I am from Hanover in Germany, a city of 500.000 people neighboring Hamburg and Bremen. Do none of these cities sound familiar? Well, imagine Europe as a dart-board. Then Hanover would probably be close to the bulls-eye. That being said, we find ourselves in a pretty central position in a diverse continent, consisting of many cultures and nations whose borders seem to have mostly a symbolic meaning these days. While the distinction of nations keeps the map of Europe nice and colorful, you could accidentally drive from one country into another without much notice, if it wasn’t for the changing appearance of traffic signs (of course, there are cultural differences to notice at a second glance).
In Europe, many people from different origins come together to call some city their shared home. In my case, that was Hanover. Growing up, some of my closest friends were from Turkey, Argentina, and Poland. In middle school, 13 of the 30 students in my class had some first generational foreign background. And yet, everyone had a certain common denominator. Even today with a healthy mix of cultures being an integral characteristic of our country, there must be something “German” about Germany that I might not have noticed if I had not left the country for a longer time.
When I was 16 years old, I spent a year of high school in South Carolina. Until then, I had not been outside of Germany for more than 3 weeks at a time. Before I left, many people told me that living abroad would be very different from home and that I would encounter some kind of culture shock. Of course, life in the US was very different from being at home. The understanding of family, friendship, school, even emotions and principal approaches to life were vastly different from how I grew up. My life had changed quite drastically during that time, as I learned to see the world through a new pair of eyes. Yet, I had to learn something they don’t tell you much before going abroad for a longer time: It can be a shock to come back home.
While I was gone, I kept my German interactions at a bare minimum to allow myself to fully adjust to the new culture. I didn’t call my family and friends frequently and tried to keep my mind engaged where I was. That was great for the time being but also made the transition of going back home even more difficult. But what was the most shocking part about coming back home?
Surprisingly, it was something I had actually hoped for and also imagined: Not much at home had changed. My friends were still the same people from before I left. My parents spent their everyday life more or less as if I had not been gone a single day. My classmates only looked a year older, my teachers were also the same. You get the idea: it was basically the world I had left a year before. The only significant difference: In the meanwhile, I had become a different person.
It’s something you usually don’t notice much: You grow and mature continuously. But being gone for a year to then go back to the bubble you used to call “the world” is quite eye-opening. Because you change in the way you think, the way you talk, the way you look at things. These changes just hit you suddenly, as if you woke up a different self.
As I said, all that happened when I was a teenager, merely 17 years old. The most fascinating part is that this kind of reverse culture shock isn’t a once-in-a-time experience. I spent another six months in the US when I was 21, and have now lived in Portland for almost two years. While my destinations may change, the feeling of coming back home is yet mind-boggling every single time. Because most things operate in the same way, except I run differently. It’s a process of realizing how you were shaped growing up in a certain place and not fitting into that society the way you used to. I think most who move away from their parents’ home know that feeling, only when going abroad you do not only have that feeling when visiting your old neighborhood but when visiting your country and culture.