By Shannon Tinning, 4th Year Student in English, Faculty of Arts
When I was preparing to go on exchange to Edinburgh, Scotland, I was flooded with speeches from relatives and friends, filled with statements such as, “you’re going to have such an amazing time!”, “this will change your life!”, and “you’re literally the luckiest person in the world.” While I was incredibly grateful for the countless words of encouragement to ease my anxiety concerning this massive move across the world, I noticed that no one had discussed how different life would be once I returned home to Canada.
My experience abroad was certainly life changing and the best decision I have ever made and surpassed every expectation I had. However, returning from living in a beautiful town, enriched with centuries of history, to my small hometown (and then of course the uber urban city of Toronto) was a far bigger adjustment than was necessary for travelling to Scotland.
Perhaps it was the sheer excitement embarking on this 5,500 km journey, but the thought of returning to Canada was abruptly swept to the inner corners of my mind, refusing to be acknowledged.
5 and a half months is FOREVER to a 20-year-old, right? Wrong. My time in Edinburgh flew by in what felt like minutes. The swiftness of an exchange calls for adapting to societal norms in a relatively quick fashion. However, undoing what I had learned to be the norm in Scotland when returning to Canada proved to be far more difficult than I had anticipated. Reverse culture shock hit me with brutal force once I landed in Canada, as I will outline below.
I grew incredibly familiar with the feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb. Not only did my Canadian accent (American-sounding depending on who you asked) draw immediate attention from everyone I interacted with (store clerks, bartenders, my professors…the list goes on), but the way I presented myself drew a clear binary between myself and citizens of Edinburgh. There, girls wear a full face of makeup, complete with a fake tan, smoky eye and dark lip.
I grew accustomed to being approached by individuals asking where I was from, why I was in Scotland, and how long I would be visiting. Adjusting to sticking out in Scotland was a challenge that I found interesting and a unique experience. However, when I came back to Canada, I was immediately flooded back in to being a familiar face, with a non-existent accent. Seeing individuals wearing a Blue Jays hat, or a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater was no longer the cause for a freak out, as that is (obviously) the standard of living in or near Toronto.
The reverse culture shock of no longer being a foreigner was one I had never anticipated; I was no longer the Token Canadian at a bar.Now, I’m just the stereotypically annoying girl that studied abroad.
Another reverse culture shock that I experienced when returning home to Canada was the swift reminder of how horrid our transit systems are. In Scotland, the U.K., and Europe as a whole, the transit system is (relatively) flawless. Not only is travelling cheap (a train from Prague to Vienna cost me about $20), but the transit runs on time, without delays. Living about 2.5 hours away from Toronto, I often take the Via Rail home. Not only is Via expensive, but it often is delayed upwards of an hour.
When a bus in Edinburgh says that it will be arriving at 3:06 pm and will take 15 minutes to get to your stop, it means exactly that. When I travelled alone to Sweden (my first ever solo adventure), I, along with my anxious-ridden mother, were quite nervous for how I would fare translating the subway station’s names. Despite never speaking Swedish in my life, I was able to view the subway lines with ease. Leaving behind a reliable transit system for the nightmare that is the TTC at 9 am was a reality I was not prepared to face when leaving my study abroad experience behind.
Leaving Edinburgh to come back to Canada was simply heartbreaking. The adjustment period of the first 2 months back home was a far more difficult adjustment than when I moved to Scotland.
I was back under my parent’s roof in my small hometown of Stratford, when just a few weeks previously I had been travelling to a different country every weekend. I had known that I wanted to study abroad since I was 15 years old, preparing to study in Scotland for a year, and suddenly, that experience was over. Attempting to adjust to working a full-time position, as well as an additional part-time job after I had just travelled to 16 different countries put an immense strain on my mental health. I felt trapped, stuck in a routine I yearned to escape from.
Besides the typical, “oh you’ll never want to leave!” remarks I received before going to Scotland, no one had prepared me for how arduous this shift would be.
My advice to anyone on an exchange now, or looking to go on one in the future, soak up every minute of it. Make a list of things that you are excited to do once you return home to Canada. That way, once the homesickness for wherever you studied kicks in, you can look at a visual representation of all that you are thankful for here. Detailing (and perhaps annoying) friends and family with the life-changing moments you experienced is another must, no matter how many memes they tag you in of being an annoying study abroad student.