The yabanci life

While kicking it at Blackboard, a hip bar we found downtown, Rebecca and I talked at length about the idea of being a yabancı, a foreigner, in Turkey.

It is strange to live in a place like Alanya, then, which some Turks say is overrun with tourists and foreigners, and so is devoid of Turkish culture. Turks tend to address me first in English, and only after I stubbornly stick to Turkish for the first few minutes of a conversation do they also revert to their mother tongue. But Turks here are used to tourists, and so when I walk down the street, I fit in; I am a normal part of the landscape.

It was not so in Adana. I had forgotten that feeling of being stared at; not maliciously, just out of curiosity. But it was still bizarre. Rebecca and I stick out like a sore thumb – above-average height for Americans, we tower over most Turkish women. Our bright red and blonde hair get double-takes from black and dark brown-haired passerby. Glances on the bus and on the street reminded me of my yabancı status. But I also caught myself staring at others who didn’t fit the stereotypical Turkish mold – when two blonde people passed us in the market, clad in clothes only a tourist would pack, Rebecca and I exchanged a look, as if to say, “What are they doing here?”

Okay, so maybe we don’t pass the first test – there’s only so much we can do to blend in visually in this place. But surely we deserve some sort of a “get out of yabancı land free” card for our ability to speak the language and respect local traditions? Rebecca has lived in Turkey for nearly two years of her life now, and I will have been here for 8 months by the time I leave in December. We have both sacrificed blood, sweat, and tears (literally all three) to learn the ins and outs of Turkish culture and study the language.

People are often impressed with my ability to volley phrases back and forth in conversation. “Inşallah,” I say, “God willing.” My conversation partner laughs, surprised at my use of the word. “Türk olmuşsun!” I’ve heard. But, really, not at all, and not ever. I can learn the correct response to the Turkish equivalent of “bless you” or the different ways to greet female and male hosts, but saying and doing these things is like a layer of makeup – it’s not something I’ve really internalized, and so can be washed off once I return to the U.S. In Turkey I’m in this strange limbo, where I feel like I’m trapped in a performance between countries, between cultures – though it’s not a very convincing performance, the audience claps, perhaps out of pity or maybe out of gladness that someone is just making the effort.

Don’t get me wrong – I adore Turkey, I find studying Turkish to be rewarding (though slow and a bit painful at times), and I am loving my time here right now. It just poses a bit of an identity crisis, in terms of assessing my personal and professional goals against the possible gains of further language study and time in this country.

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