Friday, December 10, 2010

"Open Book, Open Wallet"

At twenty-six, with a newly-minted graduate degree in hand, I got a full-time job teaching writing at a four-year university.

My salary was $17,000 per year.

It wasn’t for nothing that one of my esteemed college professors characterized the teaching of composition as “working in the armpit of the university.”

However, having never been quite sure that English majors ever earned any income at all outside of what they made behind the wheels of taxis, I thought $17,000 seemed fair enough compensation for 60+ hours of work per week plus the bonus Emotional Hardiness Training that came from reading student essays which asserted “people with AIDS deserve what they got.”

It’s like I was overpaid, really.

After three years at that university, my pay (No benefits! No retirement fund!) ballooned to almost $19,000 per year. Because I’d struggled to make rent and often exceeded the budgeted $25 per week for groceries, my credit card debt was on par with my salary.

Realizing I was on a slippery slope, financially, I made the move to Minnesota and the community college system. I was hired into that system with a 90% raise.

So there I was, twenty-nine, a slightly-tarnished graduate degree in hand, having just scored a huge raise, suddenly hitting the national average salary—for high school graduates.

Because I never graduated from high school, though, it was impossible to gauge what a reasonable compensation for my years of study and time in the classroom should have been. None of the “predicted income by education level” charts had a column for Graduate Degree Sans High School Diploma. Moreover, it seemed presumptuous to imagine that following one’s inclinations and enjoying one’s work assured a higher tax bracket.

Now, fifteen years later, that 90% raised salary has grown by another 75%, and if you’re able to parse out those percentages, you’ll know the upshot is that, well, I’m more fortunate than most but less fortunate than many. Work in the fact that this Average-ish Salary also supports three dependents, and you’ll understand why we eat a lot of lentils and keep the thermostat set at 56 degrees.

In the States, all I have to do is tell someone I’m an English teacher, and they immediately have a sense of the lifestyle that affords: comfortable, but Lamborghini-free. Pretty quickly, I know anyone spending time with me isn’t after the dosh.

In Turkey, however…

It’s occasionally disheartening to know that the welcome we receive has undertones of “Money. Gimme some of your money. Money. How about the money?” Now, I don’t necessarily mind this attitude when I’ve willingly entered a place of business; fair enough, really. And I get that our income, while nothing major in the U.S., is well above the average Turk’s. I get that much of the eye contact aimed my way is more about “You can help me with a cash infusion” than “You look like a really interesting person I’d like to talk to.” Despite this, it was still hard to stand there as my friend Pamm got vastly overcharged by a Turkish businesswoman whose shop I have patronized faithfully. Still, it’s hard to contact a young Turkish woman who said she’d be happy to give our family Turkish lessons (“Even though I’ve never taught Turkish and couldn’t really explain the grammar; but I could help with vocabulary and answer your questions”) and hear back from her that she’d be glad to teach us for 50 Turkish Lira per hour. Contrast this number with the 25TL charged by the professional potter who gives our kids lessons that last for several hours, “until we feel like we are done.” Ultimately, when smacked with blatant overcharging, my nose gets out of joint, but I also realize it’s to be expected because tourism trains people to get what they can from the yabancı (foreigners). I also have a snortle (the sound emitted when a nose joint is out of alignment) over the idea of my hard won average American income as admirable.

It’s just that, as much as I understand that Turks want our money, there’s unexpected stuff that keeps sideswiping me. Most surprising is that the sideswiping comes from the expats…who, one would think, might serve as havens from the experience of “Money. Gimme some money,” who might provide the welcome and comfortable counterpoint of making us feel like bona fide fellow human beings.

Who knew my most startling lessons this year would come from attempting to navigate expat culture? Compared to icy British blondes who can’t be bothered to return a “hello” at intimate dinner parties; compared to Kiwis who can’t get through an evening without multiple bottles of wine (each); compared to married couples who make a life’s game out of deceiving their partners; compared to the general “junior high didn’t work for me the first time around, so now I’m doing it again as an adult, and I’ve decided I’m a power player this time” modus operandi of many expats—

a culture of isolated women who cover their hair so that only their husbands are privy to The Reveal; who rarely leave the street where they live; who never get behind the wheel of a car…feels positively honest and sensical.

