Re-Entry Reality: What Travel Cannot Do For You

RR-InterviewIt’s Re-Entry Reality Monday! Each week leading up to our Re-Entry Reality event on March 12, I’ll post a re-entry podcast or blog interview. The goal of these interviews is to share a range of re-entry experiences.  

Would you like to share your Re-Entry Reality? Contact me – I’d love to talk with you.


Dale and I talk about travel, intercultural learning, and re-entry all the time in our work with Since Dale lived abroad for several years as a kid, I wanted to get his take on re-entry. Enjoy!

Dale, tell us about your experience abroad.

Though I was born in Korea and lived on a military base until I was 11 or so (when my family and I moved “back” to the US), I consider my two major “abroad” experiences to be my semester studying abroad in Marseille and my time spent teaching English in Cairo.

I studied abroad in Marseille my junior year in college and I consider this my first real experience with independent travel. I lived with a French host family, I met my girlfriend there, and I traveled to a few other places including Morocco, Italy, Turkey, and Greece. I took overnight trains, stayed at hostels, ate sheep heart (yuck), and learned a lot about how interesting the world is. I have very fond memories of this time in my life.

My second experience abroad was post-college. I had just left the Navy and my girlfriend and I had managed to get jobs as English teachers at a private school in Cairo. We arrived in August 2010 and left in February 2011, mid-revolution. We didn’t leave because of the revolution; we left because we didn’t really enjoy teaching and felt like it was a good time to move on. During our time there we made some great friends (both American and Egyptian), traveled a bit (to Lebanon and when we left, Thailand), and learned what it was like to establish a “real life” in a dramatically different country.

When did the idea of re-entry get on your radar?

I think it was mostly when we met, Cate! I knew about reverse culture shock from my study abroad orientation class but other than that I didn’t have much knowledge about the other issues involved with re-entry.

How did you experience re-entry? Was it different than what you’d expected?

I had two very different re-entry experiences.

When I came back from my semester abroad, I was glad to be home, for a short period of time. I was still in college, and that summer I went on one of my summer trainings with the Navy. I noticed when I returned to school though that I started thinking more and more about how great it would be to travel and not be in the Navy. My goal at the time was to become a Navy SEAL and it was something I had been working towards for several years by the time I was in my senior year of college. I hadn’t really considered any alternative career paths until I studied abroad. When I studied abroad I met some other travelers who were doing some awesome things! There was an American in Istanbul who bought a boat with a few of his friends and were traveling the world cataloging their experience and sharing their experiences with school children back in the US. Pretty awesome!

At that time I though of traveling and being abroad as this sort of, wonderful, stress free opportunity that offered all sorts of wonderful experiences. Of course, wanting to be a Navy SEAL, I thought those thoughts were just me being weak. I later quit SEAL training and I definitely think studying abroad played a role in that experience, for better or worse. Was it study-abroad induced weakness? Maybe. I’m not sure.

Basically, study abroad gave me the idea that travel was fantastic and that I should find a way to keep doing it for the rest of my life.

After I quit SEAL training I was able to leave the Navy early. Right after that I headed to Egypt with my girlfriend. The first month or so was great because I hadn’t started working yet. I was able to discover Cairo, meet new people, eat new foods, and just generally have a great time. However, once I started teaching, I began to establish a regular life there. Get up early, go to work, be exhausted when I get home, have dinner, watch TV, go to bed, repeat. On weekends I went out with friends. I also had to deal with the annoying parts of living in a developing country. Trying to get Internet was a pain, there was a lot of traffic, no one was ever on time for anything, and I encountered a whole bunch of issues that were a mix of cultural differences and actual problems that Egypt just hasn’t solved yet.

When I came home, I didn’t really have that same nostalgic feeling for being abroad. I was super happy to have traffic laws and Trader Joe’s and have everything be super convenient. I also realized I didn’t know what my next step was. I started TrekDek, and being an entrepreneur is definitely something I’m still working on, but the most important thing I realized was that going abroad didn’t really solve any problems or answer any questions for me. Living in Cairo was a great experience overall, but it still didn’t give me any clues as to what I should do next.

It also made me realize that living abroad and just traveling are very different things. When you live abroad, you will develop routines and habits and the novelty will eventually wear of. You’ll have the same joys and problems as living back home. Work can suck, you live for the weekend, you try to figure out where you should go out to eat, etc.

When you travel, everything is new all the time. You don’t have any pesky responsibilities like a job and you can pretty much do as you please. You have much more autonomy when you travel as opposed to just living abroad. When you get back from traveling abroad, of course you think that traveling is better than your real life. You probably don’t have nearly as much autonomy and novelty in your regular life as you did when you were traveling.

This is one of the dangers of have a great travel experience abroad. You train yourself to escape problems instead of deal with them appropriately. When your boss yells at you, you’ll think, “Screw it, I’m going to Thailand!” I think in some cases travel makes you weaker as a person. I think it’s necessary to have some experience living and working abroad to balance out the fun, travel side of being abroad.

My second re-entry experience gave me a much more wholesome view of travel and living abroad then my first re-entry experience did.

What do you know now about re-entry that you wish you’d known earlier?

I’m not sure there’s anything I wish I had known about re-entry specifically. I don’t regret any of my travel or living abroad experiences, but I wish someone had told me that travel has limited ability to help you figure your life out. It’s not the key to happiness, you won’t magically just know a lot more about yourself and what you’re “meant” to do, and it’s very possible that you could be using travel as an excuse for not making progress in other areas of your life. I wish someone had told me these things so I could put travel and living abroad in the correct mental context, so that I could use travel as a jumping off point to make meaningful progress in other areas of my life.

What tips do you have for others who are about to go through re-entry?

This tip is overly vague, but be aware of what travel can and cannot do for you. There is more to life than travel, but it’s easy to forget that, especially if you’ve had a wonderful travel experience. If you already traveled and are in the “re-entry” phase, be honest with yourself and think about travel did and did not do for you. You might find the solution to whatever is troubling you is not lack of travel, but a lack of something else.

And, finally, just for fun…if re-entry where a food, what would it be?

Re-entry is Greek Salad for me. When I was in Greece I had the most amazing Greek salads and have not been able to find anything comparable here. I worry though that I’m not remembering the Greek salad in Greece accurately and that the next time I return to Greece, it won’t be as good.

Thanks for sharing your Re-Entry Reality with us, Dale!

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