by Troy Headrick
(Swans - February 12, 2007) Troy Headrick, the freak who stands before you now, is about to speak. For those of you interested in hearing a first-hand account of the personal costs involved in living an alternative lifestyle, you might want to listen up.
I call myself a freak because that's what I am. According to Dictionary.com, a "freak" is "a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature." Lots of people who know me and are familiar with my way of living would argue that my lifestyle is certainly unnatural (to say the very least).
Even statistics illustrate just how abnormal my way of living is. According to Overseas Digest, there were 3.7 million Americans living as expatriates in 1999. (1) In "Record Number of Americans Living Abroad," an online article published on ShelterOffshore.com, that number has increased dramatically in the last five years or so and now stands at roughly 4 million. (2) Those numbers sound large until they are put into context. When compared to the overall population, Americans living abroad roughly comprise a mere 1.5% of the citizenry.
That makes me a member of the highly exclusive Expat Club. And being a member of that one certainly qualifies me as a freak, especially as far as my family is concerned, though they might choose to use slightly softer language to describe what they think of me and the suspect life I've been living these last few years. That's because I'm just about the only one in my clan who has ever resided outside the United States of America.
Notice that I said "just about." That's because my brother lived overseas while he was in the service. (I'm suddenly curious why Americans only refer to those in the armed forces as being men and women "of service.") Anyway, he was a member of the famed 1st Armored Division and was stationed in Germany during the late 1980s and early '90s, up until the first Gulf War got underway. (One wonders how many Gulf wars there will end up being.) Once the fireworks began in that conflict, he was loaded up into a massive transport airplane and shipped off to the Saudi Arabian desert, where he learned, among other things, the finer points of tent living and digging sand out of the orifices of his body.
My brother's story brings up an interesting point. Americans believe that overseas military service is noble, even heroic, and perhaps it is sometimes, but that attitude may be a result of several factors, including the most obvious one: that people in many countries of the world laud their nation's warriors. But I can't help but feel that there are other, subtler reasons why Americans think of soldiers stationed overseas in such lofty terms. This mythologizing of the members of the armed forces of America who live abroad may in part be a result of the fact that people on the home front view life outside of the States as one of hardship and deprivation, so they imagine that soldiers living in faraway places are suffering because they have to reside someplace less "developed," meaning less full of material goodies, and that they have no say about where they are sent, thus making them martyrs of a sort. Of course, to lessen this burden on the nation's soldiers America has constructed enormous military bases in all parts of the planet in an attempt to create the illusion that those individuals stationed within the confines of those military complexes are actually at home and thus not subject to any sort of deprivation whatsoever. I certainly don't fault Americans for thinking this way about the world and all those places out there. They are only members of a society that has brainwashed them to think of every place else as less interesting, less prosperous, less successful, and even less civilized than the almighty United States of America.
At the risk of sounding slightly bitter, I want to say that my overseas experiences have never been thought of in the same way that my brother's have. In 1994, after jumping over a large number of application hurdles, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent off, by the same government that sent my brother to kill Arabs or be killed by them, to Poland to teach in one of the upstart educational institutions that were being referred to at that time as "teacher-training colleges." These new schools were invented just after the collapse of the communist system to provide that Slavic nation with its own teachers of foreign languages (English, French, German, and Spanish) so that Poland would be able to more fully integrate with Europe and the world. I was called a volunteer -- not quite as noble sounding as "serviceman" -- and was paid the equivalent of 200 dollars a month for two years by the college where I worked. My task was a daunting but inspiring one: I was to serve the people of Poland and the United States, as an educator and good will ambassador.
Here's the deal: American soldiers living and working in foreign countries are thought of as heroes, but Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) have historically been viewed as eccentrics or worse by far too many Americans. This is perhaps due to the fact that the organization, early on, was made up of idealistic, hippie types who were out to save the world, and thus they were seen to epitomize the sort of bleeding heart liberals that your average Joe and Jane American Citizen, with their tendency to be fairly conservative and isolationist, find so repulsive. This general attitude about Peace Corps Volunteers still exists and has been made clear to me on any number of occasions, but never so blatantly as the time Mike Wilson's parents came to visit him in Poland.
