There’s something uncanny about traveling. When you leave your home country, the one you always lived in, the one you consider being, well, home, and go on a trip in another country to discover the culture, nothing major happens.
Yes, you probably cry at the aiport, looking through the gates of the customs and thinking “What am I doing here?”, but as soon as you’re inside the plane, that feeling vanishes. Only this thrilling want for adventure and freedom is staying, and you remember why you’re leaving (for now). But when you come back after your trip, when you return to your so-called “home country”, what happens then?
We never think about that beforehand. Well, I certainly didn’t.
I left Canada in March 2013 for a trip of almost three months in Japan, thinking “That’s great, I’ll be able to discover a new country, and be on my own for the first time” (I’m still living at my parents’ house back in Canada). I thought about all those things I would do there, like visiting temples and shrines, going in Tokyo, eating Japanese food. That’s completely harmless, right? I’ll just go there, spend a few months of my life in a complete different culture than mine, and just, you know, come back to Canada when I’m finished. That’s it.
Reality is a bit different.
You see, when you always lived at the same place, when you always had somewhat the same routine, you take things for granted. Things that you do almost everyday of your life. You think it’s normal, that everybody lives like this. You know there’s other cultures. You know there’s other lifestyles than your own, but you can’t really realize it. Not until you’ve tried these other lifestyles, and certainly not until you bumped into a new culture.
As for myself, this bumping, or commonly called “culture shock”, didn’t make much waves at first. When I got out of the aiport on my first day in Japan, I immediately felt good. I felt like I could live there. The general atmosphere was great to me. Maybe that’s when the whole thing started, where I began to feel between two worlds, or two countries. It slowly crept in without me noticing it. And somewhere halfway through my trip, I began to realize I had to come back to Canada and somehow return into my old habits. A week before I left Japan, I cried as I thought someday all this would feel like a dream. A distant memory, where the only proofs it happened are the pictures you kept safe.
I didn’t want to go back for many reasons, but one of them was : I didn’t want to go back into my old habits, in my old bedroom, with my old lifestyle, where nothing changed while I was away.
I almost cried when I saw that my parents had bought a new bed for me as a surprise while I was away. I can’t express how relieved I was in that moment. My bedroom had changed. This small detail made a huge impact on me : I didn’t have to go back into my old habits, trying to fit in a space that didn’t seem to fit anymore.
While I was in Japan, I learned how to take my life in my own hands. I lived in a new culture, together with a new culture as I slowly made it my own, tangled with the one I grew up in. I had new eyes on my home country, a sight I never had before. I still saw it as a beautiful country, that’s for sure. But I saw things that could get better, too. I saw it as if one of my eyes was one of a stranger’s. It’s called the “reverse culture shock”, but I think it’s more than that. It’s true that you will get more comfortable eventually, but there’s always a part of you, as tiny as it may be, that’ll feel like a stranger in your own country.
And that’s what’s the most unsettling about traveling. You left with the purpose of discovering about a new country, but you come back discovering about your own, too. You keep questioning matters of your own culture that you never thought about before. You don’t really feel like home anywhere in the world, or at least not like you used to. This is when you start feeling more like a world citizen than having a specific nationality.
Add to this the fact that you make friends in the country you traveled in (and even start a relationship just like I did), and then you are doomed. Wherever you will be, you will always miss someone. I missed my family and friends when I was in Japan ; I’m missing my friends and boyfriend when I’m in Canada. Sometimes it feels like a curse, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Just deal with it.
And that was only a shy two months and a half. I can’t imagine the life of an expat. The feelings I had are probably a hundred times worst for them. When “traveling” becomes going to your ex-home country, I can’t imagine how weird that would make me feel. I guess I would get used to it.
Ironically, I’m going back to Japan in September 2014 for a year abroad. I know those feelings will only intensifies, but it’s too late anyway.
So here’s my advice to people that are currently planning a trip : think about it twice. If you always wanted to travel somewhere and have very good reasons to do it, then do it. It’s wonderful, and it’s something I will never regret. But if you’re someone that is easily on the depression side or can’t handle loneliness, I suggest you really think about it. The downsides of traveling can be pretty strong from time to time.
But after all, it was one of the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.