Reverse culture shock can be all too real. Landing at the Philadelphia Airport on a gloomy, rainy day, much like the weather I had left behind in London, had me feeling all different emotions about returning home to Pennsylvania. It may have been from the 16+ hours I had been traveling (starting at London Heathrow, transferring in Ireland, and finally returning to Philadelphia), but I started to feel butterflies in my stomach as we landed on the wet runway.
Investopedia describes this feeling best:
“[reverse culture shock is] readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar”.
This sense of familiarity of a place I called home mixed with uncertainty tangled with my emotions as I collected my massive suitcase from baggage claim.
Despite the jet lag, I was happy to see my friends and family that I had missed these past few months. There was also a part of me that didn’t want to be back. I had experienced a lot while I was away and I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. Would any of my experiences at home live up to those I had these past few months?
Those experiences had begun when just a few months earlier, I had arrived in London to study abroad with my fellow classmates from Ithaca College. Along with 100 other students, I studied arts and culture classes in a narrow, six-story Victorian style house in the heart of the city. I began to explore my new surroundings, forming a new sense of who I was, a sophisticated and cultured student taking on every adventure that came her way.
Immediately, I was immersed in the art world of London and Europe. Two of my classes, Photography and British Art and Architecture, involved many field trips to nearby London museums. With the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Britain just a walk or tube (London’s famous subway system) ride from school, I was able to dive deep into the world of Impressionism, Baroque painting, and Roman architecture. Applying what I learned in the classroom to real-life studies of paintings and sculpture was such an amazing experience.
When I wasn’t walking or riding the tube to museums, I was flying to them. In fact, with low-budget airfare and student prices, I was able to visit 10 countries during my time spent abroad. I visited Ireland, Sweden, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Scotland, and of course, England. Museums, most often free or discounted, were highlighted attractions on my itinerary. I saw it all: The Louvre in Paris, The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Swedish Design Museums, the Kunstsammlung in Düsseldorf and even churches, cathedrals, and Greek ruins that took my breath away. On my spring break to Italy and Greece, I saw more art than I thought possible. It was phenomenal being in the same room as the Statue of David, or gazing up at the Parthenon from a street market in Athens. Old and new cities offered architectural skylines that rivaled any I had seen before. Every country made me stop in my tracks admiring their spectacular views, learning about their interesting people, and tasting their delicious food.
My new London home gave me joy in performing arts and British history. My flat (the posh British word for an embarrassingly small student apartment), was also in the cultural heart of the city, and with short walk down the street, I was in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Walk about a mile in the other direction, and I was in Nottinghill, exploring the colorful buildings and Portobello Road Market with all its antiques and vendors. I was living and breathing in so much culture and feeling more myself than I had in awhile. Sculptures and street art and temporary art galleries in subway stations were hard to miss, and everyday felt like a new adventure. It was a whirlwind five months, and I was sad to be leaving this new life behind, to leave this person I had become.
When I landed back in the United States, after months of throwing myself at any and all art exhibitions and events, I didn’t know what to do. I was scared that I would lose all that I had become, that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do the things I had done now that I was back in Pennsylvania, where corn fields and cows were more common than ancient ruins. I wasn’t sure where art fit into my life now that I was stateside. Driving home to Allentown, my little city north of Philadelphia, I felt an impending sense of dissatisfaction. Who was I now?
The person I had been in Europe was one who was cultured. I went on solo trips to museums on my days off or spent time sketching in front of famous paintings. I traveled solo to Düsseldorf, Germany for the day and climbed a sculpture above the Kunstsammlung museum (an architectural feat in itself, the installation of steel mesh-netting and five air-filled spheres is suspended 25 meters above the museum’s lobby for visitors to climb and explore, created by Thomas Sereceno). I went to musical performances in the West End, sometimes getting the worst seat in the theatre but loving every second of it anyways. I was at my peak for creative inspiration. But now I was home. What did that mean for me now?
Soon the readjustment of being home fell into routine. Without the ease of public transportation or cheap flights, I felt stuck. I had seen so much in the world and now I was back in Allentown, a place I also call home, but a place many of my British friends and professors couldn’t locate on a map. Sure, it was a city, but did it have the tube? Was there a famous palace just a few minutes walk away? What famous paintings would I sketch?
Attending my highschool’s Visual and Performing Arts Awards, while watching my sister receive a Scholastic Gold Key for Ceramics, I began to catch a glimpse of the person I had been in London, and recognized the person I knew I was. Years ago, I too had been on that stage, receiving awards for my work in highschool. I remembered the teachers who had shaped me and taught me what it meant to be an artist. I felt this sense of identity that I had been looking for since returning home. While I couldn’t explore the massive halls of The Louvre in Paris, I could still appreciate the immense amount of artistic and cultural experiences here in the Lehigh Valley that had shaped my love for art from the start. I was an artist, and I could continue to be the cultured, experienced traveler I was in Europe even though I was back in Pennsylvania.
“I was an artist, and I could continue to be the cultured, experienced traveler I was in Europe even though I was back in Pennsylvania”.
Interning with the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, I’ve returned to the artistic world of the Lehigh Valley that shaped me as an artist. From the halls of Parkland High School where I studied clarinet, photography, and graphic design, to the city of Bethlehem where I shot my first concert photographs at Musikfest, I realized that many of the things I had experienced while abroad were right here in front of me. While nothing in the Lehigh Valley will ever compare to the ancient ruins of the Parthenon in Athens or the Duomo in Florence, there is so much that the community has to offer and that same feeling of cultural exploration can still be found within my own identity as I look for new ways to expand my knowledge and appreciation.
After learning about Lehigh Valley Art Council’s ARTix Passport to the Arts (a buy one ticket, get one free offer to twenty arts and culture organizations in the Lehigh Valley), I was able to go to a musical at Muhlenberg Theatre, beginning my new cultural exploration in the Lehigh Valley. Just as I had visited museums all across Europe, ARTix allows patrons to visit arts and cultural organizations all across the Lehigh Valley and bring a friend for free. Similar to the student friendly deals I had taken advantage of while traveling to Ireland, Amsterdam, and Greece, I was grateful to see these budget-friendly deals in my own backyard.
Since their summer productions were in full swing, I chose to see Anything Goes, which promised “breathtaking melodies and wickedly clever lyrics by one of Broadway’s all-time great songwriters [Cole Porter]”. It seemed like the perfect choice, with its close location to home and my growing love for musicals after exploring them in the West End of London.
Anything Goes was a spectacular production, complete with tap dancing and show tunes that had me humming on my drive home. It had me reminiscing about my days in musical theatre (from the pit orchestra) and making a mental note to visit a production next summer when I was home.
Studying and traveling abroad has taught me a greater appreciation for different cultures, and with that, the immense world of art and how I shape my identity around it.