Cuz, Poodles? The expats is kind of crazy (and trust me, I generally like me some crazy; my only requirement is that The Crazy be accompanied by a dose of self-honesty and deprecation).

Over the last few weeks, after several expat social interactions during which it became clear my role was to listen, nod, listen, say “That’s amazing,” listen, try to insert a question asking for more detail, and then listen, I got a little sad. I realized that I’d met these people a handful of times, spent hours in the same room with them, yet I wasn’t sure they even knew my name. I was fairly certain they had no idea about what I do for a living. I was completely positive that they had no interest in any personal history I might bring to the table, that the role newcomers are cast into here is to reflect back to the actors an image of themselves that they are purposefully creating. They perform; we are to applaud. At the end of one such evening, freshly tapped out of standing ovations, I left the dining area and walked into the living room, where Groom was attempting to amuse the kids—you can bet no one was talking to them!—and whispered, “Wow, I don’t believe I’ve ever felt so socially useless before. Mostly, I’ve realized I like you, and that’s about it.”

We had a little moment there, when we realized we were far enough into trying to be “open” and “friendly” that we could make some decisions about the ways we would spend our time during the rest of the year. It was time to implement a policy of Social Winnowing.

How fortunate, then, that we’d had some genuinely fine evenings with one particular couple—first meeting at a party, then having them over for dinner, then spending an afternoon at their place, rounded out by the menfolk having a lovely morning hike together. Quickly, it had gotten to the point where they invited us to take some time this winter—“One, two, three weeks; whatever you like! You’d only need to cover electricity and incidentals. Since we’ll be leaving soon for our travels, just email us if you’d like to use the place”—and have a stay in their house down on the Mediterranean while they spent a few months sailing around the Middle East. After the third time they mentioned this possibility, Groom and I decided it would be a great mid-winter option and that we should avail ourselves of the offer.

So I emailed them this past week and said we’d love to take them up on their proposal, would be happy to cover all related expenses, and hoped to firm up some dates. A day later, the reply came in: “Lovely! It will be 100 lira per night, along with 100 lira for the cleaning woman, which you can leave on top of the fridge before you go. Just let us know which weeks you’d like to be there.”

That silence you read in the empty spaces above represents my reaction. There might have been a tiny gasp, too.

I still remember so well the years of making $17,000, praying I didn’t get sick because I couldn’t have paid the bill, thanking the nice check-out guy at the grocery store for letting me take my bananas and lettuce even though I was a dollar short (“Don’t worry, sweetie: you’ll get me back next week when you come in”),

that I forget to see myself as I am here. When I read that email, I had forgotten my role as—laughably, really—Bulging Wallet.

Yea, okay then. So no staying in their house. And sure as hell no more morning hikes. Plus, maybe there was a little bit of stomping around for a few days, accompanied by mutterings of, “I just don’t like anybody here. If I were back at home, where there are more choices of company, you can bet your Mastercard I wouldn’t have most of these people in my life. Let’s further the strictures of our Social Winnowing Policy so that we now adhere to If You Wouldn’t Make the Cut Back Home, You Don’t Slide In Here, Either, Horace.”

The beautiful thing about a snit is the way it gets pulled up short mid-wail: you’re standing there in your crib, shifting pajama-clad feet back and forth on your mattress, batting the musical mobile out of your eyes, peering over the edge of the bars, about to hurl a glow-in-the-dark caterpillar towards the diaper changing table, when Mommy walks in with a ‘Nilla Wafer,

and, sheepishly, you let the caterpillar drop to the floor with a soft “plop.”

This is just what happened to me mere days after my “I don’t like anybody here” funk. ‘Nilla wafer crumbs dotting my chin, I emailed with a lovely woman (hi, Vicky!) who had left a comment on this blog about the dearth of books in English in Cappadocia (and, even more, the dearth of book sharing amongst expats with control issues). We met at a café so as to pass her a bag of books but, more importantly, to compare experiences and Talk Life. A day later, I took a phone call from a delightful German anthropologist. He and his Turkish wife invited us over for dinner. He insisted on picking us up, as “I have wheels, and you don’t.” That evening, they fed us an amazing meal, engaged us in conversation, offered to help us in any way they could. Two days after that, we got a call from a Turkish doctor, a woman who wondered if we’d like to go to a jazz night with her and a friend. They picked us up, spread a feeling of good humor, introduced us to a little-seen subculture of music and nightlife, bought the kids chocolate, refused our offers to buy them something to drink,

and went far in redeeming our belief that we are more than walking Lira Notes.

