Saturday, November 3, 2007

Politically Correct Revisited

At least once a day, I open this blog with great excitement to see if I've gotten any comments. It's like a mini-Christmas over here during LE's naptime, finding out if I've written anything that's inspired someone to respond. Often the comments are from people I know, and it's nice to know people I care about are reading me. Other times the comments are from perfect strangers, which gives me a little thrill every time-- someone who isn't obligated to be nice to me who's reading me and maybe even thinking I'm interesting. It's a much-needed ego boost, as even LE's interest in me is waning since he learned how to crawl a couple of weeks ago.

The post on PC, I'm pleased to say, generated some interest. Kataroma, a poster living in Rome, mentioned that the PC phenomenon in Italy is similar to here in that they are starting to pay some attention to the issue, but people there come out with racist things all the time. And here I was referring to "the West" as a place where PC is firmly entrenched, so I'm reminded now to be more careful with my choice of words. As a side note, my brother and I once had this huge argument over whether Italy is in Western or Eastern Europe. It wasn't so much emotional and divisive as it was a long argument lasting for days, in which we'd think of clever points to be made for the next time we saw each other. To be fair, it was mostly me continuing the argument. My brother contended that Italy was geographically in the East of Europe, making it 'Eastern Europe,' while I claimed that the term 'Eastern Europe' refers not only to a geographical place, but to culturally Eastern (that is, Slavic or Former Soviet Union) countries, of which Italy is not one. After a few days our friends were begging us to shut up about it. My brother said, 'Okay, what about Turkey-- is that Eastern or Western Europe?' and we had a good laugh because we were completely stumped on that one. Little did I know that 10 years later not only I and the Turks, but the whole European Union would would still be struggling with the same question.

But I digress. In the post about political correctness, I mentioned the Turkish word for Black people, zenci. I pointed out that this is a neutral word, but, much like the word 'Black' in English, can be taken as a slur (perhaps even unintentionally) depending on how it's used. One commenter, Bülent M. (I'm not sure he'd appreciate me using his full name on a site that can be searched, but his full comments can be found here), mentioned a couple of Turkish slurs for Black people: gündüz feneri ('daytime lantern') and marsık (like 'bad charcoal'). I've never heard those expressions for Black people (or maybe I have, but didn't realize what they meant, here in my yabancı language haze of getting about 50% of what's going on around me). Of course there are all kinds of other bad words for Blacks in English which I just didn't get into. I'm reminded of a song 'Colored Spade' from the musical 'Hair,' which is a Black man singing just about every racial slur there is, in America at least. Bülent M. also directed me to this webpage from Ekşi Sözlük, a Wikipedia-like 'dictionary' where Turks discuss the meanings of words as they understand them, and contexts in which they've seen them (apologies to my non-Turkish-speaking readers-- it's in Turkish and I'm not confident enough of my translations to post them here). A lot of what's in there is what I talked about in the original PC post, including people who express their confusion over whether 'nigger' is a bad word or not, based on the American media where they've seen or heard it.

As I mentioned in the original PC post, the language of political correctness is very much culturally bound. Bülent M. mentioned an issue of PC language in Turkey, which is how to politely refer to Gypsies. Technically, in PC English, we're not supposed to say 'Gypsy' anymore. We're supposed to say 'Romany,' but there aren't very many Gypsies in America to take offense(meaning, you don't often have to look over your shoulder to make sure one isn't listening) and not many people who will take offense on their behalf. Even still, it's generally considered bad form in English to say 'gyp' to mean 'cheat' or 'rip off.' Apparently çingene, the word I know for 'Gypsy' in Turkish, is now considered un-PC, and the correct word should be Roman. I've just started noticing Roman for Gypsy, but it took me awhile to figure out what it meant. Bülent M. writes in his comment, "They used to be called 'esmer vatandas' in an attempt to be PC but the un-PC-ness of that must have become obvious at some point (esmer vatandaş means 'dark citizen')." Interestingly, as Bülent M. points out, Gypsies here still happily use çingene or çingen to refer to themselves. It's not clear whether it's because the news hasn't reached them that it's un-PC, or if they've appropriated the 'bad' word to use amongst themselves much as American Blacks use 'nigger' or gays use 'queer.'

