Friday, February 15, 2008


In the header of this blog, I call myself an accidental expatriate. I wasn't trying to be poetic or make an oblique reference to The Accidental Tourist. The fact that I'm an expat is pretty much accidental. Okay, it wasn't by accident that I came here. That was on purpose. I also married a Turk on purpose. It was all planned, all the steps that led up to my being here. But the fact that I'm still here is kind of an accident. I never imagined I'd have a baby and furniture and a dishwasher and a real life in a foreign country. When I came here, somewhere in the back of my mind, I'd always planned to return home at some point. I didn't realize how hard the distance from my family would be, or how much harder that would become when I brought our sweet little boy into the world. They miss him, I miss them, and I hate taking him away from them. That part is even worse than leaving them after a visit.

But here I am, by accident, sort of. When it was just me, I was free to pick up and leave at any time. Then I managed to marry the only foreign man in the world who doesn't want to live in America and become an American citizen. Perhaps there are other men in the world like this, but not according to US Immigration, there aren't. So there's that, plus the problem of what on Earth would we do to make a living in the US? ESL teaching is an even less glorious profession over there, and certainly not overpaid like it is here. BE works for his family's business, in steel export, and I don't think there's a big demand for small business steel exporters in the US. Since he didn't go to college, there's not much of a demand for him at all, except perhaps in the competitive and exciting fields of busboy or gas pumper. Perhaps that's being overly pessimistic, but that's how it seems from over here. Anyway, as I've said before, I like staying home with LE. I'm happy to have this as my job. Turkey gives me the luxury of doing this. I feel like if we lived in the US, BE wouldn't be able to make enough to support us, so I'd have to go back to work as well, for the privilege of working full-time to pay for LE's child care and a few hundred bucks extra, not to mention the joy of seeing my son raised by strangers in an environment filled with other children that I imagine to be very lord of the flies.

In my darker moments, I think that I'm only here because of my husband. I generally refrain from reminding him of that. But then there are times he kind of asks for it, like when he complains that he doesn't want to live on the Asian side of Istanbul (where we're planning to move soon), and he's only doing it for me, thereby reserving him the right to blame it on me when he's miserable over there and doesn't like his new barber as much.

BE's best friend from childhood has a very cool mother, Aunt S. She's cool in any case, but as a Turkish mother, she utterly unique as far as I can tell. She won my heart when one of her sons was whining that he was hungry, and, rather than dutifully rush off to kitchen and prepare something for him, she listed the contents of the refrigerator and reminded him that he had feet. She's intelligent and intellectual, opinionated, worldly, and curious in the non-nosy sense. I can hang with her. I often find myself wishing she were my mother-in-law instead of the one I've got, who, though it's quite mean to say, has pretty much the polar opposite of each of those qualities (though for 'opinionated' you may simply substitute 'judgmental'). Once Aunt S. asked me what it was like being a foreigner. Because it was in Turkish, and because I didn't want to roundly belittle the entire Turkish race, I really had to struggle and think out my answer. After fumbling a bit, I arrived at this: that there are times, sometimes for weeks on end, that I just can't bring myself to go outside of the house. Perhaps I've inherited a touch of my grandmother's agoraphobia, but I don't think it's as strong as that. It's more that sometimes, I just don't feel like I have the energy to face the foreignness outside. I can't be bothered to speak Turkish and have people automatically not understand me because I'm foreign and their brains shut down (my Turkish isn't great, but it's not so bad or so heavily accented that I can't make it clear I want 200 grams of white cheese). I can't face people staring at me, or pointing, or even pointing me out to their kids going 'Look! There's a foreigner! What's she doing?' I can't face the drivers who won't give 2 seconds of their lives to slow down so they don't kill me, or the women who gather in doorways to gossip, then ignore my polite 'Pardon me,' several times no matter how loudly I say it, then mutter how rude foreigners are when I try to pass into the doorway. I can't always deal with the attention I get, even if it's positive, like when people think I'm cute or exotic or funny because I'm so obviously different.

The word in Turkish for foreigner is yabancı (it sounds like 'yah-bahn-jee'). You can be sure it's one of the Turkish first words any new foreigner here learns, because it murmurs in the air around us most of the time.

