Friday, August 28, 2009

The Plate: A Source of Worry and Potential Obligation

For a day and a half now, this plate has been sitting on top of my oven:
It's a nice enough plate. Plain, unassuming, and fairly innocuous.

Yet, the plate is a source of some distress for me, and I've been putting off dealing with it. It all started a couple of days ago when my cleaner went to wash the windows (dangling terrifyingly outside with LE shouting "Fall down! Fall down! LE outside?"). She noticed on the balcony downstairs there were some sweets or fruits or something out there drying, and so she dispatched me downstairs to ask the woman if she could move it inside for a bit so dirt from the window wouldn't fall on the food.

Off I went, rehearsing in my mind how I should open this interaction and explain myself in Turkish, which was a mistake because I promptly bungled it on arrival. Nevertheless, I got the message across.

Then the woman from downstairs popped upstairs to see if my cleaner would come work for her too, which made everyone happy because with the new baby and all, the cleaner needs more work and there's only so much extra I can slip into her pay without feeling like a chump or making her feel like a charity case. When the cleaner gave her price, the I could see certain bargaining wheels turning in the neighbor's head which made me remember she's the woman who came up during dinner one night to ask me to give English lessons to her kid and help him pass some exam. I gave a rate well over what I would ever expect, hoping it would make her go away, but instead she just started bargaining and not going away as my dinner was getting cold.

Then later in the afternoon the woman returned with a plate of kısır (a nice, spicy-ish bulgar salad), the universal Turkish offer of friendship that she just happened to have lying around. LE and I ate the kısır, and the plate began to weigh on me.

Returning the plate is an obligation. First, the neighbor will want to have me in for tea or coffee. This in itself is sweet and while I don't want to be a jerk about someone's hospitality, I find it worrying. A stiff conversation I'm not sure how to get out of, while chasing LE around and trying to keep him from breaking things. I've been working on excuses about why I can't stay for tea or coffee, but I know whatever excuse I gave will be immediately shot down. I even considered running down while LE was asleep so I'd need to run back up immediately, but I thought that would be too obvious. So I'm thinking I'll go down while I have something on the stove, something slow-cooking like soup, and see how that goes.

So that's part of my problem with the plate. The other problem with the plate is that I've accepted the kısır, meaning we're all friends now. And now that we're friends, it means there's no reason I shouldn't give her kid English lessons at cut-rate prices. It's not that I would mind the low rate-- it's that I would mind giving private lessons, which I seriously hate doing. And I really don't want to get into some situation where someone thinks that by paying for private lessons, their kid will pass whatever exam, because if the kid doesn't pass, it means I've cheated them somehow.

Do you see why this plate is such a problem? Do you see why I miss low-context cultures? On top of that, I've probably already let way too much time elapse before returning the plate. I should have done it yesterday. I'm not sure what the appropriate time-frame is for plate return, but I think I'm pushing it.

So that's my plate problem. I won't even go into the problem of someone's dish towel that fell into our balcony because I really don't have the faintest clue what to do about that either (am I supposed to go knocking at every flat in the 5 floors above us asking if it's theirs?), and the plate is enough to worry about.


sedmikraska said...

new reader/lurker coming out of the woodwork here! i can identify with this post 100%. may i add another "plate problem"? my turkish friends have told me that it's customary to return plates/bowls/containers with food inside! maybe if you bake some cookies, she'll forget all about the lessons. as for the towel - i'd just put it in the entryway with an anonymous note.

Stranger said...

That's a very good idea for the towel!

I think you're right that I'm supposed to return the plate with something on it. I tried two times to return it today, but no one was home. I suspect they've gone to their summer house for the weekend, which gives me time to make cookies. LE will be pleased, in any case.

It's a very high-context plate, isn't it?

ms.bri said...

That is hellish. I would probably hide for the rest of my life.

Rebecca said...

I had the same problem when neighbours brought round aşure last winter. One bowl was filled with bread and butter pudding and returned to Ayse Teyze who received it with gratitude and did not invite me in. The other neighbours have a second home and disappeared before I could return the bowl. In the meantime one of my cats knocked the bowl off the top of the fridge and smashed it.

I bought a replacement bowl but it was not exactly the same. Finally after making several things especially to put in the bowl and not finding them home, I discovered that they had moved two floors higher. Then the woman herself asked for the bowl. She assured me there was no need to fill it but didn't want to let my nation down so baked something to put in it. Her son opened the door so I handed it to him and fled downstairs before I could be dragged in for tea. The next day she caught me and told me off for running away and told me it was not her bowl. I feigned surprise and she said it didn't matter. Now when the doorbell rings, I look through my spyhole and if it is a neighbour with an offering I pretend I am not home. Too much bother and I hate aşure!

Stranger said...

Wow, that bowl problem puts my plate problem to shame! What's funny is that it totally makes sense how you got locked into it in the first place.

