By Troy Headrick
In my previous blog, “The Peculiar Person,” I wrote about joining the Peace Corps and being sent to serve in the wonderful country of Poland.
That was a magical time in my life. I was seeing many things for the first time and learning a lot, every day, about this new part of the world I was living in. Many unseen things were happening inside of me, though, that I wouldn’t begin to be aware of or fully understand until much later. For example, during a period called “Pre-Service Training” (PST), a three-month period when would-be volunteers are prepared for their upcoming work assignments and life in their host country, I began to come down with a weird condition that would soon turn me into an exaggerated version of myself. Now that I know more about this disease and its effects, I refer to it as “Expat Syndrome.”
When an American suddenly finds himself living away from his home country, the place where he grew up and became the person he is, he will often feel, especially if this is his first time abroad, that his sense of identity is under threat because he no longer has a familiar context around him. This will leave him acting very much like a fish out of water, and he is likely to respond by flopping wildly on dry land. This desperate “flopping” may take the form of him exaggerating those aspects of his personality that he feels connect him to his home and his past. For example, a Californian living abroad may have a sudden craving for hanging out on beaches and/or taking up surfing even if he has no prior history of being attracted to sand or surfboards. In effect, he is likely to begin adopting or exaggerating stereotypical behaviors that identify him as someone from California. This phenomenon can produce some extraordinarily comical results.
I have to admit that I came down with a bad case of Expat Syndrome during my first three months in Poland. It didn’t help when my Peace Corps buddies started calling me “Big Tex.” That nickname just spurred me on to act in sillier and sillier ways.
When I asked a friend why they were calling me “Big Tex,” she told me that I looked and acted like a prototypical Texan. After all, during PST, I did wear cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans. I also spoke with a dramatic southern drawl.
Shortly after learning about the genesis of my new nickname, the following conversation took place with Matthew, a fellow volunteer who hailed from Nebraska.
“Are you all right this morning, Big Tex?”
“Yep. Why do you ask, Matt?”
“Well, I swear it appears you’ve ridden in on a horse. It’s the way you carry yourself and those slightly bowed legs you’ve got. I’m looking to see if you’ve got spurs on those boots you’re wearing, and I’m not seeing any, but they wouldn’t look out of place. Plus, your legs are definitely looking like they’ve spent considerable time wrapped around the belly of a horse.”
“Well, E. W., now that you mention it,” I said, thrusting my hands deep into my jean pockets and sort of jutting my chin out, “I don’t mind telling you that I know my way around such critters. I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to tell you about my youth yet, have I, about how I was a geeen-uuuuu-iiiiine bronco buster when I was no taller than a milk cow’s udder?”
“You were a cowboy?”
“Yep, during an earlier incarnation of my present self, back when I was a wee thing and spent years living with my cowboy grandfather.”
Yep, I was beginning to create in my mind (and then share) a romanticized version of my past as well as pepper my speech with all sorts of cowboyisms. But I wasn’t the only one acting this way. Many of my fellow trainees were becoming super-concentrated versions of themselves. For instance, Curtis, Mr. Las Vegas, was becoming more neon and over-the-top every day. And Little Annie from Iowa looked and acted more corn-fed every time I saw her. The New England sophisticates among us had their noses higher and higher in the air; in fact, they began to look like they were trying to get a good whiff of the clouds drifting through the blue sky of Polska. And what about that odd girl in our group, the outlier from Alaska? Well, not long into PST, she began to separate herself from all of us. It was almost as if she was trying to communicate a message subliminally—that she didn’t belong among those of us who hailed from the lower forty-eight.
Was there a time in your past when you acted silly because you felt confused or out of place? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks for reading!
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.