That, I told Aunt S., is what it's like being a foreigner. Of course, I pointed out, there are advantages. Big ones, like we get paid more for doing less work than locals (though unfortunately, in some schools I've worked at, the foreigners didn't know this and never could quite figure out the seething resentment of their Turkish counterparts). People go out of their way to help you, and fall all over themselves to make sure you have a good impression of their country. A lot of the time, business proprietors are utterly delighted to see you walk into their stores, and it's not just because they think you're rich-- it's also because they're flattered and thrilled you've chosen them, and they're just dying to know about your country and what you think of their country, and why the hell you came here when so many Turkish people are scrabbling to get out. Usually, I'm happy to oblige, and tell them how much I love Turkey and Turkish people and Turkish food. I'm usually even okay with letting them pinch LE's cheeks or pick him up and carry him away to show him off to other people because fair babies like him are apparently extra cute. Sometimes I actually don't have a desperate feeling of wanting to leave here and I try so hard to give back as much kindness as I get.

But sometimes, I just can't face it. I feel tired.

I'm starting to sound like I'm blaming this bad feeling on Turkey. I'm not. This is entirely down to me. It's my own feeling and how I perceive the world and my place in it. It's not an easy feeling to change. I can ignore it a lot of the time, but it's still there. I recently read An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, a story about chamber musicians in London. About halfway through the novel, it occurred to me that, although Vikram Seth is not a native Brit, he seamlessly and successfully wrote a lovely story, in the first person no less, about the internal and external lives and relationships of the people of his host country. 'How can he do that?' I wondered. How can he feel so confident and knowledgeable about Britain, where he wasn't brought up, to just write a novel like that? How can he get into the details of these people's lives without somehow poking fun at them for all the things that are different from his own culture? It's not just that Vikram Seth is a really wonderful writer with a knack for catching not only human foibles, but also the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the types of people in certain places, and portraying these in a way that might be funny but isn't cruel. There must also be something about Vikram Seth as a person, that his sensibilities allow him to parse out that which is human in all of us. I can't do this. I'm too Us or Them. Or Them and Me. I'd never be able to write a book from the point of view of Turkish people without feeling cynical about having them praise a plate of sucuk (a type of sausage) or kuru fasulye (overcooked navy beans in oily red water with bits of meat). In my story, someone's mother would always be going on about someone else's feet (while still others were thinking her right for doing so), characters would wake up ill from having sat in drafts, and people would be going on about Atatürk all the time. Even if I wasn't feeling mean-spirited, if I had a Turkish character do something perfectly mundane, like eat cheese for breakfast or haggle over the price of some clothes, I still would feel like I was somehow making fun, and I would be afraid of being perceived as making fun, even when I wasn't.

In Turkey, I will always be a foreigner. I could get citizenship and I'd still be one. I could be 50 years old, teaching English to schoolchildren, having been a Turkish citizen longer than any of them had been alive, and they'd still know they belonged here more than I do. My opinions, experience, and language will always have the taint of foreigner, and I'll always be (or feel) somehow less important as a result. At best, I could do everything possible to 'integrate' and change my behavior to be more 'Turkish,' study really hard to perfect my language, and maybe obtain a status like 'Foreign, but okay because she loves Turkey.' At worst, I'll just always be a bit of lighthearted comedy like that guy Balki in Perfect Strangers; human, yet an amusing antic waiting to happen. I don't think I'll ever quite understand what people say or what's going on around me and it's not just because of the spoken language. There is also the highly contextualized cultural language that decorates every interaction, and if I ever do understand it, it will still be as an outsider and my point of view will always have the cast of an anthropological observer.

So of course it's nothing wrong with Them. It's that I can't find a place here (outside of my foreign friends) where I'm comfortable as myself, and where I feel like people understand me as myself, as I want to be taken. I feel like a foreigner because I feel like everyone else is so foreign.


kristen said...

