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.