As an international student, you’ve had to adjust to time differences, cultural differences and long-distance relationships with loved ones. But perhaps the most painful and unexpected is the “experience distance” you may feel. Experiencing a lot of new and different things most of your friends and family back home haven’t gone through can create a gap of understanding that wasn’t there before. You probably have a new perspective of your own culture because now you’ve seen it from the outside looking in. Your view of your home culture is the air your old friends unconsciously breathe and your experiences in your new culture are foreign to them. You will probably continue to change with every new experience, creating an ever-growing gap. This could leave you feeling very misunderstood, isolated and alone.
Building a bridge to cross over the “experience distance” can be done, but takes patience and humility. Your friends and family back home will likely make new friends or celebrate holidays without you. What helps me in these situations is understanding that their lives must go on, too. The people in your life back home may not want to talk about your new life as much as you want to or need to process it, but be gracious. Maybe it’s hard for them because they miss you, or maybe they’ve never left home and don’t know what it’s like to adjust to a new culture.
Share about your new life in bits and pieces and be patient if you don’t get to share everything all at once. Understanding the opportunity to go abroad as a gift will help you to not be critical of your friends, family or home culture. People don’t know what they don’t know, so if you feel like you’ve had revelations about yourself or humanity during your time abroad, share humbly and wait for the right opportunity to work your findings into your conversations. Find people in your new location, or other international students, to process these changes with and how the “experience gap” makes you feel.
Also, be open to the possibility that friends and family might understand more than you think they will! You could have deeper and richer conversations with them through being open about your experiences abroad than you ever have before. Being away forces you to be intentional with your phone calls and FaceTime visits because you can’t just do shared activities with loved ones. You have to talk. Be honest and vulnerable as you share the fun and hard things about your life abroad, and I think you’ll be surprised as, with patience and humility, a bridge of an even stronger relationship is built between you and your friends back home.