Tsh Oxenreider: My Life as an Expat


I’m an American, but I Don’t Have to Live Like One:
My Life as an Expat

Guest Post By Tsh Oxenreider

I had wanted to live overseas since I was 21, after the obligatory Mexico mission trips of my youth group days and the post-college backpacking trip through Europe. My goal was the byproduct of a popular dog-eared recipe of 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, 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 undetectable in the local language.

When I was 23, I moved to Kosovo, then a province in the former Yugoslavia.  About two months later, I met my future husband‚ a bearded Oregon native who dreamed similar dreams of a life overseas. We married about two years later in Austin, Texas, and had our first baby two years after that.  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. When we needed a fresh breath of western life, we would escape across town to IKEA for some Swedish-made meatballs and faux living rooms.  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 when I got pregnant with our second child three months after our arrival.

I was diagnosed with depression not long after that positive test with the double pink lines.  The depression got so bad, we actually left the country for the summer and met with an English-speaking counselor for a solid two months.  Afterwards, we decided 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.

Honestly, I had previously prided myself on 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 an invitation to stay awhile, not in a cardboard sleeve with an urgency to cross the Next Big Thing off a 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 pedal to the metal in a Pinto, in the left lane of a toll road. Why was everyone in such a hurry?  Plus, I now saw more heads than faces. Why was everyone looking down at those smartphone things?

It’s been 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.  We’re seeking intention in our daily choices regarding things like food, work, education, travel, and entertainment. We definitely haven’t arrived at the finish line, but we’re doing much better 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.

1. I am obsessed with productivity and efficiency. And that’s not a good thing.

I count it as a good day when I get stuff crossed off my to-do list, heaving a sigh of disappointment if I turn off the bedside lamp having only accomplished one or two of those things. Like it or not, I equate quality time with how productive I was during that time—not necessarily whether that time was actually savored.

Sure, I like to sip ale by the fire pit as much as the next girl, but I treat it as a special occasion, calling it “down time” and only really partaking in the act after I get other things done. And I notice that most other Americans do this, too.  We “live for the weekends” because that’s when we spend our stored-up fun tokens, or we feel guilty because we’re just hanging out with a friend instead of washing the dishes or answering email.

We’re also driven mad when things don’t go as they should, and yet we don’t notice it as praiseworthy when our technological or productivity-driven advances work like clockwork. When the train arrives just as the schedule said it would, we think nothing of it. But when the Internet is slow, or when the restaurant is out of our favorite dessert, we’re a bit out of sorts. We feel a sense of injustice.

I distinctly remember one afternoon in Turkey, waiting for the bus with my daughter; it was terribly late, and I was twitching with frustration. No one else at the crowded stop seemed to mind; in fact, when the over packed bus finally arrived, my compadres nonchalantly shuffled into line with indifference. What took the cake for me, though, was when the first person in line, a middle-aged woman in a suit, waited until she had already boarded the bus to then unzip her purse, fish through her wallet, and present her bus card to the driver. She could have done this during the insane amount of time we were waiting, I thought. But I was the only one annoyed at having to wait for her. Her lack of proficiency was dripping with the obvious, in my opinion, but no one really cared—because proficiency isn’t really a priority in Turkish culture.

Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with being proficient or productive. I rather like that part of the American way of life, for the most part. But the problem arises when we value efficiency over everything else, when we don’t listen to the person sitting next to us, or rush through relationship-oriented events just so that we can move on to the next thing. Making good use of time isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not the only thing, and our American culture’s obsession could stand a little readjustment.

2. I am not what I do.

We all know the standard protocol of meeting someone new—at least, here in America:

“Hi, I’m Tsh.”

“Hi, Tsh, nice to meet you. I’m Frank.”

“Good to meet you, Frank. So—what do you do?”

What do you do? This could mean many things, if you think about it—you could answer with a favorite hobby, with a routine task (I put on socks every day, I mow the lawn), or anything else, really, that you do on a somewhat consistent basis. But we don’t answer with this information, of course. We define “what we do” as what we do for work, what puts money in our bank account.

I never noticed how much I connected what I do with who I was until I moved out of my home culture where I instinctively knew the language, customs, and habits. In the States, I was a graphic designer and mom. In Turkey, I was a foreigner who didn’t know she was supposed to bag her own groceries or that wearing red and yellow on game day means rooting for the enemy. I had a loss of identity, and in some ways, this ushered in a pseudo-existential career crisis.

