Monday, March 30, 2009


In an effort to make LE tired enough to want to go to bed an hour early (we had our time change yesterday), I took him for a long walk to thoroughly run down his batteries. On our way back home, LE was very against holding my hand, so we separately threaded our way through the few other people along the walkway.

LE fell into step with a mother and teenage daughter, and much to our delight, started strutting. He was swinging his arms and swaying his shoulders and striding as much as his little legs would allow, doing his darnedest to walk like the big people. I was pleased because it's not often LE is deliberately hilarious outside our house.

Giggling and cooing, the mother and daughter passed by us and went around LE. The daughter looked at me and at LE and murmured, "Yabancı" to her mother, though I easily heard her from five feet away.

That yabancı was just sort of... deflating, I guess. Why did it need to be pointed out? Who cares? Does LE's Big Man strut lose or gain any cuteness because he's different?

This is a microscopic moment that reminds me of why I don't want to raise LE here. I don't want him always being pointed out as foreign and noticed as different, every day of his life. I don't want people looking at his blond hair and asking where he's from and if he speaks Turkish, every day of his life. Whether it's privilege or discomfort being foreign in Turkey will buy for him, I don't want it.


Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

If it is any consolation, this happens to me also. No I am not blonde, but my family is from the Eastern Black Sea coast so perhaps I am a bit fairer than average for Istanbul. In my case, the incidents take the form of pimps and other riffraff approaching me and trying to talk me into going with them when I walk around Taksim at night. I usually let them say their piece in broken but well rehearsed English, and simply say 'Turkum.' If there are cabbies, around they laugh, the 'hello my friend' guy gets embarrassed and says 'kusura bakma abi' and no harm's done.

LE will speak Turkish w/o an accent if he grows up here. I don't think this will be more of an issue for him than any native who's slightly different. Besides, girls might like him more because he's somewhat unusal. (You're already complaining about how people want to hold him because he's considered extra cute.)

Perhaps the question is, how comfortable you will be whith your child's inevitable Turkishness if he is indeed raised here.

Anonymous said...

but u can be pretty sure that they dont see u or ur son as like a stranger.
donna why turkish people like to notice different one as like sign of brillant intelligent.

Stranger said...

Bülent, I thought long and hard about LE's "Turkishness" and what that might mean and how I might feel about it, and was surprised to find there's nothing "Turkish" that he might be or do that would bother me.

No, that's not quite true. I thought about the apparent death of creativity, intellectual curiosity, and critical thought that I saw in a good portion of the students I worked with here, and I will do everything I can to prevent that in LE whether he goes to school here or not.

But I don't consider a lock-step education to be an intrinsic quality of Turkishness.

In fact, when I watch Turkish kids and young people, most of them pretty nice compared to a lot of American kids-- polite, decent, playful... I also like how teenaged kids aren't embarrassed to hold onto their childishness and to enjoy being a kid for longer-- there seems to be less pressure to act grown-up and cool, so they look like they're having more fun and they're more comfortable in their skin than their American counterparts. But that's an outsider's perspective of someone who doesn't know many kids personally, Turkish or American.

Calyxa, I think you're probably right she didn't mean any harm by saying that, and was maybe just pointing it out to look clever (like it's so hard to notice we're foreign!). Maybe it's an American thing that we're taught that it's not nice to point at people's differences. I can't imagine pointing out someone to my friend and saying, "He's Chinese" or "She's disabled."

Anonymous said...

I live in the States, and I can assure you that it`s the same in here if not worse. If there is one difference, it`s that Americans will feel more ashamed when you notice they`re pointing you out, so they are more careful about hiding it.

Stranger said...

Anonymous, I almost included that in my comment-- just because people have been taught something is not nice doesn't mean they don't do it. It just means that maybe Americans try harder not to get caught.

Perhaps I'd just rather not know when I'm being stared at or pointed at.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm, this is not really any of my business but I'd like to pursue it for a bit longer if you don't mind. I quote:

I thought about the apparent death of creativity, intellectual curiosity, and critical thought that I saw in a good portion of the students I worked with here, and I will do everything I can to prevent that in LE whether he goes to school here or not.

Even though -- and as you point out -- these are not intrinsic to Turkisheness, what you have listed is not uncommon here. Keep in mind that if your experience was at a university, the students you dealt with had already been selected as being 'better' in some sense than their peers. Life here entails dealing with such people, sending your kid to school with their kids and having them at positions of authority over you and yours. This is not to say your native country is free of problems, but the problems there are in some non-trivial sense native for you. You would know them, or, rather, you'd have a measure of comfort about them and have the ability to fallback on your own upbringing and memories of your parents' efforts to deal with them while they were raising you.

So I'll now shift the goalposts some, and rephrase my question by quoting from the original post:

This is a microscopic moment that reminds me of why I don't want to raise LE here.

Is your explanation above one of the non-microscopic reasons why you don't want to raise LE here? That is, would it be fair to say that what I mistakenly perceived as some apprehension about raising a Turk has more to do with being a yabanci parent here and having your kid exposed to the Turkish social experience as the main societal influence in his life?

