Category Archives: Reverse Culture Shock

Ten Things No One Tells You About Study Abroad

  1. You will have at least one nervous breakdown.
  2. People don’t really want to hear that much about your trip30 seconds or less will do.
  3. Other countries are really not that scary.  The people are pretty much just like us–they just dress, talk and act different, and eat different food.
  4. Some days, it will suck. This is because it is real life, not an extended vacation.  So laugh and keep moving.  Even if you have to fake it, you probably won’t notice when you stop needing to.
  5. You will spend too much money.
  6. No matter how carefully you pack, you will have brought too much, and still manage to have left behind something you totally miss
  7. It’s harder to adjust to life back home at the end of the trip than life away from home at the beginning.
  8. Everyone gets in.  Well, pretty close to it.
  9. Everyone lies about how perfect study abroad is.  Study abroad is awesome, but not perfect.  I promise, your friends don’t post pictures, blogs or status updates about feeling overwhelmed, having trouble making friends, or being ridiculously homesick.  No one wants to admit “defeat” especially since everyone else’s time seems so perfect.  But everyone is having their rough days, too.
  10. You will, in fact, spend the same amount of time on facebook and watching movies/television as you did back home.

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

  • You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time
  • You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide
  • The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies
  • You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go
  • You talk about showering more than you actually do it
  • You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there
  • …but now you can’t wait to go back
  • You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag
  • You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head
  • You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike
  • You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike
  • You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email
  • You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too
  • You eat peanut butter
  • You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know
  • You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once
  • You’re still annoyed by street harassment
  • You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian
  • Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes
  • Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time
  • You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33”
  • People laugh when you eat with your hands
  • You don’t speak Fon, Yoruba, Goun or many of the other local tribal languages
  • When you go home, you’re confused by all the white people, and the fact that everyone speaks English
  • You have an awkward Mean Girls-style moment of assuming every black person you see speaks French
  • You don’t know the end of the yovo song, because no one ever finishes

Did You Hate it?

Sometimes I feel like this guy.

I’ve been reading the U Michigan group blog, and it always leaves me feeling uneasy.  Some of the entries, like Franny’s, are beautiful and lyrical. But others reflect an intense dislike of all things Cuba, extreme efforts to distance oneself from Cuba.

A partial group shot of Americans lounging on the steps of La Universidad de la Habana

When I was at a reunion for last summer’s Egypt crew, I found myself suddenly on a stage.  I was late (curse you, green

line!) and, as I was suddenly reminded, the only one who had been away for the semester who was back.  Chantalle asked about the Cuba program, and I gave her the practical answer, the kind I wish I had been given by people who went the year before me.  I talked about the realities of hunger and food scarcity, even for privileged Westerners, and the complex nature of friendships and relationships.

During a pause, someone chimed in dryly with a, “wow, sounds like a great place.”

I always feel like I’m balancing, countering myself when I talk about Cuba.  It’s just not cut and dry; there’s no easy answer.  Yes, I often felt like some of the U Mich kids who sought refuge in a western hotel with AC, nice bathrooms, comfy couches and English around every corner. A place where the privilege of my skin color, clothing and passport would allow me to block out the stresses of the Cuban reality.

Hotel Nacional, a lavish place most Cubans can only hope to work.

But I also learned a lot from Cuban values.  The importance

family, in whatever form it may come, and pride in one’s community.  A sense of place, an intense eye for culture, both low and high, and the reality that perhaps those terms are outdated.  To smile more, to relax, to complain less, to accept failure–or at least try.

I am very proud and protective of the places I have been, the cultures I try to know.  I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, and I feel a perhaps self-inflated responsibility to portray everything with as much honesty and dignity as possible, but I find it tough when everything is so conflicting and based on rumour.

So please bear with me, as I try to tell you all the conflicting sides of life there, and how I felt about it.

A Whole New World

Being home is great because America is like this whole new place to me.  I appreciate a lot more, and there’s so much to experience.  I’m not clamoring to speak my mind or exercise the rights we come to think of as synonymous with “America” and the antithesis to a place like Cuba.  I never felt unprivileged in that sense.  Rather, it’s everything that’s transpired here in the last three months.

Reading the Globe on the porch instead of on my laptop, trying on lots of clothes just for fun, trying to cook.  There’s always people to catch up with, television shows to catch up on, the radio dial full of new songs, and movies I haven’t heard of.  Food to re-experience, places to re-visit, and things to get reacquainted with, like going to American bars, ordering takeout or driving again.

And really, nothing can compare to driving again.  I blare the stereo, singing and dancing along (even if I don’t know the words.)  Tonight’s inspiration, if you must know, was Rage Against the Machine.  Because sometimes new is great, but familiar is even better.

Super Market Sweep

Let me say, to begin, that I should’ve known going to Market Basket on Holy Saturday was a bad idea. Weekends are always terrible there, especially holiday weekends.  (That includes the entire Patriots season.)  But less than twenty-four hours after coming home from abroad?  From a poor country?  From Cuba, where there’s no advertising, no options, no variety?

I am a woman with a death wish, apparently.

My mum kept asking me questions: which kind of cheese?  Hot or mild salsa?  I had no clue how to answer these questions.  I am far more indecisive now than I already was.  So I stood there, gripping the handle of the shopping cart (I should not have been steering) while she scouted deals.  My eyes were so wide, and my face so apparently disturbed, that a nice guy who worked there asked if I was okay.  Um, yeah.  I’m just a little overwhelmed.

Everywhere, options.  Why do there need to be so many kinds, so many brands of lettuce?  It’s just leaves, right?

“Wild crispy tango romaine lettuce.”


How is that even a thing?

The waffle aisle was disturbing.  Yes, frozen waffles had their own aisle.  Name brand, store brand, other name brand: whole grain, seven grain, blueberyr, chcolate, cinnamon, homestyle.  and that’s just one brand

I can only imagine the damage a Cuban would do if they were allowed to shop at just one of these aisles.

Everyone was acting as though all the other shoppers were there as a personal insult.  Living obstacles to their Easter dinner, and time outside on a rare, gorgeous spring day in Massachusetts.

Bright, psychedelic colours assailed the eyes from all sides.  Where in nature does one find that colour?

Then I got to the condiment aisle–row upon row of mayonnaise–and I felt comfortable.

Every five minutes or so, a man’s voice would crackle and bark onto the intercome.  Always selling more, different, here, new, better!

I should’ve stayed in the car.