Prequel 8: Reverse Culture Shock

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Leesa Truesdell Shares Her Five Year Update After Living Abroad

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As August 2021 approaches and the world slowly opens again, I smile about the happy memories leading up to the moments before, during, and while living abroad in Madrid, Spain. After living abroad for a year, I began working and then didn’t stop. Then, the pandemic approached while I was moving to start the next phase of my life in a new city. The world feels different now and might remain this way for quite some time. What we must not forget is that life will always have ups and downs. It is in those moments of uncertainty that we truly understand our character. Our most trying times are sometimes the best, at least for me they are. I’ve thought a lot as my life has changed drastically over these last five years and this is what I would like to highlight.  

How do professionals who want to travel, work, study and/or move abroad handle a change? Here are the first five answers that came to mind after living abroad. There has been one for each year since August of 2016. 

Year One: 2016-2017 

My Arrival — Go With the Flow Because Nothing Feels Normal

I arrived in Spain on a sultry August day. I didn’t expect things to be like the USA. However, I also did not feel equipped to understand how different the culture and lifestyle is from the American way of life. It’s the complete, total opposite. Americans appreciate a more fast-paced way of life and thinking (especially the younger generation). We have three meals a day, generally. The traditional family eats dinner at night. It’s a bigger meal than lunch. In Spain, it felt like everything was “traditional.” Let’s face it, they’re the land that conquered many others. So, in reality, their way of life and thinking is very conventional in a sense. It’s family-driven and lunch is at 2 PM. It’s the largest meal of the day, and don’t forget your siesta. I felt so turned around but eventually managed to accept the things I couldn’t control and embrace them. 

Year Two: 2017-2018 

The Passing of Tata and Life After Living Abroad

The Resilience Abroad series started when I lived in Madrid. While I was grieving about the loss of Tata, I was also reflecting on what she meant to me and how her living memory would never be forgotten. At the time, I was in a foreign place. I didn’t know it back then, but I was living the life I was supposed to. I was grieving abroad and blessed with time to get to know myself better for the latter half of what was to come that year. 

Later that November, I moved back to my college hometown and began work in a field that was new to me. In this role, I worked around the clock either in my mind or physically at work. It was the job where I took home the issues that went unresolved. I thought about them all the time when not working. Hence, around the clock.  I didn’t realize this while it was happening, but not only was I still grieving, I also experienced the opposite again.

Reverse Culture Shock

I was re-learning the American way of life but now it felt more intense because I had just experienced living abroad during my first real experience with death. While I had been resilient, I hadn’t learned about reverse culture shock. It’s real and somehow I was too busy to see the signs. I had put myself in a situation where I ignored signs and tried to move on the best way I knew how. This job enabled me to focus on work at the expense of these larger issues in my life. 

Unfortunately, I focused too much on the new work to understand the complexity of reverse culture shock. I couldn’t explain the reverse of what was happening to me and didn’t know it at the time. Instead, I tried my best to adapt to a new job in a location that was nowhere near what it resembled before I left for Madrid. The experience changed me. Moving back to a city I once knew and outgrew wasn’t a recipe for success. Live and learn. 

Year Three: 2018-2019 

Complacency is Not OK. Speak Up and Do Your Best.

I knew I was trying my best not to downsize the person I had become and the person I wanted to be. Living in the same place again while losing who I was made me feel complacent. One thing I knew for sure was that my core principles and integrity would never be compromised. I was tested on multiple occasions. Sometimes, when you’re given tests in life, you realize later on that passing might not be feasible. If the test is rigged from the beginning and you are answering the questions correctly, then there might be something else going on. 

Pay to play happens frequently in the states. It’s unfortunate. I spoke up about this repeated inadequacy that I was seeing and instead of getting a thank you, I got a no thank you. Sometimes, life doesn’t respond the way we expect when we follow the moral code we’ve had since elementary school. In our formative years, we’re taught “stranger danger,” D.A.R.E., and how to be a good person. The end result was a tough concept for me to wrap my head around. I lead with principle and teach others to be honest and respectful. Speaking up will always be the best decision I ever make, no matter the consequences. 

Year Four: 2019- 2020 

Accept the Things you Cannot Change and Move on as Quickly as Possible. Life is Calling. Pick up the Phone. 

What I’ve learned is that the past is the past and you can’t change it. You can be bitter and resent something that you can’t change or you can move on and perhaps be a positive influence. It’s easier said than done. You get scars, and the record plays over and over in your mind on how you could have fixed it. But, in time, you learn after one full record or two that it’s time to let go and live for now. 

