So, You Think You Want to Live and Work in Turkey?

They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a field. I have been a resident of Turkey for 14,400 hours, but I did spend roughly 120 days in the States during that time, so I am really closer to about 11,500 hours, give or take a few, and if you want to challenge me on that, congratulations. You’re a bigger nerd than I am.

Since I am an expert on what it means to live and work in Turkey as a foreigner (totally kidding), I figured I would compose a list of rules/things to consider BEFORE you take the leap of faith and move to Turkey. Disclaimer: This list applies to people who want to live AND work in Turkey. If you are here just to live but not work, you are so lucky and I’m really jealous, but you may find that some of these things do not apply to you. Second disclaimer: I already know I will probably contradict myself a few times here. If contradictions make you uncomfortable, do not move to Turkey. You will not be able to handle it.


So here, in no particular order other than what pops into my head first, I give you:

THE TOP 10 RULES/THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE LIVING AND WORKING IN TURKEY

  1. Learn the Turkish alphabet and at least SOME basic words and phrases. I came to Turkey knowing very little Turkish. I knew greetings, the names of some fruits and vegetables, and numbers under 100. Now, I speak much more but I know I still sound like Tarzan when I try to put sentences together (God bless my future in-laws for their patience while I try to speak). My point is, a little bit goes a long way here. People will be happy that you at least try to speak their language rather than expecting them to know English. However, undercover bilinguals are lurking everywhere, often eager for the chance to help you and show off what English they know. The Turkish alphabet, in my opinion, is one of the best alphabets in the world. It is everything the English alphabet ought to be. You can put any Turkish word in front of me, and I will know how to pronounce it, even if I have no idea what it means – unless it has a circumflex/”hat” on it, such as â, î, or û. I will never be able to pronounce those letters. Image
  2. Embrace and Respect Turkish Hospitality. If you’re considering moving to Turkey, you’ve done plenty of frantic Google searches and you’ve come across so many things explaining Turkish hospitality. They’re famous for it, and rightfully so. People are seldom in a rush here (unless they’re waiting behind you in line. Just kidding. I rarely see anyone “waiting in line”). There is always time for çay (tea) or coffee, and you should be willing to make time for that as well. Be prepared for the tulip-shaped glass your scalding hot drink will be served in. My advice is to hold it very gently from the rim, but you’ll learn what’s best for you.Image It is not uncommon for visitors to show up with little to no advance warning, but it seems hosts don’t feel irritated or inconvenienced by it like they might in the States. That could be because Turkish households are immaculately clean and there is always some food to offer guests. Accept what is offered to you, at least a little bit, and try not to leave your çay glass half-full. Now, if you are living and working in Turkey, after some time you won’t really be a visitor and it is possible to exhaust a Turkish host’s hospitality, even if they won’t admit it. Know when you’re wearing out your welcome and don’t expect people to serve you all the time. Sincerely offer to help. I can’t believe I even have to write that, but I’ve been amazed by the way some foreigners carry themselves when visiting. Do not be the entitled foreigner people worry you will be!
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  3. Tidy Up! Like I said, Turkish homes are immaculate. That’s another thing Turks may modestly deny, but trust me. It doesn’t matter how big or how small, Turkish homes are always clean and presentable to whoever may drop by. No one expects your home to be that way, and unless you are assisted by a Turk, your home will never be that way. Just accept that. However, it’s worth it to put a little more effort into housekeeping than you normally would. Tidiness also applies to your appearance and eating habits. I can’t tell anyone how to dress or eat, but as a foreigner, you will already be a bit of a spectacle, at least in the beginning. If you’re going to be watched/gawked at, don’t you want to at least look good? Americans tend to be a bit more relaxed when it comes to appearances. Going food shopping in pajamas with major bed head or wearing dirty sneakers with wrinkled jeans and a hole-y t-shirt is common in the States. Don’t do it here. Again, take some time and put a little extra effort in, because most of the people here, no matter how rich or how poor, strive to be tidy in appearance. I feel embarassed for other foreigners when they walk around in public looking like they just got out of bed. Just don’t do it. And as for eating habits: at my previous job, people stared at me when I used my left hand (I’m a lefty) to eat or drink. But as you already know, they were a little old-fashioned. I’ve since learned to eat with only right hand, but now it doesn’t really matter anymore. However, Turks are much more polite when it comes to the dinner table. *Contradiction alert*: Though “community plates” are common, especially for things like salad, and forks are often double-dipped, that does not mean their standards of table etiquette are lower. Chew with your mouth shut, finishing chewing before you speak, and cover your mouth if you’re going to use a toothpick at the table – AND FOR PETE’S SAKE, USE A TOOTHPICK, NOT YOUR FINGERS!
  4. Learn a Few Things About Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. I am not even going to tell you why he is so important, because really you must research him for yourself. However, I will tell you to be very careful about which Atatürk “facts” you insist are true. People’s feelings about him vary, but whatever the feeling, I can promise you it is likely very strong, and things can get super awkward if you say things about him without knowing how your audience feels about him first. Be sensitive. 
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  5. If You Don’t Know What to Do, Take a Hint from a Trusted Turkish Friend. Okay, *contradiction alert* this rule is valid but you should also know that as a foreigner, you can’t always get away with doing things the way a Turk would. For example, your colleagues may be able to come to a meeting a few minutes late, but DON’T YOU DARE DO IT. See item #8 to find out why I will slap you if I find out you’re slacking while on the job in Turkey. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing which exact things you can and can’t do. Eventually you will develop the instinct to know, but mostly you will just have to be embarrassed from time to time when you do something that you probably shouldn’t have done. Don’t know when to kiss cheeks, shake hands, or just smile politely? Look at your TTF for that. Depending on how religious/conservative a person is, he/she may not want to even shake hands with a person from the opposite sex. That one is hard to gauge, so pay attention to what you see others doing. If you make a mistake, it’s not a big deal, but it is awkward.
