that we have here,” Nix said, “because I know how that feels.”

Sweden left Steyn feeling healthier and more mature, Mexico instilled a sense of independence in Davidson and Nepal gave Mondeaux greater confidence. But a country or culture doesn’t really change a person on its own: we’re most affected by the challenges we choose to accept.

The most consistent difficulty I faced in France was relinquishing the poised, public image I held of myself. I wanted to slip seamlessly into French life.

In the beginning, I spent every morning waiting in my room for my host family to leave. I was too scared to enter the bustling kitchen, my French still foggy from sleep. I thought being absent was better than being imperfect.

I realized quickly that perfection was not an option – not for anyone – but especially not for an international student. So I opened the bedroom door and began embracing mistakes rather than hiding from them.

“I think this comes with any long-form struggle,” Mondeaux said. “You gain a ton of confidence or self-esteem.”

It’s been several months since “normal” life returned for students who spent the fall term abroad. With new perspectives of other cultures, of our own country, of classes and of ourselves, life may never feel exactly the same as we left it.

That unsettling feeling, the loss of past normalcy, reminds me of the privilege I had to step outside myself and see the world from a new vantage point.

I often feel like my experience in France was an alternate life, lived by an alternate version of myself. Before those thoughts spiral into panic, I try to remember that studying abroad was just a chapter of my story. It’s a part of who I am now.

I felt guilty when I stepped off the plane in December and a wave of relief washed over me. For the first time in four months, I was completely comfortable.

After all that time, my sudden longing for home felt like a betrayal to the country I fell in love with. It didn’t take long, however, before I started missing the discomforts I had in France.

I miss the acute adrenaline rush of ordering a cup of coffee. I miss translating passing billboards on the bus ride home. I miss watching “The Bear” with French subtitles after dinner, trying and failing to explain the dialogue, a slew of swear words, to my 13-year-old host sister.

Months later, I’m realizing that my time abroad didn’t just disappear when I came home. The same way I left fragments of myself in Europe, through the friends and memories I made, I carry pieces of my experience with me every day.

“You don’t want to let it slip, you want to grab it and hold onto it,” Mondeaux said. “You have to let some of that go away, because otherwise, the really important things aren’t going to stick.”

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  • C

    CarringtonMar 18, 2024 at 4:10 pm

    Beautiful writing, Kera❤️ I felt the same things, to a lesser degree, when I did only an 8 week internship and only in LA last summer. When I returned to my slow and tiny and perfect hometown last August, I felt SO uncomfortable with how comfortable everything felt and how little seemed to have changed, even though I felt like I had changed in every way! I love that your time abroad will live on in the people you met and memories you made in France, and as you continue life here. I hope you have more adventures (and croissants, or equivalents in new places!) and share them with us in the future!

  • S

    SashaMar 15, 2024 at 9:30 pm

    I’m going to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in the fall for study abroad and this article just made me all the more excited!

    • K

      Kera NelsonMar 18, 2024 at 3:33 pm

      That’s so exciting! You are going to have an amazing experience in Scotland. Please feel free to reach out if you’re looking for folks to talk with before, during, or after your term abroad!