No one wants to feel like a foreigner for too long. When I found your blog this week a weight lifted. I've laughed and been moved to chills or tears. LE is absolutely precious. I live in Istanbul with a 9.5 mo old baby boy. I married a Turkish man a few years ago. I miss my family and my mom and US culture house pets an affordable shot of tequila personal space and anonymity in public. you are brave. i'm typing with one hand while holding my son who staring wide eyed at the snow. seems he'll bliss out with it if he's in my lap.
my husband's best friend brought his whole family to our home last sunday. He called at 8:30 am to ask to come. I work on deadline from noon to 6 each sunday. two small children and his mother. and his wife. I told them to come early. his wife was sleepy and hadn't prepared breakfast, he told me. I said please come before 11. They showed up at noon, her hair fresh from coiffeur, the favorite haunt of turkish women. I take five-min breaks every hour to hold my son and remind him who gave birth to him. and laugh if possible. We speak english, he and I. Our friends, who I was so happy to see, also speak comfortable english. The grandmother, however does not, and had it fixed in her head that I was upsetting the children by speaking english. she implores me, more than twice, to speak turkish. I speak with her grandkids in Turkish whenever we see them and they know me - in my faulty Turkish. Finally I laughed and said my kid and I would gladly induct them into the world of "foreign tongue" yabanci diller, as every child should be so lucky as to hear foreign languages.
The notion that children dominate the scene to the degree that the host would upset them in her - and her baby's - language is outrageous. and i spent the next breaks cleaning up after them while my son listened to the cacophony of three generations of turkish from his blow-up simit on the floor. of his house.
be well, I'm sure glad you're here. my hand has worn out.

Rooted in the Village - Manoranjan Dhaliwal said...

I hope you start to feel at home here though it is not easy to accept cultural differences unless one glorifies them.

Stranger said...

Kristen, don't forget you're brave too! I don't feel very brave. I did at first, but it's worn off. Still, it's nice to hear. Manoranjan makes a good point about glorifying cultural differences. It's very true, and I think there was a time when I was much better at doing this.

Being told what language to speak in your own home by a guest is indeed outrageous, even if it's a grandma. Sometimes I get it, that another language just comes as noise to someone who doesn't speak it, other times I wish they would try to be half as respectful as I try to be. I speak English to my son too, and I'm sick of people telling me he won't learn Turkish. Do they really think I'll speak to him in my crap Turkish when no one else is around?

As for trying to plan times, it's one of my foreign habits that drives some people nuts. Yesterday my husband's mother hung up on him when he tried to find out when they were coming (so we could get in LE's nursing and nap and a bunch of other stuff so I'd be able to host as they expect, and he'd be able to amuse them, which is the only reason they come). It made her mad that we (meaning me) were so rude as to not want guests whenever it suited them to turn up.

I'm glad you're reading! And I'm impressed Kristen's boy lets her type with him on her lap.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to every word in the blog and Kristen's comment. I am married to a Turk but am not a mother. I thought when I first came that the foreign feeling would wear off but it never does.

I think the hospitality culture is the hardest to adapt to - the fact that no one respects anyone's time. If we go to visit relatives in my very short holidays they don't understand that I would like to sightsee but keep us almost prisoner in their homes. When people come to us, it is at their convenience and even if they come from just up the road they always invite themselves to stay for the night, thereby necessitating the serving of breakfast etc.

In my darker moments I find Turks very self-centred but it is only that what is considered 'kind' is different in Western, individualistic cultures.

I often think I should try harder with my Turkish so that I could express myself better, then I realise that even if I could articulate my every thought and wish, no one would actually understand me even if they listened!

Anyway good luck in this foreign land......

siobhan said...

When I first came to Turkey I spent a great deal of time with other English teachers (foreigners). Then because of work I spent a few years where most of my friends were Turkish. Since D was born I've started to seek out people like me, who are married into the culture and have kids. People like this know where you're coming from and I have to admit to being a great deal happier since making a few good friends like this. As long as I see them at least once a week I find it helps me keep sane. The problem is that after being in Turkey for so long, while not fully assilmilated, I have become bi-cultural. I have similar problems when I'm at home because so much of what has become normal for me is foreign to people back home.

Anonymous said...

I've been lurking for awhile (found you via ESL cafe etc). Once again you hit the nail on the head with the reality of living here. What you've written is expresses what I feel on a regular basis. I'm pregnant with our first now and although I'm looking forward to having a child I'm dreading dealing with everything that comes with it - raising a Turkish-foreign child here in Turkey.
I have often thought about if it's possible to "become Turkish." I think the conclusion we all come to is no. In other societies, though, it is possible to become much more of the society. I felt more "latin" when I lived in Latin America than I ever have felt here.
I'm wondering how many of us have been able to get our DHs to understand our reality. Mine slowly sees that our family will be different, but I'm not sure he sees that we'll always be foreign yet.
Thanks again for writing another great reflection on life here!

