Transition can be a daunting process to even the most veteran, and two months ago, as a 20 year old preparing for the craziest transition of my life, I was pretty daunted for the week ahead. I finished a life-changing semester abroad in Madrid, Spain on a Sunday, flew back home to the States on Monday, spent 5 days with family and friends at home, flew out to San Francisco and moved into my apartment on Sunday, and started my internship on Monday. That week I took 4 flights, crossed 9 time zones, lived in 3 cities, packed up my life twice and started a brand new job in a brand new city. In short, I transitioned, hard. But along the way I learned some lessons that have helped me land on my feet through the three culture shocks I have gone through recently that I will share, along with some of the stories behind them.
Three culture shocks:
- The “Original”: Home to Madrid
- The “Reverse”: Madrid to Home
- The “Not-In-Kansas-Anymore”: Home to San Francisco
The “Original” Culture Shock
Moving to another country where I had no preconceptions – read understanding – of the culture and only an elementary grasp of the language was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. When I finally stepped off the plane, euphoria supplanted the apprehension with which I had boarded 9 hours prior. First thoughts: I made it. Is this real life? Let’s do this.
1: Ask for help
With luggage in tail, I made my first mistake abroad: taking the metro system with 5 months’ worth of luggage, without asking directions. 2 hours later, I ended up on the opposite side of the city with a broken roller suitcase and in a sweat. Finally, the image of a lost foreigner carrying a heavy roller suitcase while wheeling another got a kind metro worker to ask in broken English if I needed help. (Yes, she could tell immediately.) Exhausted after the flight and frustrated by the entire situation, I relented. She helped me onto the train, marked a map with the necessary stops, and sent me on my way with a smile. Without her help I would probably still be wandering about the metro system trying to find my hostel. If I had accepted how clueless I was and reached out for help from the beginning, I could have avoided the whole Madrid metro saga.
2: Pick up your hobby again
Settling into Spanish life was hard: new family, new language, new school, new food, new friends, new city. Everything was new. The only consistency seemed to be the house and host family I lived with, who exclusively talked to us in Spanish. I struggled adjusting to the new until I decided to bring back a part of the old. I had played on a pickup soccer team at home and decided to find one there in Madrid to try and revive a small part of my life from before I crossed the Atlantic. I joined a team through the university, started playing twice a week, and felt better almost immediately. Working soccer back into my routine gave me a sliver of familiarity that had a positive rippling effect throughout my experience abroad. Finding and pursuing that hobby brought a sense of calm consistency during the shock of transition.
The “Reverse” Culture Shock
One of the strangest parts of my study abroad experience was readjusting to the place I grew up. After 5 months of not tipping in restaurants, speaking Spanish daily, and pronouncing the city in Spain as Barthelona, switching back to paying 20% more than the posted price, getting shocked looks when you start speaking Spanish fluently, and being corrected that the city is actually pronounced Barcelona was another big transition. First thoughts: So many American accents. I’m going to forget all my Spanish. At least I’m home.
3: Accept that things are no longer the same
Between leaving home January 4th and returning June 1st, I underwent incredible personal growth that changed who I am and what I want to be. Stepping back into home life, even for only 5 days, was initially alienating. A host of subtle differences like those described above made me feel foreign in my hometown. However, other more noticeable contrasts came to light in the exchanges that made others close to me feel more distant. My family has long given me grief for being a picky eater, but at some point during the time abroad, that changed wholesale. My mom’s shocked reaction that I would ever eat sushi, or seafood at all, was just one example.
As I readjusted I began to notice a distinct separation between the expected “header” changes – returning from Spain speaking Spanish – and the unexpected “footnote” ones – my palette. While we could anticipate the header changes, it was the surprise surfacing of the footnote changes that made the transition much more difficult. The fastest way I have found to get around this is to recognize, point out, and accept as reality that things are no longer the same.
4: Stay in touch with your cercanos
The Spanish word cercanos translates to the people you hold most dear (near to you, literally,) and I would consider my family and friends my cercanos. Being abroad was an amazing, formative experience in my life, but without my cercanos I would have undoubtedly lost far more than I gained. I tried to share as much of the experience as possible with my family and friends and succeeded to varying degrees, using common interests and pictures to strengthen those relational cords. There is certainly a balance between staying in touch and diving into your new environment, and there is a different answer for each individual, but if I had launched deep into the unknown without any form of tether to my past, I would have floated off into space like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Staying in touch can be as simple as a Facebook Message, a postcard, a small souvenir, or in my case, a surprise Amazon delivery for my mom’s birthday. Your cercanos will appreciate it regardless of what it is, as long as they know they are on your mind.
The “Not-In-Kansas-Anymore” Culture Shock
After moving to San Francisco from Cincinnati, I can see what Dorothy meant. There is a magically welcoming hometown feeling that strikes me every time I go back to the Midwest, but coming to San Francisco and being able to walk a few blocks from Little Italy into Chinatown then head to work in the Mission is level of diversity foreign to me growing up. Moving here to live for 3 months has taught me a lot about myself and what I like about cities and the communities within them, and while this place certainly is not Madrid, nor Cincinnati nor Kansas, those differences are part of what make it so special. First thoughts: These geo-tags are amazing. Why did I bring all this luggage? What is BART?
5: Find your café
Starting in a new city with a population in the millions without a prior network can be intimidating and overwhelming; alas even finding housing in SF can be overwhelming. But the fastest way I have found to begin is to begin. I start by finding a place that I can use as a workspace, typically a café, and go there repeatedly to feel more comfortable, maybe being a ‘regular’ to the barista. Reaching out further into the city becomes so much easier for me once I have that foundation, that place where I feel like I belong. A café is not every one’s thing, but having a physical space to meet other people and start building connections will help immensely during the beginning. Whatever it may be, finding your café is a great first step to feeling at ease after a big transition.
6: Dive in
The most exciting part of any big move for me is getting to explore the various parts of the city, and especially here in SF, they can tell you a lot about the culture, history and people who live there. One of the first weekends here, I went on a 4 hour walk with a good friend following a SF in one day tour itinerary. The 6 miles and 19 highlights made me feel infinitely more in touch with the city and the people. We started at Union Square and happened to arrive at the beginning of Sunday Jazz on the Square, so we sat and listened to live music while chatting with some of the locals around. Feeling like an insider for having found this event (even though I could have easily found it online) made me feel like I belonged here. Simply by diving in I learned more about the city than I could have ever by just sitting in my café researching online.
I hope some of my trials and tribulations can help you, be it a move as I have had recently and gave in the examples, or another type of big shift.