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Tips for Returning to "Real Life" After Traveling Abroad

Boarding a plane/

Spending time abroad is often described as “life-changing” and “transformative.” We pass through the initial culture shock of living in a new land, find support in new communities, attune our ears to new sounds and languages, and begin to see the world through a different lens. Priorities shift and preconceptions dissolve. And often, just when you’re beginning to feel comfortable in your new surroundings, it’s time to return home.

Resuming your “real life” after a gap year, semester abroad, or international volunteer experience can feel like swimming against the current. Instead of floundering, commit yourself to easing through the process as gently as possible, knowing that it will get easier with time. Capitalize on your experiences abroad and let your new passions and interests guide you toward the right career and lifestyle.

“It is a strange thing to come home. While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.” - Selma Lagerlof

Transitioning in Your Professional or Academic Life

Returning from a gap year usually means having to find a new job or continue your education. Explaining the “gap” is often a source of anxiety, whereas it should be seen as an opportunity. International experience is increasingly in demand among employers, not necessarily because they’ll need you to speak French every day or relocate to Bangalore, but because a global mindset is an asset in any business. The fact that you lived abroad is a good indication of international awareness, curiosity, and cultural sensitivity. Employers want to learn about the things that interest you aside from your 9-5 schedule, so don’t be shy about highlighting your travels as a major part of your development.

Travel experiences can help you when interviewing for a new job
Choosing a new career or academic path

For many people, returning home will mean resuming their climb up the career ladder from wherever they left off. But for others, the desire to continue interacting with foreign cultures will become a requirement for happiness, and it will be necessary to embark on a new career path.

You can begin searching for work abroad through internships, international corporations, or career sites. If international work is not feasible, focus instead on identifying the conditions that made you so happy abroad (i.e. spending time outdoors, speaking a foreign language, interacting with children, working toward a social mission, etc.), and search for work that allows you to engage in these types of activities.

For students, you may find your previous course of study is not as fulfilling as it once was. Should you decide to pursue a new major, begin discussing options for transferring credits with your academic counselors as soon as possible. Remember: an added semester may seem like the end of the world now, but in the grand scheme of things, preparing yourself academically for a career that you are passionate about is barnone.

Bolstering your resume

Consider creating an “International Experience” section within your resume, separate from “Work Experience” or “Education,” which catches the reader’s eye and explains any apparent gaps. Describe your experiences in terms of the skills, awareness, and knowledge you gained. And of course, if you learned a foreign language, highlight this as a valuable tool.

For further advice, check out this great article on Matador Network, "How to Make Travel Look Good on a Resume."

Kicking butt in interviews

The interview stage is the perfect opportunity to describe your motivations for spending time abroad, highlight the transferable skills you gained through the experience, and add some color and dimension to your personality in the eyes of the potential employer. Of course, skip the stories about your nights of wild clubbing in Rio and focus more on the time you spent volunteering and learning Portuguese.

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. – Miriam Beard

Transitioning in Your Personal Life

Even without the anxiety of finding a job, returning home from abroad can be a painful, emotional adjustment. You may find that home (wherever it may be) seems dull in comparison to Barcelona or Bangkok or Bogotá. Your friends will be wrapped up in things that no longer matter to you, and less than eager to listen to your travel tales. You’ll find yourself forgetting that, yes, you can flush toilet paper again (or maybe that was just me) or you don't need to wait days for your laundered clothes to air dry. Understanding and anticipating reverse culture shock will help you deal with the symptoms until you ease back into life at home.

Beating reverse culture shock

The symptoms of reverse culture shock resemble primary culture shock, perhaps leaning a bit more toward longing than disorientation. They can include sadness, loneliness, change in appetite, insomnia or over-sleeping, anger, idealizing the culture you left behind, and a sense of loss or confusion. There’s no pill you can pop to cure culture shock, but there are steps you can take to ease through the transition.

Most importantly, keep yourself busy. Tap into communities where you can commiserate with other folks who have spent extended time living abroad, such as local Couchsurfing meetups or nearby running groups full of serial expats. You may try to join internationally minded clubs on campus or take a language course for the heck of it. Whatever activity reminds you of those fluttery feelings you found adventuring overseas, follow it.

friends who traveled around the world together
Keeping in touch with friends

When you reach the point when your friends threaten to punch you in the face if they have to listen to another story about your über-life-changing semester in Berlin, reach out to the people who shared those experiences with you. They’ll be much more eager to relive the adventures. And with all of the resources available to us today, there’s no excuse not to keep in touch with friends made on the road. My personal favorite is Google Hangout, because you can video chat with several friends at the same time (and wear fun accessories).

Travelers who have spent time in developing countries often return to their wealthier homelands feeling guilty for their privileges and unable to readjust to a consumer lifestyle. Instead of lashing out at your friends and family for being wasteful or frivolous, channel your newfound awareness into a productive outlet. Join a local organization that tackles the issues you are concerned about; if none exists, start your own. Share your insights in a constructive way by speaking at schools and community organizations.

Remaining a traveler

I don’t mean stay on the road forever (though I’m sure some of you wouldn’t mind that). Rather, try to permanently adopt the traveler’s mindset that allowed you to soak in your exotic surroundings in the first place. Seek out beauty and novelty in your own backyard. Try out new restaurants and attend cultural events. Talk to strangers and listen to their stories. Pretend you’re in Peking instead of Pittsburgh, and you’ll be surprised by what you find.

Transitioning back to your “old self” in your life after travel won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. Be gentle on yourself, your friends, and your family, and take time to rest before making any drastic decisions (i.e. I’m moving to Nepal and never coming back!). Enjoy the luxuries of home, the familiarity of the surroundings, and (if you’re lucky) some home-cooked food and potable tap water. There are more adventures waiting around the bend. For now, cherish the memories and enjoy the exhale.

Your perceptions will be altered. You will not incorporate into the same body, status, or world you left behind. The river has been flowing while you were gone. Now it does not look like the same river.

Photo Credits: HSTcraig, voguemarie2010, and Alex Ferroggiaro.

Meghan Johnson
After studying economics at Harvard and working in finance for a few years, Meghan escaped from her cubicle and spent a year volunteering and travelin Read More...