  6. Religion, Politics, and Football: The Trifecta of Sensitive Topics. In the States, pretty much every world religion is represented, and pretty much everyone feels free to practice their religion as they see fit. Do not — I REPEAT — do NOT come to Turkey assuming it is like other countries in this part of the world. If I were you, I’d hesitate before even calling Turkey “the Middle East” out loud. Yes, the population is mostly Muslim, but do not presume to know what that means. Do not assume that people know nothing about your religion or that they hate you because you pray to Jesus (if you do). For the most part, that will not be true. At the same time, don’t assume that they know “the truth” about your religion — gently and respectfully explain what you believe IF (and really, only if) someone asks. Learn a little bit about the headscarf and why it’s controversial these days. Also, be cautious when talking about it with other people here. Just because a woman is uncovered does not mean she is not in favor of the headscarf. For all you know, her mother and sisters cover and she considers herself to be religious, but she doesn’t want to cover her head for whatever reasons. Do not make an ass of yourself by assuming anything about people’s religious or political views here. Religion can be very political and politics (read: loyalty) can be kind of religious at times. Tread lightly. The call to prayer can be heard five times a day, every single day, without fail. It may be a little startling in the beginning, but you’ll get used to it. Certainly do not complain about it.
    ImageAlso, learn something about football so you can have something to talk about with new people. Be wise about which team colors you wear in certain places, and brace yourself for the emotional, heart-wrenching experience of watching your team lose miserably, although inşallah Galatasaray will have a better year next year. 😉
  7. Adjust Your Expectations. I was going to say “lower” your expectations, but that would imply disappointment or dissatisfaction. So, adjust them instead. Turkey is not a third-world country where people have never seen a television or heard of Michael Jackson. We have wifi, Starbucks, real Nike shoes, iPhones, and pretty much everything else you can find in the States with the exception of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Of course, not every city/village is exactly like that, but it’s very common and it is easy to live comfortably here. You won’t be living in a hut and drinking water from a well unless you really want to. At the same time, sometimes the power does go out unexpectedly and for a long time. Traffic rules may be a little lax, but I know of someone who get a 90 TL ticket for jaywalking last week, so stay alert!
  8. Understand How Hard Turks Work. Life is comfortable here, but work is hard. As a foreigner working here, you will most likely have some perks that your Turkish counterparts don’t. You will most likely be paid more money, because the company needed something to attract you to the job. You may even have your house and flight paid for. Your work hours will probably be a little less, but again, you may be paid at least twice as much. Be sensitive and be wise. Don’t brag about money or all your flashy purchases. What may be worse than bragging about money is complaining about money. Do not go on a two-week trip to Europe (where most Turks can’t travel because of bogus visa requirements) or some exotic island and then have the audacity to complain that you only have $1,000 left in your bank account. Also, do not go on holiday and come back later than planned, requiring a Turkish colleague (or any colleague, really) to cover for you. Like I said before, I will slap you hard, Ottoman style.
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  9. Lighten Up. In many ways, Turkish culture can be conservative. However, there are many ways in which it is not. If you’re going to live and work here, get comfortable with people being in your personal space. That means members of the same sex will show affection towards you in ways you may not expect (relax, it’s nothing creepy). People may get reeeeally close when they talk to you. As I mentioned in #3, community plates are normal and double-dipping is just a fact of life. I had a hard time with it at first, but now it’s normal to me. It will have to be normal for you too. If you’re going to live and work here, be prepared to dance. I’m talking to guys here, too. Men dance without shame here. Don’t worry, the dance moves are pretty simple and people often dance in groups. If you see a man reaching for a napkin as he heads to the dance floor, be advised that he is about to BREAK. IT. DOWN. And it will be awesome. 🙂
  10. Either Accept Things or Let Them Go. In previous posts, I’ve vented about how confusing/frustrating cultural differences can be here. I have to remind myself that just because something is different does not mean it is wrong. Turkish culture is awesome but it takes getting used to sometimes. Don’t try to change it or make it “better”- and certainly don’t come here with any ideologies that resemble “white man’s burden” because again: Ottoman slap. While the Turkish Republic is only 90 years old, Turkish culture goes waaaaaaaaaaaay back before anyone even knew America existed, and if you’re from an English-speaking country other than the US, it probably goes back before your culture as well. Sorry. Emperors, sultans, presidents and prime ministers have come and gone, different religions have dominated, but the culture hasn’t changed all that much, so do not think you will change it either. Do not think that it NEEDS to be changed. Embrace it for what it is, and celebrate it, because really, there are so many things to love about Turkey. Deep down, I think I secretly even love the frustrating things. Culture shock is real, it’s inevitable, it’s sometimes painful, and I don’t think it ever really stops (but it does work in cycles). Living in a new culture is an adventure. Adventure is hardship by choice. Be real about why you want to live and work here, and understand that living and working in a foreign country (specifically Turkey) is not just Eat, Pray, Love, but also Struggle, Adapt, Love. Even if you try it and find out it’s not for you, I don’t know anyone who has left Turkey without loving it just a teensy bit. I mean, I love Turkish culture so much, I’m choosing to marry into it!Best of luck! I hope this list helps.
    YB