My friend once gave me an anthropologist's account of a tribe in Africa that had gone bad from years of starvation. One part of their culture when they had food is that they were all very kind about doing favors for each other, of course with the obligation that the favor would be returned.

After they went bad and lost all kindness and empathy and were leaving their babies out to starve, they continued with the favor-doing thing, but no one wanted it. So sometimes a person would wake up in the middle of the night and find his neighbors were out plowing his fields for him. Not wanting to be obligated to do a favor in return, he would have to chase them away, and he'd be mad because he knew the only reason the neighbors were plowing his fields was because they heard he had an ear of corn or something.

It's an extreme example, but perhaps there's something to be learned here. I totally get why you pretend you're not home. I used to do that before LE started running shouting to the door every time it rings.

Then again, there are neighbors who will stand there ringing the bell for 20 minutes until someone answers...

Vicky, Bursa said...

oh nightmare - I completely understand the plate thing. It's such a nice thing but the weight of obligation weighs so heavily.

I got into a weird situation with my next door neighbour too. When we moved in we thought it was just a guy living there by himself but a couple of months later his wife appears with a 4 month old baby. My baby is 4 months older than hers so after months of 'her zaman belkiyorum' everytime we saw each other, I made some cup cakes and delivered 4 round to her (actually my husband delivered them as we had guests arriving at the very second they opened the door) - see, I actually started it! So a few days later she gave me some home made dessert which was lovely but didn't stay for tea or anything, then another couple of months passed when she seemed to be away and I felt so guilty for not going round before she went away, and now finally I had her round for coffee and have been to hers. She is so sweet but completely overwhelmed by having a foreigner who doesn't speak the best Turkish, that I wonder if she hides from me a little too.

There are some other neighbours who have a girl who's in love with my son so I^'ve been there a couple of times which was nice but I always find it so hard to leave. Luckily I use the 'He's ready for a sleep' excuse. Mind you, in the midst of Ramazan it makes things a bit easier - could you just say you're fasting or something?

Stranger said...

I should have updated-- the plate issue was successfully resolved yesterday. I returned the plate empty, which was probably bad but I figured everyone would find a way to live with it. Sunday was too hot for baking anyway, and the hummus I was going to make failed too, after an almost all day power failure.

And no tea. I'd brought LE, so my excuse to leave shortly was going to be "I've just started toilet training him and I don't want him to pee on your floor." Which was true. He'd already peed on the floor 4 times.

(He's doing better today)

So there was a lot of "Her zaman bekliyoruz" and "Yalnız kalma" which was sweet, but so far, not a looming further obligation. I bet my crap Turkish scared her off, too.

Rebecca said...

I forgot to mention that the neighbour whose bowl I took so long to return, also keeps asking me to give her daughter private lessons. Definitely a crockery-lesson link going on. I do private lessons but not keen on doing them for neighbours, too close to home and all that. I live in a small block of 10 apartments where prices can be compared etc.

Stranger said...

Rebecca, your bowl story keeps making me giggle. I know I shouldn't, but it's pretty funny.

The lessons just make it funnier. When this neighbor approached me for lessons several months back, her reason that I should give her this 75% discount was because we're neighbors. I didn't buy it, having never spoken even niceties to her before (I wasn't even sure I'd seen her before). So naturally I was suspicious that this later offer was to make us "friends," thus locking me into an obligation of cheap (or even free, as in, "Oh, no I can't pay, you understand, right?") lessons.

But yeah, business and neighbors don't mix. I definitely don't want to become the afternoon babysitter for everyone's kids here...

Rebecca said...

That neighbour and discount stuff is a one-way street. Some of my neighbours have shops and I am not aware of any discounts coming my way when I shop there. Although come to think of it I think my jeweller neighbour did knock a lira off a gold coin once. Less than 2 percent discount.

Glad you got rid of that plate and agree that you would be wise to stay clear of any social commitments with them.

Stranger said...

I get it that very little can get done here without social connections or loads of cash or an important last name/relative. That part I'm fine with-- I mean, I'm comfortable accepting help from people who know people or people with expertise, and I'm happy to help people when I can. I'm not fine with the deeper fairness issues involved.

Giving and expecting huge discounts is another thing entirely.

Rebecca said...

Hey Stranger, can you let us know if you are okay, I imagine it is flooded in your part of town. Of course your internet is probably down.

Rebecca said...

Ha ha, got caught out yesterday with a kandilli offering from the same neighbours. Just returned the dish now with some cupcakes, was determined to get the bowl back intact this time:)

Stranger said...

Eek, well done!

My cleaner really wants me to go ask my neighbor if she's going to hire her. I haven't had a chance run-in with the neighbor yet, meaning I should probably go to her house and ask her, but I *really* don't want to. I'm not even sure if it's polite (I'm never sure about when it's okay to just knock on people's doors, even in the US), yet I'm torn because I'd like to help the cleaner...

Y said...