I admired my Turkish friends’ sense of place in their world. For the most part, they saw themselves as a sum of their many parts, and not just their workday title. My internal need to have a real, identifiable job title smacked me in the face. I even opened an Etsy shop, partly so I could still call myself a graphic designer.

Throughout our three years in Turkey, I eventually stopped asking people what they did for a living when I first met them. I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid the topic—after all, it is something about us—but I’d save it for a few minutes into the conversation instead of the first thing I asked. And I grew to better appreciate my own many identities, and not just my career choice.

3. Living life can be my entertainment.

We tried to order pizza the first week in our Turkish apartment, and it went horribly, horribly wrong. What we thought was a plain-as-day request for a large tomato and olive pizza apparently was an order for two slices of faux-pepperoni pizza, a side of french fries with mayonnaise, and two Coca-Cola Lights. We eventually learned how to order correctly over the phone, but this cultural blunder birthed what came to be our Friday night ritual: making homemade pizza.

I found the right yeast, sugar, flour concoction to make just the right pizza dough, and my husband perfected topping-chopping so that they were ready for adorning when the dough had just risen. He would roll out the circles while I shredded the closest-thing-to-mozzarella, and in the height of summer, I would thinly slice tomatoes as a stand-in for sauce, so heavenly were the nightshades at the height of season. We would also open the kitchen balcony door to waft in the breeze from the Aegean Sea, and we would pipe Frank Sinatra or Sufjan Stevens through our laptop speakers. Cheap wine was a must.

This whole process took well over an hour, once we waited for the dough to rise and the pies to bake; it most certainly wasn’t the shortest path from hunger to satiation. But the ritual of making homemade pizza became the best part of our Friday evening, and we acknowledged that it tasted even better because we slowed down enough to savor its creation.

Here in the States, I tend to rush through obligations in order to get to the fun stuff. Chores are relegated back to being a chore. Wet laundry is lobbed hurriedly from the washer to the dryer, instead of a veritable event where I snap straight a damp t-shirt before pinning it to the laundry line, sunset in the background. Okay, so washing clothes in Turkey wasn’t always a scene from the cover of an Amish novel. But I still found it easier to enjoy the daily liturgy of life when I wasn’t immersed in a culture that defined entertainment mostly as music, movies, carnivals, and something I watched instead of something of which I was a participant.  I am entertained, instead of entertaining myself.

Turkish life taught me to slow down and seek out the fun to be had in the perfunctory parts of a given day, and to not just save up my fun card for the evening, parked in front of the screen. That’s okay every now and then, but it’s not the only definition of entertainment.

4. Life is more gray than black and white.

Not everything is black and white.  Perhaps this is something most of us learn as we age.  I certainly feel like I’m surer of fewer things in life than I was in my twenties. But being yanked out of my home culture and thrust into a different one exacerbated this phenomena.  Most of my time in Turkey, I was routinely confronted with what I mistakenly thought were absolutes.

The local Christians there (a definite minority), taught me that Christmas isn’t always that big a deal to everyone who claims to follow Jesus. Not only is there not one right way to celebrate the holiday, it’s actually okay to not really recognize it at all—just as it’s also okay to have a fake pine tree adorned with lights and ornaments and call it a New Year’s tree (something the Muslims there taught me).

This whole graying-of-life process bled into more significant parts of my worldview. Being a responsible adult didn’t always mean claiming a mortgage and two cars; sometimes it meant bringing up your small children in the sketchy part of town in a concrete-walled apartment. Covering my shoulders was sometimes the considerate thing to do, even though I was a liberated American woman with my rights firmly intact. Education could look more like fingering the baskets of spices in the market, instead of sitting at a desk in a row of many desks, bodies pointed at the chalkboard. Seeking out God in the mess of life might be more evident in a man that prays five times daily toward Mecca, than in a well-meaning evangelical girl who feels guilty because she could stand a bit more Bible reading.

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.

Notes from a Blue Bike Cover high rezTsh Oxenreider spent three years raising her young family as an expat in Turkey.  During her adventures abroad, Tsh learned first-hand the wisdom many cultures already understand: life should be lived slowly if you want it to have meaning. That realization led to the creation of her community blog, TheArtofSimple.net –now viewed by more than a million readers every month. She is also 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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