Expat Syndrome

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.

22 thoughts on “Expat Syndrome

  1. I never lived abroad, but when I moved away from the East coast for 4 months, I painted my apartment the brightest and craziest shade of sea green to feel closer to home. Looking back now, it was an awful color for your whole home to be haha

    1. I guess a person needs familiar things around to help reinforce her sense of who she is and where she came from. Those sorts of needs go away over time though, and they went away with you too, right? I don’t know. A sort of subdued sea green might be nice. Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. That was hilarious! I was born in the USA, brought up in UK and moved to Cairo, as an expat. I tried my very best to distance myself from many of the Americans and clung to my Ukrainian and Lebanese friends who seemed normal. The Brits were just as bad…

    1. Hi. Do you still live in Cairo? I ask because I spent seven years there, from 2008 to 2015. I lived in Maadi and taught at the American University in Cairo. Eventually, after many years abroad, I became a different sort of expat, and, iike you, I started avoiding Americans. The psychology of expatriation is an interesting study. Thanks so much for the kind words about my writing! I’d like to learn more about your Cairo experience. By the way, i ended up marrying an Egyptian, so I have deep ties to that African country.

      1. Sorry, I sent my reply too quickly. It is free on Kindle Unlimited if you have that service. Read the reviews first because it is very personal. Congratulations on marrying an Egyptian – kindest people in the world. Being there during the outbreak of war added something sinister and cut our contract short before we moved on. I have very happy memories of Cairo. My psychologist worked at the American University – that says everything!

    1. Germany is a cool place. I’ve been there many times as a tourist. The western part of Poland used to be similar to the eastern part of Germany. I wonder if that’s still true. Yes, there are phases of expatriation. In the earliest phase, we cling to our old ways and sense of self. Then, in my case, I totally tried to stamp out all my American ways and ideas. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  3. I find it works both ways as well Troy. Once you go back to your home country you pride yourself on not being who you once were. You pride yourself on being a citizen of the world as much as being a Texan or Brit. I’ve more or less been raised as an expat (having moved to Hong Kong when I was 6 years old) so that sense of belonging to one country or place never really took root. I’ve always felt a little like an outsider wherever I’ve gone – even here in Hong Kong which I call home. But also I’ve always felt comfortable – like I can make anywhere my home.

    1. Hi, AP2. Yes, your expat experience was quite different from mine. I was a “fully formed” American when I first went abroad. The psychology of expatriation is an interesting study. In my case, I clung to familiar things and did the sort of stuff I described in my blog. Then the pendulum swung the other way and I tried to get rid of all my American ways and ideas. In fact, during my second year in Poland, people started speaking Polish to me all the time because I carried myself in a very Polish way. During my first year there, people would look at me, immediately size me up, and speak English to me. Something in me changed between the first and second years. It’s cool to think that our environment actually begins to shape us a way that makes more sense for that locale. Like you, I now feel like a citizen of the world–in fact, if a person were to ask me today where I was from, I might give them a smart-assed answer. I would likely say, I’m from everywhere and nowhere. But that actually captures how I feel. By the way, I’ve always been comforted by that feeling of being an outsider. I guess I was born to be a kind of anthropologist or sociologist–someone standing aloof and studying the people and places around me. Thanks, AP2. By the way, i was greatly impressed bt your last “mirror” piece and plan to respond today.

      1. “I’m from everywhere and nowhere. “ – You captured if perfectly with those words. That’s exactly how I feel too. 🙏

  4. That is funny, Troy. I do just the opposite of you in new situations. I become a wallflower trying to fade away while I get myself conversant with whatever I’m dealing with.

    1. I definitely understand wallflower behavior. My Peace Corps experience was so transformational that I actually behaved in all sorts of ways I never could have predicted. For example, in America, I have often been quiet in social situations, but Poland was utterly different. I think it shook me up so severely that I simply “wasn’t myself” any longer, if that makes any sense. Plus, I’m quieter now is social situations than I used to be. Maybe because I’ve finally gotten tired enough that I realize speaking is no longer worth the effort in every situation? When I was younger, though, and more full of myself, I was more gregarious than I am now. Your comment is making think how fluid the self really is. How changeable we are–in different situations and across time. Thanks so much for making me really think about all this.

      1. Greece must not have made me any different like Poland did with you. I would stand back and watch intently when in restaurants and stores on the island of Crete. I didn’t want to offend with any cultural differences.

  5. I must admit I went the other way in my new culture. When I left my Aussie culture I felt relief. My biggest problem is “reverse culture shock” – going back into my home culture – very similar to your previous post about being peculiar in your original culture.
    I am enjoying reading your posts and follow up comments by others.

  6. Ha! Great story! I grew up in the country, and when I studied abroad in France, I found myself inexplicably drawn to big pickup trucks on the street (obviously a rarity on the Côte d’Azur…). At home, I’d usually roll my eyes at all the oversized pickups blasting country music, but for some reason they made me feel nostalgic when I was miles away.

  7. Twenty-five years living in the USA and I still feel like a fish out of the water sometimes. Somethings you never get used to. But it is nice to be surprised over and over again. One day I go back home to stay and I bet i will feel like a fish out of the water all over again.

  8. What a fascinating post, Troy! I’m sure we all have ‘suffered’ from Expat Syndrome, at least once in our lives. I feel like freshmen year of college was riddled with that very concept. People pegged one another based on where they were from, and seemed to base their expectations almost completely on that geographical fact. Thanks for sharing this neat anecdote! 👏🏻

  9. Though I have never lived abroad, nowhere has really felt completely like ‘home.’ This used to distress me a lot more than it does now, and maybe because I feel capable of writing stories fictitious and factual, I feel like I carry many versions of home with me wherever I go. I don’t recall myself acting silly in terms of being away from where I lived. But when we travelled California for three months when I was knee high to a grasshopper, my brother (12yrs) and I (9yrs) took on a dramatic American accent after only a short time. My sister (15yrs) and both parents speech did not change the entire time we were there.

    Curious things do happen, eh?

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