A lot of PC is about who's saying the words and where they're coming from. I'm reading Orhan Pamuk The Black Book right now, and he really has his moments of capturing the enigma and humor of Turkishness, but when Orhan Pamuk says stuff about Turks, you can sense his annoyance and ambivalence and affection behind the words. When I say things about Turks, it can easily be taken the wrong way, as being rude or patronizing or somehow implying my cultural superiority. This is one reason why I liked the Ekşi Sözlük link, because there are some Turks saying the same things about themselves that I'm saying about them. Even Orhan Pamuk complains that Turks aren't very good about standing in line and waiting their turn.

LE has just woken up and it's time for his lunch, so let me conclude this post by saying I'm glad there are people reading my blog. I'm glad that people are commenting and forcing me to think about what I write, and that I'm not just writing into a vacuum. I'm glad there are Turkish people reading my blog too-- not that this will make me try to be more PC, but it'll make me think twice about throwing out bitchy comments about Turks when I get frustrated with life here. Thank you, everyone!


sandyhoney said...

There are a couple of blogs that I read from time to time, and I'm glad I came across yours. Your letter to the Turks was hilarious and I could relate to every point you made. Just be glad that your Turkish family encounters with LE don't involve them saying (in Turkish) "Oh you're just so cute I could consume your genitals!" following by a quick pinch of said region.

The PC stuff is something I have been fighting with as well.

Stranger said...

Um, my encounters with my Turkish in-laws do include that, minus the pinch. In fact, my husband even says it sometimes. It scares me. He told me that when he got his sünnet, his parents told them they were going to cut off the whole thing, fry it up, and eat it with the pilav. Even when he cried they continued with this wonderful 'joke' (as though sünnet for a 5 year old isn't terrifying enough already!). Once, I was changing LE at MIL's house and he started fussing, and she came in to 'help' by turning on the light and going 'Look! The birds are here! The birds are here! They're going to eat your pee-pee! They're going to eat your bottom!' And my husband wonders why I want to keep the in-laws' influence to a minimum...

Yaramaz said...

I'm really glad you have this blog- you voice so many of the things i want to shout about in mine (the livejournal one, I mean, not the travel-related blogger link that is attached to here)but I never know where to begin so I write about my balcony and traffic and tea and students. I wish I could tackle things with as much scope as you.

siobhan said...

Absolutely love your blog. Agree with everything, from living in Turkey, to the students, to the inappropriate treatment of my son's genitalia. As usual, you say everything I want to say but in a much more articulated way AND your funny.

Stranger said...

Garsh, you guys are making me blush!

Thanks, though... .)

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hey, I appreciate the thoughtfulness, but after two decades on the net I don't think a few additional search hits for my name would change anything. Either way is fine, as is BM, though I suspect some of your readers might recognize that as an acronym also.

Anyway, sooner or later you'll get some nut or some misguided soul who'll give you grief about what you write. That's almost inevitable on the net, perhaps more so while writing about Turks as a foreigner. If it gets too frustrating you might end up taking a huge step towards your Turkification (as far as the old educated classes go, anyway) by uttering 'millet degil illet'. You are aware of the expression "biz adam olmayiz", right? I cannot do a good job of translating either of them, unfortunately. I think there's a bunch of such expressions in Turkish that serve, among other things, to slightly distance the speaker from the nation/people while simultaneously expressing the conviction that there's something intrinsically wrong with the people. It wouldn't be surprising if Pamuk had hints of this in his works (though you didn't imply that he does). Given his old Istanbul family background, he probably grew up hearing that kind of stuff.

Stranger said...

Hmmm. I think it'll take a bit of work to understand those two phrases, but I kind of catch your drift, I think.

I think no matter what people say, others look at who they are and where they come from to understand what they mean. As a foreigner, any indictment I make about Turkey/Istanbul/Turkish people/Turkish culture (even if it's something Turks might say or think themselves) might come to people's ears as an automatic endorsement of where I come from, which isn't usually what I'm thinking. Or if Orhan Pamuk comments on Turkey or Turkish people, it might automatically be tagged as, 'Oh, well he's part of the wealthy nationalist elite, so...'

And I almost wrote 'BM' in the post, but then I remembered that's a euphemism my dad uses for poo (bowel movement-- he has the same initals, BTW, and was teased as a kid), and nowadays, from all the baby stuff I research, BM has started to mean 'breast milk' in my mind.