Stranger said...

Bülent, yes, yes, and yes (did you ask that many questions?). In any case, you're right on all counts.

It's not always easy to step back and objectively understand what is 'right' and 'wrong' about a place. What often strikes me as 'bad' is, as you say, just often out of my comfort level and how I've constructed reality for the last 36 years. There are things where one can be flexible, things one just can't accept, and things that just take time. And as it turns out, seemingly unacceptable things are often just the ones that take more time to learn to deal with.

Some of my favorite students (both uni-age and adult)have been the ones who consider themselves 'bad' because they always got in trouble in school for being different. They were creative and curious and not bound by the usual educational thought patterns. Despite being clever and hard-working, they couldn't get into university, but they were sure fun to work with once they realized I thought they were 'good' and not 'bad.'

And you're spot on that my problem is with being the foreign parent rather than with Turkish culture and society itself (though these things too are easy to turn around in my mind). If everything here is foreign to me, and something I can't understand very well, then naturally I worry I won't be able to do my best for my kid in preparing him for the world, or that I will accidentally make things seem foreign and inexplicable to him. Or that I'll just be stupid and weird and he'll be the kid with the sack lunches everyone makes fun of (except they don't do sack lunches here, do they?) and he won't want to bring his friends home because he's embarrassed by his strange foreign mom.

Gilbert said...


My experience, particularly with my elder son Lewis (11 years old, 5th grade), is that he values the cultural richness that having a Turkish Mum and a yabanci Dad provide. More to the point, his friends do not tease him for it, and he is not embarrassed to bring them home. On one occasion a friend of his came over on a Saturday and Lewis suggested that we all go and play cricket (he and I had often done this together). The friend wasn't sure what he was in for but joined in and we all had a good time. The next week at school this friend was telling all the other schoolmates how much he had enjoyed playing this odd game.

In practice, Lewis takes from both his parents' cultures. He eats quince, is an excellent abi to his 5 year old brother, and watches Komedi Dukkani on Friday nights.
On the other hand he plays cricket, likes bug-hunting and fishing in tidepools, and enjoys watching Dr. Who.

Your comment about things feeling foreign to you meaning that you can't do your best for him to help him deal with the world I believe is understandable but mistaken. To help him to be able to deal with the world he needs a wide outlook. Living in Turkey and having you as his Mum gives him that breadth. However, for him to benefit from you in this way you will need to stand up for the way you are and help him to experience other ways of doing things. This should not be in an antagonistic way (this is right, that is wrong), but rather that LE should be aware of what you think is strange about Turkey and why. Just remember that as he grows up, you are going to be a factor in his life, as well as all the other sources of input around him. You are going to need to add to the mix to make up for what you view as deficiencies in the influences he experiences; but then this is true wherever you are. As an educator there are some aspects of the Turkish school system that irritate me intensely, like the amount of rote learning. On the other hand, that does actually mean that the students are used to remembering things. I found in the UK that there was so much emphasis on process learning that the kids couldn't hold a fact in their heads for more than about a week; which is also not helpful. So, I do my best to complement the experiences that Lewis has by talking to him and asking him things to make him think critically about what he has learned.

I suppose that the main point I am trying to get over is that although you are living in Turkey you are still a significant influence in LE's life. That said, you are going to have to put in the effort to help him appreciate why it's ok to be a yabanci.

To paraphrase Ataturk:

Foreigner: be proud, work, be confident!

Stranger said...

Gilbert, that's a really nice comment, thank you.

I think the idea that I'll be such an important factor in someone's life is probably more terrifying than raising a kid in a different country. Maybe raising a bi-cultural kid just presents a whole extra list of "what-ifs" to worry about, and meanwhile LE is turning into his own person (which I in fact have way less control over than I imagine) and already finding his little ways to negotiate his situation. For him, the world has always been this way and there's nothing strange about it at all.

The other day the 3 of us were walking back from the market. There's a pedestrian light that you have to push a button to make it change, and after a year and a half, most but not all drivers stop when the light is red and you're crossing the street. A black SUV with tinted windows was speeding towards the crosswalk (even the new speed bumps don't help much), and I said to LE, "Wait. Don't ever walk in front of a black SUV in Turkey because you can't trust them to stop." BE was already pissed off at me for something and got mad at me for ragging on Turkey, but actually I wasn't. You DO have to watch out for black SUVs here. For some reason they're invariably crap drivers, and aggressively so. In America, I would have told LE, "Don't ever walk in front of a Mercedes or BMW," and if we saw a black SUV with tinted windows I might say, "Oh look a drug dealer."

What you say about memorization is also true. If I'd been a better teacher I would have thought of more ways to take advantage of that with students here, rather than get annoyed with someone who would copy/paste an entire 15 minute oral presentation of language she couldn't possibly comprehend, and memorize and present the entire thing.

Thanks again, to everyone who's commented.