Stranger said...

Siobhan is absolutely right, that having friends in the same situation makes a huge difference. My weekly play group keeps me sane too, especially as some of the other moms are really rooted here, and are past thinking about when they'll go 'home,' but still quite understand what it feels like to be in a relatively new marriage with a Turk, with a baby, trying to find a place here.

I'm lucky with the 'hospitality' thing-- BE's relatives live kind of far away to just drop in. I've also always been very clear that this is not welcome,and I think this is something his relatives hold against me. I can't really disagree with describing a lot of people here as self-centered (a dear friend once used the slightly more diplomatic and much more apt 'lacking in empathy,' which applies to a lot more than unannounced sleepovers). Perhaps we can qualify this by saying these desciptions aren't absolutes, but merely what pops to mind when we compare with what we're used to. I wonder what Turks abroad call us when they find we don't care for the big-family drop-in?

And Anonymous 2, congrats on your pregnancy! After the baby came, my husband certainly became more understanding/accepting that our family would always be different-- he was kind of resisting before that, and a little bit trying to push me to be what he thought of as 'normal.' I think now he kind of enjoys the possibility of not forever thinking of himself as under his parents' manus, but instead becoming an independent grown-up (not an easy task here, especially for the oldest male child of a Turkish family!).

But again, his parents hold his new assertiveness against me. I often wonder how much they regret their decision to allow this marriage. I think they perceived me as pliable and childlike because of my limited communication skills (my Turkish was next to nothing when we got married), and now they're catching on that I'm an intelligent, capable, and independent adult, and I don't think they care for it! Also, I think they expected more control in raising my child, so I've been very clear from day one what their limits are, even before day one, when we didn't accept the name they told us to give him. It helped that MIL was ill the week he was born, and so had to keep her distance, and also that he was a nursing fool, requiring him to be attached to me like 16 hours a day. I recommend on-demand BFing to any foreign gelin!

I get the dread about raising a Turkish-foreign child. Before LE was born, I hoped he'd be on the darker side so he won't have to be asked 'Where are you from?' every day of his life. If we return to the US, I expect it'll be hard the other way, that he won't be considered exotic or special anymore.

Anonymous said...

Hi there - I came across your blog today. I too am an ex-pat of the Blighty varity and as another commentor stated, you have hit the nail on the head. I loved your 15 Feb posting and will return for more. I have felt at one time or another and still continue to do so, all the things you listed.
Great writing, great reading...
Thanks Stranger.

Stranger said...

I'm so glad to see all these folks in the same boat have found my blog, and that there're trhings here you relate to.

Plus, it's just the kick in the butt I need to post more regularly!

Thanks, everyone.

Papa said...

I do not know how you young women stand this day in and day out. You are like camels in the Sierras. No matter what someone puts on you--saddles, halters, whatever--you will still be camels and only have other camels to look for and speak camelese to, and if you try to moo or neigh, it will peel forth as a bifurcated camel honk as far as the livestock is concerned, and for all that, you will still be in the Sierras for the forseeable future.

This is not about the Turks per se, although I've never been in a country where no one, NO ONE, might imagine that such radical notions as sensitivities and pride of other-culture might exist. I can't imagine an American in downtown Portland, for example, devaluing someone publicly for his/her foreignness, for not thinking that this Botswanan might like to try the pumpkin soup at the place down the street or that this Dane might want a bit of herring. But ask a Turk about tortilla soup or pot roast and he'll not only think you're nuts, but he'll tell you you are, but maybe it's good with enough raki.

No, it's not about the Turks, it's about you guys. Kristen referred to the small pleasure of a bit of anonymity or the respect for a moment of personal space. For you, it's the opposite, because that bit of space walls you in rather than the other way around, and worse, you have no power mitigate it, let alone stop it. It's a version of the old argument: In Turkey, no one wants what he can't have, and anyone violating this dictum is weird.

Or foreign.

Stranger said...

Well said!

Now I'm waiting for the anonymous Turk who commented one time to take umbrage about the camels.

That wouldn't be at all predictable...