Dear Istanbul's Stranger,

A lot of the "obligations" associated with the plate and the constant invitations for tea are merely social rituals, not real invitations to come in for tea. The difference between the social rituals in Turkey and the U.S. (for example) is that in Turkey it is impolite if you do not insist the person you've invited come in after their initial refusal. A guest that persists and says another time would be better enough times is off the hook with a promise to come in next time. Also, your host/hostess might be more than a little bit surprised if you capitulated on the initial invitation and stepped in for tea.

A comparable social ritual in the U.S. occurs when acquaintances ask how you are. Everyone expects you to have a short response, mostly "I'm fine/great, thanks!" No one expects a full response detailing how the addressee's life is at that moment in time. Providing a fully detailed response explaining exactly how you are and why would most likely result in everyone avoiding you like the plague because no one has time to listen to all that!

In Turkey, it's considered impolite to not invite your neighbor in for tea when you see them, just like it would be considered impolite in the U.S. not to ask an acquaintance passing by how they are. So next time someone invites you in or says "basimiz ustunde yer var", just smile and say thank you, next time no really! I have so much to do today and zamet olur, next time next time! soz! : ))

Stranger said...

Y, you've explained that really well. It's really hard to extract social rituals from actual requests in a second language, especially when someone starts getting friendly out of nowhere. I'm terrified to invite her to my house for fear she'd accept, but she probably wouldn't.

It's not just the invitations I find challenging, it's the intensity of insistence (which is probably also cultural and something I'm not used to).

This neighbor, BTW, is VERY insistent. Last week she came up in the morning to invite me for a tea with all the neighbor ladies (which was later revealed to be an eek! altın gün) that afternoon. I had the cleaner in, plus her son and baby, and I was trying to get some work done on the computer all day so I said I didn't think I'd be able to make it, perhaps another time. Then she rang our bell at the appointed tea time to see if I was coming. I wasn't, so sorry. Then that night she turned up with another plate of food from the tea gathering.

So I actually managed to make some lemon bars and get the plate to her while the bars were still fresh, and I just accepted when she invited me in (second insistence, or maybe 3rd), and you're right-- she was surprised. Not offended, but not exactly wanting guests either.

I'll never figure this out.

The "how are you" thing in the US is funny compared to the Turkey way. Usually when you ask an American the second time "how are you," it means "how are you really?" and you're inviting the person to tell all. I'm never sure here when it's time to say how I really am-- people ask "how are you" (with all the variations "iyi misin, ne yapıyorsun, ne yaptın, nasıl gidiyor...") a million times in 5 minutes, and still the appropriate answer is "I'm fine."

Y said...

Dear Istanbul's Stranger,

Not to worry, with time, you will be able to tell the difference between a real invitation and a polite one.

It sounds like your neighbor may understand that you are having difficulties with the social customs there and desperately tried to get you to come when she extended the "real invitation"... : ) So she seems to be trying to distinguish the two for you. If you trust her enough to confide in her, you might ask her for some help with the customs and admit your confusion. She may be a good ally in that respect.

Most Turks are good hearted, and in Turkey you're not a good neighbor if you're not nosy--which can be very annoying at first if you're not used to it. However, it can be very helpful when, through the gossip mill, neighbors learn someone needs help. Nosy neighbors probably saved my grandmother's life when she fell ill in bed and worried neighbors who hadn't seen her for a day called the police. Contrast that with some poor soul in Massachusetts (I think) who sat dead in his chair for a year before police were called to his house.

Living in a fish bowl and learning to constantly resist "unreal" invitations and proffers of seconds, thirds, and fourth servings of food after you're stuffed at the table can be trying at times, but living with the indifference that exists in a large American city and having not been back for a while, I sometimes miss the prying eyes (the concern of my neighbors) and the motherly insistence that I eat, no eat more! because I must not remain malnourished (and I am hardly that!).

Also, one more thing. Food is used to connect socially ... and Turks love to share food with others, especially food they've made with their own hands. It's one of the ways we show that we care about someone.

Stranger said...

Yours is one of the kindest, most insightful comments I've ever received, Y. Thank you!

It's interesting that I know a lot "about" these social customs in Turkey, yet in practice I still totally miss the nuances. I think it's one reason foreigners get so sour about this stuff, myself included, is that there are so many times you're made to feel like an idiot (even though no one really set out to make you feel like an idiot).

Nomad said...

Thank the Lord for the spy hole! If I see a neighbor with a tray of something or other, I just dart about, turning down the volume on the TV and pretend to be Anne Frank. I am also not a big fan of asure- barley wallpaper glue.

Stranger said...

Nomad, I hope the aşure season has passed you by without incident. I'm okay with aşure when someone brings a bowl or 2, but I find it challenging when they bring the whole pot.

LE was born during aşure time, and the MIL brought this pot of aşure that had to go on the balcony because it was too big for the fridge-- like 10 gallons of aşure. I was made to eat it twice a day, but was not allowed to eat it cold straight off the balcony for fear of infection.