Mike was my closest PCV buddy during those two glorious years of service. He was stationed in a town not too far away from Tarnów, the city where I was living. During our second summer as volunteers, his parents flew over from Kansas to visit him and have a look at his adopted home. As might be expected, my best friend was keen for me to meet his folks; thus, on a warm afternoon in August, I hopped on a train and traveled to Krakow where the three of them were sightseeing. After disembarking, I met Mike and his parents in the main market square in the city center and then we all went out for dinner. Suddenly, in the middle of a wonderful meal of traditional Polish food, Mike's mother, a nice woman in every respect, turned to me and said, "You Peace Corps people are just a little different, aren't you? I mean, it takes a very unusual kind of person to live like this, all the way over here, in these conditions. Let's be honest, it's just not as modern here as it is back home. I mean, there are easier and more lucrative things you could be doing in America. Know what I mean?"
I certainly did understand what she was saying. There was nothing ambiguous about her message. And she was right. There were other easier and more lucrative things that Mike and I could have been doing, but neither one of us wanted easier and lucrative. What we wanted, on the other hand, was the struggle, the sense of mission, the feeling of being personally and professionally fulfilled, and the authenticity of the experience of building bridges across national and cultural divides. And, on top of all that, we felt wonderfully purified by our simple (i.e., materially poor) lifestyles. Mike's parents -- though I have to give them credit for honestly listening to me that evening -- just found it impossible to get their minds fully around all that I was saying. It was partly because while I was speaking they were thinking that you can't put self-fulfillment in the bank and partly because the vast majority of mainstream, middle-class Americans believe in something called "the American Dream," which teaches all good boys and girls that they should clamor after all the things that Mike and I seemed to have rejected, thus making us first-class weirdoes.
What I'm about to say next is certainly sure to surprise some people reading this, but here goes. Looking at my life in purely monetary terms, I often live a much more affluent life abroad than I ever did while at home, in America. The one exception to this rule is the time I spent in Poland; though, even there, I felt incredibly "rich" due to the amount of professional respect I was receiving from my colleagues and students. To make this point a little clearer, let me say a few words about Turkey, my current country of residence.
I certainly make less money here, in Ankara, than I ever did as a teacher in the States. Paradoxically, though, I save more money now than was ever possible for me to save back home, despite the smaller salary. My rate of savings in Turkey far exceeds what I'd be putting away if I were back home making contributions into the social security (insecurity?) system or some form of teacher-retirement plan. In America, I'd have to make a very large salary -- far larger than 90% of all teachers make there -- to match what I'm currently able to put away. I know this sounds implausible, but it's true. It's possible because Turkey understands that teaching is an important profession, and so it provides many perks to those who do it.
For example, Bilkent University gives me the option of living on campus or off. If I choose to live on campus, it pays virtually all of my rent and almost all of my utilities, making it easy for me to pocket all that extra cash. It also supplies free bus transportation from campus (the university is located just outside the city limits) to several points in the city center. Of course, this means that I do not need to own a car, nor incur all the related expenses that come with possessing one of those odious contraptions. Additionally, the university provides me with a booklet of food coupons each month, which can be redeemed at any restaurant on campus and can even be used in most of the eating establishments in Ankara. These coupons allow me to eat two meals a day away from home without incurring any sort of personal expense whatsoever. And as if that weren't enough, I pay reduced prices at all cinemas and at most other entertainment venues. I also pay less for train and bus tickets and even at some hotels. All I have to do to get these reduced rates is prove that I'm a teacher, which means showing my university ID card. This same thing is true for all teachers at all educational levels throughout Turkey.
And all this is possible in a place many Americans would consider to be "developing" or maybe even "Third World." How can this be possible here, in a country that is perhaps less affluent than my home, yet not possible in America, a nation that has the cash at hand to spend billions and billions of dollars on armaments and waging war in the Middle East? It appears obvious to me that America truly has its priorities terribly screwed up.
Until America finds a way to pay its educators what they are worth, or at least discover a method of supplementing their income in some way similar to what Turkey does, I will continue to meet many of the nation's most talented teachers out here, on the road, in far-flung places where they can (ironically) live their non-American Dream.
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