By Troy Headrick
One springtime, when I was a much younger guy, I found myself suddenly unemployed after a series of very unexpected events. I then filed paperwork and went on the public dole for the very first time in my life.
I spent the next several months pounding the proverbial pavement, wearing my shoe soles thin in the process. I looked high and low; I distributed resumes galore but could find no gainful employment. It was a time of stress, frustration, and anger.
One afternoon, by pure happenstance, I saw an advertisement for the Peace Corps, a program run by the American government that sends professionals overseas to work in nation-building projects of one kind or another. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I immediately decided to apply. After months of jumping through all manner of application hoops, I was accepted and sent to do teacher training and educational consulting work in Poland.
After two and a half years in Eastern Europe, I knew that the expat life was for me, so I moved on to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and then Egypt.
My years abroad were amazing. Because I worked in education, I had the summers off which allowed me to return to the United States for long periods of time to reconnect with family and friends.
Here’s the thing: I was changing a lot during that time because I was seeing the whole world, learning new languages, and becoming less ethnocentric. I was growing as a person and expanding my horizons.
That was a very ironic time in my life. As I was connecting with people in all sorts of places, I began to see myself as a member of a large, global family, as a citizen of the world. It must be remembered that many Americans were simultaneously becoming more insular during those years, especially after what had taken place on September 11, 2001. So, as I was opening up, many Americans were “closing down” and thus becoming increasingly distrustful of people in other parts of the world, especially in those places I’d decided to reside in. Far too many also despised and feared ideas that seemed foreign and non-Christian.
I come from rural and small-town people whose roots were and are deeply planted in the dark soil of Texas. Of my immediate family, my father is the only person to have spent significant time outside the United States. (He traveled when he was in the United States Air Force during his years as an enlisted man.) Though some in my family are politically progressive, they are, as could be expected, deeply “American” in the way they see themselves, their home country, and all the other places “out there.”
I suppose my story is just a version of what many experience as they grow up. We are born and shaped by values that come to us from those who’ve given us existence. There comes a moment, though, if a person is a willing sort, when he steps out into the world (or is pushed out into it as I was) and comes under the sway of new acquaintances and ideas.
Not all are willing to step out this way. Many in my family are perfectly happy to stay at home, to be around familiar faces and places, to think safe thoughts. There is a kind of comfort in all this. I understand the attraction to such a life. I lived such a life for a long time. It felt perfectly natural at the time I was that person.
Like I said, I would regularly visit family during my leaves away from Europe, Asia, and Africa. I’ll never forget one remarkably interesting conversation I had many years ago now. The person I was talking with had been someone I’d long been deeply attached to and had grown up idolizing. Our talk eventually turned to my life abroad. I began to tell him what it was like, out there, in the big world, and he listened intently. Finally, when it was his turn to speak, he cleared his throat and said something I’ll never forget, “Troy, you are a mighty peculiar person.”
I didn’t disagree with him then, and I can’t do so now.
From that point forward, I felt a kind of separation from someone I’d long loved. Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoyed spending time with him, but I was unable to forget what he’d said that day. It wasn’t that he’d hurt me. He hadn’t, but he’d spoken words from his heart. Words that meant we’d come to a crossroads in our relationship and were headed in different directions.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.