I had wanted to live overseas since I was 21, after the requisite Mexico mission trips of my youth group days and the heralding of college graduation with a backpacking trip in Europe. My goal was the byproduct of a popular dog-eared recipe from growing up in an evangelical church, attending a major university teeming with international students, and old-fashioned, young curiosity: I would move to another country, immerse myself in its culture, and become just like them.
Well, not really like them, because that's impossible. But close enough to blend in, to understand what it really meant to ask for chicken from the butcher (Will it be skinned and cut up into pieces, shrink-wrapped in cellophane? A whole carcass, with a head and feathers? Alive?), and to maybe make a few close, culturally-relevant friends. My bright-eyed goal was that one day, someone would ask where I was from, my American accent so undetectable in the local language.
I moved to Kosovo when I was 23, then a province in the former Yugoslavia, and about two months later, I met my future husband‚ a bearded Oregonian who dreamed similar dreams about a life overseas. We married about two years later in Austin, had our first baby two years after that, and after another two years, we moved overseas again, this time to Turkey.
Even though we both had a year of living abroad under our belt, we weren’t spared from culture shock during our early foray into Turkish life. We would escape across town to IKEA for some Swedish-made meatballs and faux living rooms when we need a fresh breath of western life, but there were many more days when we would just stay put, holed up in our own living room. It certainly didn’t help my emotional stability that I got pregnant with our second child three months after our arrival.
In fact, I was diagnosed with depression not long after that positive test with the double pink lines—so much so that we left the country for the summer and met with an English-speaking counselor for a solid two months, to make sure we were just crazy enough to return to Turkey and continue crafting a new life as expats. And it was during those sessions on the couch (which took place in Thailand, of all places) when I realized a painful truth of which I thought I was spared: I was really American.
I honestly had prided myself of being set apart from what I considered my home culture’s default worldview. I knew that Mandarin was the most widely-spoken language, that most of the world preferred fútbol over football, and that coffee usually came in a ceramic cup and and an invitation to stay awhile, not in a cardboard sleeve with an urgency to cross the Next Big Thing off the list. But knowing it is different than actually living it out as a natural outpouring of inner self, and so the slow, relationship-oriented Turkish culture ate away at my soul, as much as I hated to admit it. That first year was hard.
Slowly, slowly, I acquiesced to my adopted way of life, and to my utter surprise, three years later when we were forced to suddenly move back to the States, I had become quite Turkish. The American way of life felt itchy, like a too-tight wool sweater, and our modus operandi felt like we were putting the pedal to the metal in a Pinto in the left lane of a toll road. Why was everyone in such a hurry? I don’t remember life blurring by so quickly when we left. Plus, I now saw more heads than faces, what with everyone looking at those smartphone things.
It’s been another three years since we moved back to the States, and I can safely report that while I no longer feel like I missed the memo on technology or pop culture, I do still feel like life is careening by. We like to move pretty fast here in America.
In an effort to adopt a more Turkish-like approach to stateside life, my family and I have made slow progress toward a lifestyle that better savors the little things, where we’re seeking intention in our daily choices regarding things like food, work, education, travel, and entertainment. We definitely haven’t arrived, but we’re doing a better job than when we first replanted in our motherland. And in this process, I’ve become aware of several truths about American culture—and as a byproduct, about myself.
Mostly settled back stateside, the lessons I learned from my brief life in Turkey still rattle inside me, asking me to remember how big the world really is, and how many ways there really are to live life. Do I still rush too quickly and forget to enjoy my life’s daily liturgy? Sure. But I know from experience that it’s possible to choose differently, and my soul daily longs for a bit of Turkish culture as I run errands across town in my minivan.
Tsh Oxenreider is the author of Notes From a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World. You can find her spearheading a community blog about simple living at theartofsimple.net, or on Twitter at @tsh.
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