Thirty-Hour Thursday: What Does it Mean to Go Home After Exchange?
To go home was to travel back in time.
A Long-Expected Journey Home
I left my SiO apartment at 3:30 Thursday morning, and thirty hours later, after three connections, two missed flights, and one €14 meal voucher, I landed at LAX at 11:30 Thursday night. Flying east-to-west, you gain time as you travel, and if you fly fast enough you might even arrive at your destination at the same hour you departed, as though no time has elapsed at all. In a very literal way, then, I had traveled to a different time on my Christmas visit to America.
But it also felt like I had returned to a former age in a more metaphysical way. I had lived, studied, and worked in Norway for 2,5 years before I was able to go back home. After two jobs, falling in love, a global pandemic, finishing one degree and starting another, the person who landed in Los Angeles this past December was not the person who flew away in 2019, who believed she would return much sooner.
Anxieties about Going Home
Many if not all international students wonder what it will be like to travel home again after their exchange. After all, the experience is marketed as a transformative, once-in-a-life-time adventure. There is, then, an existential – but perhaps even pleasurable – worry that we will no longer feel like we belong in the homes we return to. In this anticipated version of our homecoming, the transcendent selling-point of exchange is validated: we have seen too much of the world to be wholly content within the confines of the place where we grew up.
But I think that there is a deeper anxiety that lingers further below, the fear that after all the time, energy, and anticipation expended on this journey, our experience does not matter in any externally verifiable way. Its presence is not permanent, even in our thoughts and memories.
Two years ago, at the end of my first semester in Norway, I remember spending more time than I would care to admit watching SiO cleaners make their way through the apartment block across from mine, preparing for the next set of international students to arrive. Three cleaners take five minutes to scrub and shine, and all that’s left of you in the space that is supposed to serve as the inner chamber of your transformation are the spots that they inevitably missed.
I had traveled back in time, but I couldn’t travel back far enough...
The Promise of a Return
These anxieties about exchange containing too much or too little meaning are, of course, contingent upon life abroad being all it was actually cracked up to be. But what if it’s not? Especially under the pandemic, no student’s study abroad matches the impression given by recruiters and their glossy brochures. Rather than discovering their “true” selves, international students might instead feel alienated, as they struggle to find close friends, or feel out of place in the culture of the host country, even more so in cases where they are not fluent in the national language. In such cases, the prospect of going home might seem like a return to who we really are.
So, if these are some of the complex emotions we might feel looking forward to the end of our time studying abroad, what does it actually feel like to go back? My experience of going home this past Christmas fulfilled all and none of these expectations.
Reverse Culture Shock?
When I first moved to Norway, the country did not feel as foreign from America as I had expected. However, traveling back to the United States brought home the cultural and physical differences between the two countries. I’m from Los Angeles, a city with a metropolitan area twice the population of all of Norway, and to be immersed in an ocean of blinding lights and blaring traffic was indeed a shock. Yet somehow, I could still see more stars through the LA smog than amongst the crisp, northern sky of Oslo.
The roads are wide and in poor repair, and everywhere buildings are more massive than I remembered, as though I had somehow shrunk in my years of absence. The usual palm trees lined the strips of dead parkway grass, and it was only upon seeing them again that I realized I had not encountered one since I left. The American flags hoisted above most businesses and households felt like patriotic overkill, where I had once viewed them as commonplace.
There was a glut of cars clotting the airport and freeway onramps, and we bounced along the road to the rhythm of a jackhammer as my dad tried to navigate past the chaos. He had brought me a plastic bottle of water, since the tap isn’t quite safe to drink from, and three pieces of my grandmother’s homemade fudge. As the potholed pavement gave me whiplash and I savored my first sweet taste of home, I ruefully thought that this would never happen in Norway.
The endless cycle of outrageous news – about the pandemic, about police violence, about natural disasters – made America feel further and further away.
Fulfillment of a Return
After arriving in my old neighborhood, did I find that my time abroad had utterly transformed me beyond recognition? Or did I feel like I had rediscovered the most authentic part of myself in returning home? Or maybe I found that neither going nor coming back mattered at all.
Though I had literally traveled back in time, the place and people I had said goodbye to were not stagnant. My mom was forced to sell her house and move to a less expensive state, and when, on one of my last evenings in LA, I walked by the home my grandfather had helped to build, I was hurt to see that the shrubbery hadn’t been well-maintained.
Even my dad’s house had acquired subtle alterations. The furniture had been rearranged, and the walls were graced with a fresh coat of paint. We slipped into our old routines around each other, but I still had to relearn, which light switches did what.
The second day after my arrival I tested positive for Covid-19, and the plans I had made with friends were transferred to Zoom, as though I were still over 5,000 miles away. My favorite bookstore had moved to a shoddier building and increased its prices; my childhood best friend had moved to Indiana.
The things I missed most about home, I still missed even while I was at home. I had traveled back in time, but I couldn’t travel back far enough.
When I think about home, I think about the softest bed I’ve ever slept in, heavy velvet curtains, the kind of tired you only feel after swimming, morning light slanting through stained glass.
Ja, Vi Elsker the Star Spangled Banner
Though my trip had a difficult beginning, I am happy and grateful to have gone. The feeling of being back home matched neither the idealized nor dreaded pictures in my imagination. There is meaning to be found in spending time with loved ones, even if they’re on Zoom, even if they’re not exactly the same as when you left – but you probably already knew that.
After Los Angeles, my dad drove my brother and me to Las Vegas to spend Christmas with our mom. After that I flew to Portland to spend New Year with some friends who had moved there. And then I returned home again, this time to Norway.
Before I had taken this journey, I had believed that there would come a day, if I lived abroad for long enough, that I would no longer feel American. The endless cycle of outrageous news – about the pandemic, about police violence, about natural disasters – made America feel further and further away. But after my three weeks there I had already begun to refer to Americans as “we” instead of just “them”, as had become my habit.
So what does it mean to go home after time spent abroad? The only lesson I can glean from my temporary return to the United States is that home, whatever that might mean, is endearing but elusive, constantly frustrating our expectations. When I think about home, I think about the softest bed I’ve ever slept in, heavy velvet curtains, the kind of tired you only feel after swimming, morning light slanting through stained glass. What it means to go home is not a question we ask, but one we answer, however we can, however we need to.