    P.S. – If I’ve left anything out, please feel free to add other things to consider before relocating to Turkey! 🙂  

Culture Clashes: Çek Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself!

I am feeling punny and philosophical these days.

One thing I’ve come to understand about Turkey and Turkish culture is that I will never truly understand Turkey and Turkish culture.

When I first arrived in Turkey in 2012, I worked with a really conservative group. When I was told they were conservative, I figured they were the Turkish equivalent of republican. I can get along with anyone, regardless of political affiliation, but Turkish “conservative” is a whole ‘nother ball game. Many of my colleagues were very kind, but I knew I couldn’t continue working there after my contract finished. By the grace of God, I found Job 2, which is perfectly tailored to my lifestyle. There, I can wear short sleeves, I can show my kneecaps, I can talk to my male colleagues, and not only when they speak to me first. It’s lovely.

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My fiance, who is a progressive, modern, free-thinker, rejoiced with me when I accepted Job 2, because even he was stifled and oppressed by my Job 1. I have been at Job 2 (and also City 2, which is more conservative than City 1) for 8 months now, and I realize that I have gotten a bit too comfortable regarding Turkish culture and society. Now, I am not saying that any of it is wrong. There are things I love about it. But there are things that I cannot understand (or maybe I don’t want to).

I guess because Job 1 was so stifling and oppressive and Job 2 is much more free and modern (as is my fiance), I developed a false sense of security, like I am free to carry on like I would in the US. That is not the case. Every time Canim reminds me of this, like “There is no way you’re going to ride that train alone” or “That shirt is dangerous,” I feel my independent, feisty, Puerto Rican-American blood start to boil with indignation. I pout, I sigh, I roll my eyes, I may even stomp my feet or suck my teeth. In fact, I probably look less like an independent woman and a lot more like an irritable toddler. I don’t need a man to “let” me do anything. I do NOT need permission or approval for anything I want to do!!!!!!

…but yeah, I kinda do. Culturally, I am effectively his wife already. That means everything I do will directly affect him. That means if he “lets” me ride the train alone or “lets” me galavant around with too much leg in plain sight, it will bring shame on me, him, and his (precious, adorable) family. And I just can’t quite accept it yet. It’s not that he’s a dictator. Certainly not. In fact, when I was at Job 1 (and in the early stages of our relationship), he knocked my clothing and said I dressed too old for my age. “Matronly” is probably the word he was looking for. Now, my wardrobe has gotten a complete makeover and so has my attitude, and I am no longer as cooperative or accepting of the things I once accepted and cooperated with at Job 1.