The transition from 2019 to 2020 was a tough year. The pandemic didn’t make it any easier, but Dreams Abroad did. I focused my energy on all of the positive things I saw in the people who made my life better through this effort. This included the last trip I took before the pandemic. This was the most important trip of my life, and the one I kept putting off because I didn’t have the time allotted. This life event was the most meaningful and therapeutic — the one I needed to take the next step in my life. Don’t wait too long — when life is calling — pick up the phone.

Dreams Abroad became the uplifting resource I needed when others were contributing each week. Thank you to those of you who are reading, your articles not only assisted our community, but they spoke to me too. 

Year Five: 2020-2021 

Embrace Change

I moved to Washington, DC, and learned that the program I moved for wasn’t exactly the best fit. Maybe it would have been had the instruction and research been face-to-face but, hey, it’s OK to say no and move onto the next chapter. If what you thought isn’t serving you, move on as quickly as you can. Many of us can say that the pandemic has closed doors and opened new ones. Embrace it. I’ve learned that what will be will be. Sometimes things are within our control and they aren’t. Recognize the two and embrace change. Remember to always keep the go-with-the-flow mindset if at all possible. We’re halfway through 2021 and things are opening up again. We can do this. 

Wrap Up

Dreams Abroad has become something more than just a website. The last five years after living abroad have been a way for me to meet like-minded, talented individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and principled belief systems. Each person that I have interacted with has touched my life. For that, I feel forever grateful. Nothing can ever replace the loss of a loved one. It’s been one of the hardest things in my life. There is no manual on how to handle your situation. 

One thing I know for certain is that working with this tight-knit group has given me new memories. I feel so very blessed to have found the lives of so many fulfilling and achieving their dreams. It makes my heart smile and soul feel more alive than ever before. This is what makes a good day, good. This is why we are still here after all of this time. 

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A Faculty Led Trip to Studying in Thailand

Morgan Yearout studied at Washington State University (“Go Cougs!” as she would say) and is a first-generation college student. She is the first in her family to leave the USA for educational purposes; everyone else in her family left the country either for military deployment or for a childhood trip to Canada or Mexico. Taking her first international flight to Thailand, nonetheless during political protests, was a big deal for Morgan and her family. The following interview recaps a few of Morgan’s experiences and suggestions for anyone wishing to pursue studies abroad.

What sparked your dream to study abroad?

Washington State University’s Hospitality Business Management (HBM) program has an International Experience Requirement. It consists of two semesters of a foreign language or studying abroad for a semester. The HBM program also offered a faculty-led study abroad opportunity in Thailand with teachers and students that I already shared classes with, easing my family’s fears. This was especially important since it was my first time leaving the USA aside from when I had crossed into Canada during high school for a Junior Miss parade.

Buddha Thailand Buddha Phuket Buddhism

What were your expectations before you left? How did they change once you arrived to the location and what changed after having completed the program?

I tend to not have expectations so I don’t feel let down. Also, I had nothing to compare what I was about to experience with so I did not needlessly ponder the unknown and simply left with an open mind. I was, however, excited to see how other parts of the world operate, experience beautiful lands, and hopefully make friends with the people studying through my program.

After arriving, I found that deeply-rooted traditions, history, vibrant colors, kind people, and unadulterated natural habitation teemed in Thailand. It was infectious to my soul and transformed my thought processes regarding the western world. I left studying in Thailand feeling more connected to the Thai and renounced material possessions even more once back in the US. This led to my struggles with reverse culture shock after returning to the United States.

Phuket, Thailand

Culture Shock Hits Hard

After returning from studying in Thailand, I was officially three years into my business degree. I thought about quitting to pursue a degree in psychology. I wanted to be more connected and helpful to people. This was not a far-fetched idea for me. It had been something I wanted to do when entering college. I was in a state of mind where I did not want to perpetuate consumerism, capitalism, individualism, etc. with a business degree when I had just experienced so much joy in a poor, communal-based society.

Luckily, I had support from Student Support Services/TRiO counselors to help me grapple with my feelings and life plans. I ended up finishing my B.A. in Hospitality Business Management and graduated Magna Cum Laude. I had decided to volunteer my time trying to improve life for humans and animals rather than throw money at a problem. It took time and a lot of hard work but I eventually cultivated the sense of community I yearned for.

What did you not expect?

I did not expect to feel more connected to the Thai culture than the one I had known all my life. It was interesting to feel like more of an outsider around people I came abroad with than those I met in this new land. To experience the socio-economic disparity while attending a college campus is one thing, but it was even more distinct while studying abroad.

I was putting myself through school — relying on fieldwork in the summers and campus work throughout the school year. I intensely hoarded pennies for three years and applied for any scholarships or grants available to alleviate the financial burden of accomplishing my dream of studying abroad. This was a different experience than the majority of people I knew in college or while studying abroad.

