Culture Shock In Reverse

A couple of months ago in Paris, I had lunch with another long-time American expat, whose children, like ours, have grown up outside the States.

“We’re moving back,” he remarked that afternoon, “to Bethesda.”

At first, I thought he was joking. After more than 13 years in France, he was opting now for Bethesda, Maryland?

Then he explained. “Only for a couple of years, until our youngest son goes off to college. We feel like we need to do something to help his transition back to U.S. life. His older brothers have struggled with it so.”

Then I understood.

I’ve told you the story of our initial move overseas a dozen years ago. Our daughter, Kaitlin, 8 at the time, resisted the relocation entirely. She begged to be allowed to return “home,” to the States, to live with her grandmother, her aunt, whomever. The point was she wanted no part of this new life in this new country, and she made sure we were aware of this fact every single day for the first full year at least. “I’m an American. I belong in America!” she’d cry.

Fast forward seven or eight years, and Lief and I were, finally, feeling vindicated, finally allowing ourselves to believe that pulling Kaitlin from her family, friends, school, and everything safe and familiar at such a tender age had not, in fact, as she’d claimed during our first months abroad, ruined her life. We breathed a sigh of relief watching her embrace our unconventional way of life, living, at that time, in France. She was doing well in high school in Paris, with loads of friends from all over the world, speaking a second language fluently, spending her weekends at art museums and gallery openings, and emerging as a delightful and self-confident young woman.

Ah, but not so fast, Kaitlin.

Just as all the parental worries we’d harbored all those years were finally being put to rest, we did it to her again. We yanked Kaitlin from the life we’d help her make abroad and dropped her back Stateside.

That’s a mother’s overstatement. What happened was Kaitlin graduated high school in Paris and opted to return to the States for university. She and we made the plans enthusiastically, excited to launch this next phase of her education and of her life, as completely unaware and unprepared this time as we’d been the first time around for the shock that lay ahead.

Kaitlin chose to pursue her higher education at St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland. Annapolis is a charming, historic town on the water, and St. Johns is a unique school that attracts a diverse student body. Altogether an ideal situation as far as we and Kailtin were concerned.

Except that Kaitlin was unhappy from the start for reasons she couldn’t quite articulate and more unhappy with every passing month. “I don’t feel like I fit in with these kids,” she’d say when I spoke with her on the phone. “I don’t have anything in common with them.”

Finally, midway through her sophomore year, Kaitlin asked if she could try something else. She didn’t want to return to St. Johns for a third year, but she didn’t really have any idea what she wanted to do instead. She was completely adrift.

Fortunately, I knew other expats at the time facing this same crossroads, including the one I told you about who has since returned Stateside and is living in Bethesda so his youngest son can spend his final two years of high school at the French lycee in that city. If I hadn’t known others struggling through similar situations, I would have panicked more than I did. But I knew that the problem wasn’t Kaitlin and it wasn’t us and, most important, that it would all be all right in the end.

Kaitlin was right. She didn’t have much in common with the other students at St. Johns. She, like all the other expat kids I’ve known, didn’t fit. The transition from high school to college is a challenge for all kids, but for kids who’ve spent the better parts of their lives in different countries, different cultures, and different educational systems?

When you put it that way, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? This is no easy thing. Lief and I, though, like all the other expat parents I’ve known, underestimated just how difficult it’d be for our high school grad to deal with this culture shock in reverse.

What’s the story today, two-and-a-half years later?

Kaitlin is in New York now, going to school on East 71st Street. After two-and-a-half years rediscovering life Stateside, I’m happy to be able to report that she has adjusted nicely and that Manhattan is proving a far better fit than Annapolis.

What’s the plan post-graduation? Kaitlin’s enjoying the Big Apple, but her heart now lies in Paris. As soon as she’s able, it’ll be back to the City of Light for this young lady.

Kathleen Peddicord

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