The Invisible Yabanci

This is only my third post and already I feel like I am noticing a theme. Just yesterday, I realized I have been in quite a funk for at least 2 weeks. I’m not exactly sure what brought it on, but it’s probably a combination of things. As a result, my last blog had a really negative tone, and this one probably will as well, at least a little bit. The good news is I can sense (not quite “see”) the light at the end of this little tunnel, and I know I will be emerging from this funk soon.

Any yabanci who has visited places in Turkey beyond Istanbul can testify that as a foreigner, it is not easy to be “under the radar” when doing even the most mundane things. No matter what, it seems there is always something that stands out. The way we dress, the way we style our hair, the way we gesture (or don’t gesture) with our hands, our facial expressions, etc. We can often be identified as foreigners without ever speaking. Fortunately (I think?), I have been able to blend quite easily as a foreigner. My family is of Latino heritage, and many people from our particular part of the world tend to be what I call “ethnic chameleons”, capable of blending into almost any other culture, at least physically. Even now that I am unintentionally blonde (I came to Turkey with black hair and now I’m about 90% blonde), people still think I am Turkish. I’m just “Turkish blonde” and it doesn’t turn many heads. Of course, when I speak, the jig is up. People figure me out and then try to guess where I’m from. Syria? Italy? Germany? England?

So how, with foreigners being such an oddity in many parts of Turkey, do I manage to feel invisible sometimes? Honestly, I think I am going through one of the stages of culture shock again. For the first year I was in Turkey, I definitely encountered many hiccups, but most of my problems were because of interactions with specific kinds of people, and not because of cultural differences. My initial adjustment to Turkish culture was remarkably smooth. I feel like I have regressed a bit, especially because my current job (which I love) is a more English-rich environment, and I am by no means the only yabanci. I am no longer emerged in Turkish culture, but I am floating around somewhere between Turkish and North American culture.

Now that I am marrying into a lovely Turkish family where only my fiance speaks English, I sometimes feel panicky about saying or doing the right things all the time. I feel embarrassed when I don’t take off my shoes gracefully enough (in my own mind) in the foyer of their home, or if I forget to make an offer three times when I want to help a family member complete some task. I don’t know if the three times thing is an actual rule but it seems to be the way things work. They politely refuse to let me help, but it causes me anxiety. Then if they do accept my help, I feel inadequate because I don’t chop tomatoes the same way, or I clear the table differently. I know for a fact that I do not make the bed “correctly” (I make it the way my mother taught me, which is the way I have always seen it done until about 2 months ago). His family is very loving and accepting and has never made me feel judged, but in my own mind, it’s like I have no idea what I’m doing and everyone is thinking my fiance is marrying a woman who does not know where to begin caring for a husband and children. Of course, that’s ridiculous, but it crosses my mind.

Rather than taking the risk of embarrassing myself, I feel myself trying to fade into the background. But then I am furious when conversations take off at a faster rate than I can understand and no one translates for me. I don’t care if they’re talking about football or politics or other things that I might not normally care about. I WANT TO KNOW. I want to be a part of it.

Yesterday, I went to the chicken store and asked for kusbasi chicken (the Turkish characters are missing in that word). That means I wanted chicken breasts cut into cubes. The man has done it for me before, and I see him almost every week, yet yesterday he just gave me two whole chicken breasts and sent me on my way. He didn’t know that I had just spent a week feeling like I suck at my job, and my weekend was a “working weekend” where I was totally out of my element and almost nothing was translated for me, so I felt useless, like my presence was more of a burden than anything else. Add that to a crappy Monday back at work and the feeling of not being understood by people who DO speak English, and I was really ready to burst (into many self-pitying tears). I sighed, took the chicken home, and chopped it up myself. It was at that moment that I realized I am going through a period of feeling invisible. Sometimes I say good morning or gunaydin to people (people who I know understand both terms) and hear nothing in return. I always hold the door open for people, but many times people know I am walking behind them and do not bother to hold the door. It makes me upset. I take it very personally. But should I? In North America, I would probably utter an audible, sarcastic, “THANK YOU!” when someone doesn’t care to hold the door open, or I would repeat myself until the person I greeted acknowledges that I’ve said something. Here, I don’t feel so bold. I feel like a shrinking violet, and that is NOT who I am. Not at all.

I think in an effort to please people in this second culture, I have let a lot of my “first culture” personality fade away. My feisty (alingan, he taught me yesterday) nature has morphed into a passive, pushover personality that I really can’t stand. I think for a year and a half I have been hearing less of “It’s not wrong; it’s different” and a LOT more “If it’s different, it’s wrong,” and I’ve let it get to me.

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I’m still working on trusting myself more and letting these kinds of things go.

–YB

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2 thoughts on “The Invisible Yabanci

  1. The understanding of Turkish culture is something that takes time to cultivate and become accustomed to. I too am at the beginning of a learning about this culture and tradition but yes the words “let it go” rings true.

  2. The lack of manners with young kids here drives me INSANE sometimes! I now don’t give anything without a lutfen, and give hard stares until a bir sey degil comes!

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