Many came from well-to-do families that provided the financial resources they needed, making lifestyle and upbringing differences very apparent. I spent my disposable time traversing the area by foot. While I engaged in free activities, others often lounged by the pool bar, hung out on the beach getting massages, went out to eat, partied, or shopped. These were all things I could not afford and a lifestyle I was unfamiliar with. This led to feelings of isolation. Nonetheless, I would not have changed anything. This experience and the reflection time thereafter allowed my belief systems to be broken down, reconstructed, and expanded. It forever altered the way I emphasize the importance of people and loving them while disregarding the societal pressure to accumulate possessions.

What have you done since you studied abroad?

Seeing as how I studied abroad in the Summer of 2010, I have lived almost a whole decade since then! Crazy!

Briefly:

  • I moved to Texas with whatever could fit in my Coupe upon graduating with my Bachelor of Arts in HBM. I lived without the internet for a year and slept on an air mattress for three months
  • Worked corporate for five years
  • Became certified in yoga teacher training
  • Became certified in personal training
  • Taught fitness classes as a side project
  • Mentored high schoolers through Big Brother Big Sisters’ Mentor 2.0 program
  • Volunteered with the animal shelter
  • Taught fifth grade Sunday school
  • Sorted food at the North Texas Food Bank
  • Completed the Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth, TX, two half marathons (Valencia, Spain and Austin, TX) and a women’s only Duathlon in McKinney, TX.
  • Competed in a NPC bodybuilding competition
  • Acquired my motorcycle endorsement and logged over 10K miles in the five years of owning my moto
  • Moved to Madrid as an English assistant and lived with the kindest host family for a year
  • Became PADI Open Water Diver Certified in Malta
  • Spent quality time in 27 states and 25 countries
  • Moved back to Texas
  • Re-immersed in my passion for leading teams and supporting peoples’ livelihoods through revenue managing hotels

Trip to Phuket Thailand

What’s your favorite memory from the time studying in Thailand?

Oh boy, I have so many! A vivid one is going to a local market and experiencing the variety of activity, colors, smells, and foods! It was an atmosphere unlike any other. It offered an awe-inspiring inside look at how the locals shop. We collected all of our ingredients from the market and proceeded to make authentic Thai dishes. It was my first “formal” training in how to cook international cuisine and I am still so enthralled by the combination of flavors that Thai food incorporates! Thai cooking is often a quick process, something I can appreciate as well!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to study abroad?

If you want to study abroad, then dream big dreams and make it a reality! Studying abroad is a fantastic way to explore your identity. It can foster a deeper understanding of how integrated our world truly is.

Advice For Studying Abroad:

  • Start by weighing the benefits of a faculty-led study abroad program, enlisting a third party,  or going directly through an international institution to fulfill your study abroad wishes. If faculty-led, you may be able to pay in-state tuition as I did. This made it much more affordable than other programs I was interested in.
  • I suggest targeting somewhere with a language you wish to learn, even if at a rudimentary level, since language is deeply entwined with culture. If you have a desire to know the language, it can help you commit it to memory and feel more integrated into the society as well. Also, your classes may or may not be taught in the country’s language so choosing a country with a language you would appreciate knowing could make your studies more enjoyable.

Be Honest

  • Apply for financial aid, scholarships, and pick up extra hours at work while in school or during the summer to minimize the stress of finances while abroad.  You want to be able to focus on the experience. Worrying about funding can detract from being fully present.
  • Be completely honest with yourself about why you are choosing a specific destination. If it is heavily weighted on the Instagram pictures you have encountered and/or envision replicating, please choose elsewhere. If traveling for superficial reasons you will feel the efforts and expenses to get abroad were not worthwhile. Traveling is something to be felt and images are to spark that feeling. Images in and of themselves will not bring you joy.
  • Finally, explore making a “Top 3-5 Bucket List” to accomplish while abroad. This is something I did for studying abroad and still till this day for all my travels. I find that if I have a distinct purpose that’s achievable, I reflect on trips fondly long after it is over. A full-fledged agenda with no room for spontaneity can lead to an inorganic experience.

A Wiser, More Open Person After Studying in Thailand

Overall, studying in Thailand was a defining time in Morgan’s life! Much of her personal growth during college came within that short period of time. It also led to her insatiable desire to understand the world in depth. Her experiences abroad have also benefited her family, especially her siblings, of whom she has taken on several excursions.

Morgan’s siblings now engage in their own travels and continue to evolve their views of the world! You see, increased knowledge is not just about yourself. It can have a ripple effect on your family, friends, and the generations to come. Studying abroad can be a key way to expand your family’s legacy through knowledge building. If studying abroad is in your sites, dream big dreams and make them a reality! Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or comments about Morgan’s journeys studying in Thailand.

by Leesa Truesdell