Very recently I was asked by a friend in the US, “What is the point of being in Turkey?” After giving a very basic description of the Kennedy-Lugar scholarship’s mission of making connections across cultures, I was reprimanded for my “text-book answer.”
But, let’s think about it.
I do believe that becoming part of a Turkish family and making new Turkish friends is critical to experience how cultures operate. Living in Turkey gives me a more nuanced knowledge and a closer perspective on the culture than I could have gotten reading textbooks or watching TV. Speaking of watching TV, there is this TV show here, Maceracı, that I watch with my family in the mornings while we eat breakfast. Each program goes to a different place in Turkey, and the host of the show walks around the city showing us some of the everyday cultural practices in these places. This is one way to learn about a culture, but there is a downside: Food has a very special place in the Turkish culture, and the host of this TV show uses this “food-as-culture” idea to showcase the different places he goes. The host is always trying new foods, and tasting different specialties; thus, the focus on Turkey’s different delicacies is shown as the center-piece of culture. Because he is always talking out the food, the time to talk about other important aspects of the cities of Köy’s (village’s) culture that are probably more important, is limited. So we remain ignorant about the place’s daily reailty, except for the interesting foods one can find there. This is satisfying if you are just watching TV in the morning, not trying to digest any real information (only food), but in Turkey I am trying to take in everything around me. What I mentioned about Turkish TV-show, unfortunately, is the state of TV-shows all around the world. In the States, CNN (or worse, Fox) presents a rather skewed perspective on the Muslim culture, which the ‘haters’ of difference can take to extremes. This is why I want to be aware of this culture in all my senses: listening, feeling, learning what the Muslim culture is really like. I live here with the same purpose as an anthropologist does, but one who is also presenting to the local folks here the culture of the US–a cross-cultural communication–so that learning can go both ways.
But, I was shocked I couldn’t convince my friend of this “mission.” I see what I have really accomplished in the last four months in Turkey. Every day has not always been a significant learning experience, but I have slowly acculturated into my Aydın community. It is a struggle sometimes to focus on learning the new language, historical and cultural influences, and standards of social behavior, which, you could say, is the purpose of exchange. And observation is only part of what it takes to effectively immerse, it also takes willpower to “do as the Romans do;” be a part of the culture as much as you possibly can.
It is most difficult when when your previous culture is fingertips away on social media. Maybe activity on social media has kept me too connected with american culture, but it also helps me connect with my host culture because I get to formulate and share my experience in Turkey with friends and family in America. Social media like whatsapp and instagram are also helpful to communicate with my turkish friends, so İve decided to stay on social media because of that tradeoff.
Other than blogging and social media interactions with individuals in America, I havent been actively trying to research or academically portray my life in Turkey yet. But now, I can challenge myself to a more find a palpable way to present Turkish culture. I have not been thinking about my capstone project (the overarching output from YES exchanges), but I am going to start especıally after I have been doubted on my purpose here after 4 month.
How have I been familiarizing?
Though I wish I was a Türk already, it takes time to immerse. The time can be frustrating but generally I am happy in my small city and precious Aydın family. If you haven’t heard much about my life here from other medias, here is an overview on the best parts about my exchange so far (mostly family and food).
My grandparents are my favorite people because their immediate hospitality and accepting of me was more than I could ask for when I first came and was feeling alone. They have always shared their food, house and love and I cannot explain how nice it feels to visit them. Though my conversations with them are not extensive, their presence is enjoyable and we can just sit and watch TV together as a family. My host mom also teaches me about Turkish culture; she taught me how to make tea and took me to the Pazar. My host dad actually told me tonight I was addicted to tea, or in turkish, “çay tiryakisi”.
My host family’s friends who come over often are also like famıly to me; I call them Teyze and Amca (like aunt and uncle). One of the first nights we had dinner with them I was squıshed with my Teyze, sister and host mom but my Teyze just put her arm around me, pulled me close and said “naber annecım” like “whats up, honey.” Then I asked about her work at the hospital and we talked about daughter in İzmir, who I can tell she really loves. Now, everytime they come over, I go downstairs to visit with them even though I cannot contrıbute much to the conversation.
One of my best friends at school still asks me if İ can live with herfor a weekend or so. I met her dad when we went out to lunch all together for Pide and with the usual Turkish hospitality happily agreed to host me! Honestly, some of the best times at school were laughing and talking with my friends at school while sitting on the classroom heater to warm ourselves up. And after school when we have to go to the city center for turkish classes, there is a couple cafes/Döner restaurants we can go to where they know the “yabancılar” (foreıgners) who frequent their place. They even gave us a “Merry Christmas!” when we bought Döner the day after christmas.
There are times (as every exchange student can relate to) that I feel like part of the culture and sometimes I feel like a foreıgner still. But, I think the hardest part about beıng a değistir öğrenci is when you feel neıther part of your host cuture or part of your home culture anymore. You can take as much control of making your exchange worthwhile, but that lonely feeling is hard to escape. But when you feel in transition or not fully in any culture it is confusing at easy to lose focus of your goal. I know in the past few months when I have felt not-adjusted-anywhere it has been regressive because instead of motivating me to learn more Turkish culture, I just get tired, complacent. It doesnt happen often but that has definitely been the hardest struggle of exchange that I think people should understand. Yes, I have been trying hard to aquaint and it has payed off, but don’t get the wrong idea that all my time is spent having a perfect time.
So, Why am I in Turkey? The answer varies at different situations when I have different goals. If I am with my friends going out, my goals are to enjoy what my host city has to offer. When I am in school, I am mostly trying to understand what’s going on in class (Which has gotten easier!!) Outside of school I try to participate in the normal activities and errands with my family or learn more turkish. Generally, experience the Turksh reality like it is my own to promote never-ending learning of all cultures. Every day I live through and understand more basic cultural differences and every day Turkey becomes more like a second home.
Also happy early bırthday to my dad (dec. 30), mom (dec.31) and 2015 (Jan. 1)!!!!! Peace