Having written about some of my disgruntlement to our friend Christina, she who just returned to The States after 7 years in Turkey, I received the following wonderful, helpful, spirit-bolstering reply:

Honey, honey, honey. Turkey took me by the ankles, turned me upside down, and shook me like a son of a gun when I first arrived. It can be hard, hard, hard. Every expectation, co-dependent habit and belief system clattered from my pockets to the ground. And then it twirls you around by those ankles until you can't stop giggling, puts you down, and gives you that pony you always wanted. It can be full of love, joy, and laughter.

I think there's a wall that has to be hit. You let go of all the expectations you didn't even know you had, play with the bag of seemingly broken and half missing marbles, and make yourself up a completely new game. Call on your faith, whatever that is. Doing this with 3 other people makes it sooo much easier, you have your island - and sooo much harder, because you're an island for them and its harder to make those slashing adjustments when they feel like they come up. Remember your favorite piece of art from home and "Hang in there" babe.

Consider your family a handful of beautiful agates that have been thrown into the polisher for refinement - turning your worlds around and upside down. I guarantee you'll all be shinier and even more beautiful people at the end of your journey.



But I’m going to maintain to the finish that it shouldn’t cost even the roughest agate 100TL per night to sleep in an empty house while the owners sail the Red Sea.


lime said...

may i just say how much i appreciate your honesty here. i loathed the other american expats in trinidad, except for one lone family, who didn't live there full time but made long commutes several times a year for extended periods. i hated how they didn't adhere to rules of american culture or trinidadian culture and they just had their own snotty kind of culture which i found horrifying. i avoided them entirely (which was admittedly easier for me than you since t'dad is an english speaking place).

also, the whole walking bag of money concept...YES! that was a mind bender for me since i grew up on the free lunch program and my mother made minimum wage during the brief periods of actual employment between extended layoffs at the hideous factory where she worked. that i could be regarded as rich beyond imagination was really a shock to the system.

these are indeed two jarring discoveries you've made and i remember well the way they shook me by the ankles. the good news is you've got several months in which to rediscover the wonder of the best parts of the culture and sometimes it is not until we have such struggles that our eyes can be open and some of the barriers to good relationships with good people can be removed.

but i also agree with you about the 100tl/night deal ;)

Anonymous said...

Now had you come to Montreal, you could have used the cottage free of charge. And there is no maid.

Seriously though, how awesome will it be to look back on this year.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I do love to read what you write. Funny and brutally honest, the absolute perfect combination.

My older son's girlfriend in college spent her semester abroad in Ghana (NYU has a campus there). Although she loved many things there, when she left she said she would not miss being overcharged for everything just because she was an American. But she went back after graduation, so I guess she got used to it at some level. Also, jobs for linguistic anthropology majors are not thick upon the ground.

100 TL/night? That is $66.48, thanks to my handy online currency translator. Add the maid and the electricity and sheesh! That's what they call "a few incidentals"? I'd call it rent.

Love your friend Christina! She, too, tells it like it is and in very descriptive and colorful language.

jess said...

I think I love Christina. Also you. And Tina Fey. Certainly in a different way than I love my crazy belly-painting man. But not less.

I've met people who think others exist only as mirrors to reflect their glorious selves, in fact T used to be married to one of them! What a coincidence!! Just be glad they were people you never have to see again as opposed to, oh... your mother.

secret agent woman said...

I have had just a taste of that travelling in Tanzania and other poorer countries where the assumption was that since we were travelling Americans we must be rich. It was frustrating. But you're tough, you will be fine. A bit more guarded, perhaps, but fine.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I swear you have a book here. And you can charge the rotten ex-pats double for a copy.

Deborah said...

I had to finish reading this even though I told MFB a while back that I'd be up the stairs 'in just a minute or two'. Couldn't go to bed without letting you know I'd read this, but I need more energy and thought to comment on this properly. In the So. of Fr. it seems sometimes like there are nothing BUT expats, most of them English or Dutch, and much of what you say is very familiar. The ones that I really have to wonder at are those who can't be bothered to learn the language or who baldly state that they 'just can't stand the French'. As if this is OK because 'I've worked hard to earn enough to retire in this lovely place and dammit, I shouldn't have to deal with the odious locals, who couldn't begin to afford my nice big house.'

