I have hit the one-month mark of returning to the U.S. after studying abroad in Southern Spain. At first, I was so excited to come back to ocean views, friends and my major after a quarter away from the usual. The problem is that this normal I was expecting doesn’t exist, and I have changed in ways that my friends didn’t expect. Everyone’s experience abroad is different, but there is a universal among abroad students reentering UCSB life: “So, how was it/your trip/insert country here?” is the most common greeting after four to seven months of not seeing someone. It is my least favorite; how am I supposed to answer that? There is a range of interest and sincerity involved in these inquiries, from which I have narrowed down to three categories: those who don’t care, those who kind of care and those who do care.
Half of the time, the people asking the question don’t want to know about my experience. After the first few times that eyes glazed over, I realized that the person had asked me because it was an obvious question. They wanted to hear a short and positive response back. It is an American politeness social que that I had forgotten being away from our notoriously disingenuous society. In Spain, people would only ask you questions if they wanted to hear your answer. So, how does one narrow down the good, bad, ugly and beautiful of living in a different society? I didn’t want to sugarcoat a quarter that was truly hard for me. Social media had already done enough of that with my pictures of pretty places and things. I have settled on the response, “It was incredible and challenging,” because it is as honest as it is concise. It has proven to be satisfactory for those who don’t care to hear more.
Half of the time, the people asking the question don’t want to know about my experience.
Friends, acquaintances and the real adults in my office that fall into the second category will respond with a positive response, indicating that they are interested in hearing more. However, that more should only be the good and the beautiful. They want to hear about Barcelona, Morocco, Spanish food and the best days and nights. They want more detail on the pictures they have seen, or they want to see pictures in the case of my office superiors. What was my favorite place? Did I meet any Spanish boys? I crank out my highlights reel for these ones. It is easy to delight in sharing so many good times with people who are excited to hear about them. For the most part, these conversations are sweet. It only gets awkward when life was assumed to be a dream, and I crushed that dream for them. Before I got the hang of talking about being abroad, I accidentally talked about the bad and the ugly to people who weren’t prepared for it. Yes, I did travel, and it was amazing, but I wasn’t living a fairytale. I was the loneliest I had ever been in my life. Due to travel-related illness, I was alone on Christmas just as I was alone on Thanksgiving. The grass is always greener on the other side, but people don’t want to hear that. They want a smiling summary.
It only gets awkward when life was assumed to be a dream, and I crushed that dream for them.
Lastly, there are the special snowflakes that care about what I experienced. They accept studying abroad as a season of life with all its ups and downs. They are the friends who survived the distance and tolerated the weirdly timed messages and Skype dates, people who have traveled or gone abroad as well and the ones who silently missed you while you were gone. Whether anxiously anticipated or completely unexpected, these people make I.V. home again.
The best thing you can do for the abroad returnee in your life is to be one of these people. I understand that it’s hard being the person on the other side of the conversation. Ask specific questions about what you want to know. If you don’t know where to start, go with the city that they studied in. It’s likely that this person is missing it a lot right now and that they’d enjoy sharing their old home with you. Also, ask the questions you’d ask to any other UC student. The attention is overwhelming at times, and it’s hard to adjust to being back when all the great things about abroad are brought up over and over again. It’s refreshing talking about classes, what I did this weekend, how my day is and the new library. The difficulties of readjusting to UCSB are different for each person, but it helps everyone knowing that there are those who care.