6 Stages of Being A First-Time Traveler Abroad

by Mary Ellen Dingley

The first time in an immersive travel experience, especially one that lasts a few months like study abroad, can be a real shock. Culture shock abounds, often made worse by jetlag and language barriers, but after you overcome the initial shock there are more stages of “First Time Life Abroad.” After your first time traveling internationally you can start to notice and mediate these stages the next time you’re abroad, but when you’re right in the middle of them, it’s hard to articulate what you’re going through!

stir-fried noodles being served in to-go containers
Your favorite street food is now your No. 1 enemy.

From my own life and from speaking to many travelers, both on the road and once they’ve returned, I’ve created a not-very-scientific study of the “Stages of Being a First Time Traveler”:

1. I love everything in this place.

First everything seems amazing. The food, the music, the people. You are jotting down recipes to try when you’re home. You are making new friends. You are trying your hand at new dance moves and laughing when you mess up. You don’t mind the crazy traffic or what the weather is doing to your hair. All differences are adorable quirks and you love every bit of it! You love the street food you just bought even though you don’t know what it is. You love that people are laughing at your confused and lost wanderings. You love that odd smell coming from the alley way. You love yourself because you are feeling so brave and adventurous! All is love and love is forever! Nothing could possibly ever go wrong!

2. I hate everything in this place.

No more love. It’s been a few weeks and you are tired and you don’t like the cultural differences any more, and the street food upset your stomach and all you want is some mac and cheese and your dog. You start to find standing out in a crowd annoying. You don’t want to be confused anymore. You don’t want any new smells around you. You don’t want to be brave. You want to hide in your room.You’re over all this newness and you want comfort and tried and true. Everything back home was better and you constantly remind yourself and others about this while making grumpy faces at everything around you. Pout all day, every day.

large group of people waiting at a tram stop in Lisbon, Portugal as a street car approaches
You’re navigating like a local now and back on top, conquering the world!

3. I love it again.

You get over that hateful hump and all is well! You are no longer as confused or as lost. You know how to get where you need to go and how to ask for what you want. Your stomach is more used to the food and you have some great new friends you can turn to after a hard day. Everything here is still exciting, but also familiar enough now to not be scary or difficult. You start picking up a hobby perhaps, or making big strides in the language. You’ve got your favorite cafe or your favorite place to watch the sunset.

You’re loving this new life you’re building and you’re proud that you made it through the rough times.

4. I hate my home country.

You return home and all you can talk about is where you were. The food back there was better, the people more friendly, life was richer! My home country pales in comparison! All you do is turn up your nose at everything around you and say “Back in X...” Your home friends start to get tired of it.

Everything seems like it should be familiar, but it’s like someone shifted your old life five inches to the left and it doesn’t fit anymore. You don’t like how things taste. You miss everything back in country X, even the weird smells. Country X knew the right way to do life! They had the right philosophy there! You make people uncomfortable by complaining a lot and making comparisons. You find everything in your home country boring and tired and you start making grumpy faces again. Pout, pout, pout.

aerial view of a city with cars, traffic, and skyscrapers.
The hustle, bustle, and go-go-go attitude back home has you overwhelmed and feeling out of place after your life abroad.

5. I am better than everyone in my home country.

You have been living abroad so now you are better than everyone; these peasants just don’t know what they are missing in the outside world! Everyone else and their views are so provincial and you want nothing to do with it. You don’t even bother telling them your first time travel abroad stories because they wouldn’t get it anyway. You are a traveling warrior, a free spirit, and those shackled to a 9-to-5 just wouldn’t understand you and your lofty life. Plebeians.

You withdraw and spend all your time messaging travel friends, reading travel books, and hanging up all that artwork you paid too much for at a local market. You sigh as you put down your book of Rumi poems and turn up the volume on your Manu Chao album and wonder if anyone in your home country will ever truly understand you. You are certain they won’t.

6. Oh wait, it’s all more nuanced than that.

You’ve been back home for a bit now, and you’ve stopped being so obnoxious. You realize there is still so much you don’t know about the world, about your home country, and about the country you returned from. You thought you were an expert on country X after three months studying, interning, teaching, or volunteering there, or one month backpacking, but then you run into someone who grew up there and you realize you have no idea. Four months did not make you a native, after all. You realize there are also regions and depths to your home country that you haven’t explored. Maybe you’ve been in a bit of a bubble.

hand running along a world map
Now that you know things aren’t quite so black and white, you’re ready to start planning your next adventure.

You start to appreciate some of the things in your home country again. You like mac and cheese and your dog. You read up on critical analysis of the country you visited and your home and you try to think about it from a distance. There are great things about your home and great things about where you visited. There are great things about travel and great things about staying still and growing deep roots. You feel more mature and deeper in your thinking.

Then you pull out your map and start planning your next trip, this time a bit more humble, a bit more level-headed, and a bit more prepared.

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