I used to think that the Brits were kindred spirits because my dad was one and we had a common language. I've found the Dutch to be much more genuine although they have a certain reputation for keeping their wallets shut. Oh dear, here I am slamming other ethnic groups. Not fair. There are so many more exceptions that disprove the rule. But anyway - I am now off to bed and might have something more sensible to say in the morning. But I do know what you mean, Jocelyn, about the power plays heehee...

Kate said...

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Anonymous said...

With all of the culture shock and other adjustments you and your family have made over the past several months, it makes me mad for you that you have had this bunch of selfish snobs added to the list. It sounds like junior high with call to prayer on the playlist.
I like your revised requirements for people who are worth your time. The few good ones may make up for all of the jerks.
Remember all of those Minnesota jerks?

ds said...

Well. Well. I've known people who've thought they had to buy friends, but never of folks who thought their friendship came with a pricetag. (I suspect I am quite naive about this). As for that dinner party of blankety-blank expats, yes, Social Winnowing begins at home. And then you found some Decent Sorts anyway (I trust they remain Decent Sorts).

You've revived buried memories of my own Semester of Travel during which I discovered (oh, youth) that the Ugly American is not a myth, and that the pejorative is not limited to Americans. But I never felt cheated...I was also lucky enough to have family to spend time with (thereby avoiding those places where the wallet-bit might have come into play; it was pretty empty anyhow). And then I think of my own CS, traveling even now and feeling more accepted and confident than she has been here, and never gouged, just that everything is expensive. Because every thing is expensive. So there's some relativity (pun unintentional) involved also. Life lessons.

I would have enjoyed the Kiwis--they are outrageous & their zest for life contagious--but I was not married with two young children to worry about.

Carry on--it is impossible to learn, really learn about a culture without being exposed to its negatives, and also without learning about the negatives of your own culture.
I hope that made sense.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

Fascinating following this adventure - the things I doubt any of us thought you'd encounter. You bring it to us as though we are there with you - and want to spit in the faces of those not treating you well as we walk behind you.

Your writings give us such depth - not just a travelogue of adventures. Your observations and experiences go beyond and you are gathering quite the book of essays. Do to my own ignorance, I've only discovered the world of expats in the last few years. Just like often we think women should automatically stick together, seemed expats should to. The social study of people - always more complex than we expect.

I know it's not the Mediterranian, but you can stay at my cabin for free - anytime.

Fragrant Liar said...

Wow, I had no idea this is the kind of thing you could run into. Of course, I have seen that same kind of scenario at parties and with so-called acquaintances here in the States, but I'd think there might be more camaraderie overseas. Surprising that's not your experience. But I'm glad you did find some people who are more symbiotic. Changes everything, doesn't it?

Mother Theresa said...

I read this the other day, but I didn't have time to comment properly, and on a post like this one, a well thought out comment is what's deserved. The Turks' behavior doesn't surprise me, I've had that sort of thing happen to me here in Spain when I first arrived, and also in Italy, even though they are hardly poor countries. But it's pretty much "milk the tourists for all they're worth" for a lot of people. Not right, but understandable I guess. It's the expats' behavior that surprises me, and I'm very sorry to hear about your experience with them. You would think expats would stick together and help each other out. I truthfully can't say if the same thing happens here, because I mostly stay away from the expat crowd, not because I have anything against them, but I just don't feel the need to search them out. And it would never in a million years occur to me to offer my house to someone and then charge them for it. So, if you're ever around here, you'll always be welcome to stay at my house...if you don't mind being squeezed in on mattresses in my living room. It's all I have, but you're always welcome.

Pearl said...

Oh, how wonderfully written. Truly. Had a mini-experience in this the year I lived -- don't laugh! -- in Central Wisconsin. Loneliest year of my life.

Of course, I've yet to be mistaken for someone with money...

Your self-awareness is inspiring -- and admirable. I'm so awed by what you and your family are doing.

I'm pulling for you!


monica said...

ok - well I guess as you thought you had it all figured out down to the 1 lira bill ( if existing?) you get caught by nice surprises. And the spirit rises ! Isn't life wonderful.