I am very, VERY slowly starting to learn when I need to put my foot down and say, “Hey, this may be Turkey but I am still American and I can wear this sundress when it’s 85 degrees outside!” but I am also learning to pull back and çek myself, because I know Canim is not trying to upset me or to be the boss and control what I can and can’t wear. He is with me when I buy said dresses, but he has a very clear idea of when I can and cannot wear them, because it does matter and it does affect the way I am treated here. For example, it’s still spring here, but last week it was in the 90s. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty flipping hot and I shouldn’t have to wear opaque pantyhose and I SHOULD be able to break out the sundresses. Nope. It’s spring, not summer. Cover up those legs and those shoulders because Turkish women aren’t showing those body parts yet and all the men along the seaside will gawk at you.

We had that very discussion in the mall two weeks ago. He insisted that men were looking at me like hungry wolves and it upset him. I disagreed, until a man walked by and looked me up and down, just like a hungry wolf. I could’ve punched that guy because 1) ew, don’t be a pig (or wolf) and 2) he proved me wrong.
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I know these cultural rules were not created by Canim, and I know he thinks they’re archaic, but yet he still follows them and I have to as well. Not because we want to move backwards, but because so many people in this part of Turkey are unwilling to move forward and truthfully, I don’t feel like making a spectacle (or more of a spectacle) of myself just for the sake of my right to dress the way I want to.

Has anyone else had trouble grappling with the rules and cultural protocol? Please tell me I’m not the only one!

 

 

Meet the Parents

This post is loooooong overdue. 12 days ago, Canim and I returned from our week-long adventure in the States. We didn’t just visit the States. He met my whole family (give or take a dozen people). He didn’t just meet my whole family, but he met them just 4 hours after landing in the country. Two of those hours were spent waiting at passport control. 1.5 of those hours were spent driving home from the airport and frantically getting ready for our engagement party.

Yes, after 18 hours of travel (from my Turkish doorstep to my American one) and almost no sleep for over 24 hours (I slept a little on the plane, but he didn’t), my brave fiance met my immediate and extended family, as well as my closest friends (whose opinions are just as important as my family’s).

ImageI was nervous. I was jet-lagged. I was a little dizzy and sleep-deprived. He, though tired, WAS A ROCK STAR. He managed to be his usual handsome, charming, incredibly endearing self despite our long journey. He knew the pressure was on and that all eyes were on him, but he did not seem to be worried one bit. He impressed my grandmothers by kissing their hands when he greeted them. That’s not really done in the West, but for him, it was perfectly natural and sincere.

I confess that because I lack the bride gene and at times I even feel like the anti-bride, I had daydreams of eloping and just having a party a few months later. Of course, neither of our families would stand for that, but a girl can dream. However, after seeing everyone’s smiling faces as we entered the party, I realized I really do want a wedding, even if I still lack the enthusiasm for planning one (or in our case, two).

Our week was very exciting on some days, and incredibly boring on others. Boring in the sense that there wasn’t much action, but we still had fun because we were together. On Monday, he waited 6 hours for me while I attended a mandatory seminar at my university (I am still working on my MS). On Tuesday, we visited a dear friend who just had a baby. Then we visited a local brewery and had an impromptu dinner with another dear friend. On Wednesday, he finally got to see the touristic sites near my home. THAT was fun. I loved seeing the city through his eyes. I’m also happy that I’m marrying someone who values taking pictures, because I personally don’t. John Mayer has a song called “3×5” and it’s about how he’s thinking about taking less pictures and just enjoying his experiences for what they are. That’s my philosophy. I remember my experiences in my mind, and it’s good enough for me. But at the same time, I’ve never regretted taking a picture of something special.

On Thursday, we had our glorious engagement photoshoot in a famous park, which was shot by my best friend Liz (whose blog I’d like to somehow link to this post, if I knew how to use this website properly). My other best friend was there also helping to direct and assist me in preserving my sexy while at the same time not losing my neck. I mean really, what are friends for? We took a break from shooting so Canim could try some world-famous hot dogs (oh BABY were they good), and on our way back to the park, we stopped in a Turkish restaurant so 1) we could take more pictures, 2) Canim could give his brain a break and finally speak his native tongue normally and 3) so Canim could introduce everyone to Efes. It was great. 🙂

On Friday, Canim finally got to meet the other person who I love to love, spoil, and shower with affection: my niece (age 3). She recognized him right away, and instructed him to sit down so she could play with him. She also introduced him (by name, without my help) to the other adults in the room, to be sure everyone knew he was there. We bought her a dress from Koton (my favorite store in Turkey) that exactly matches my grown-up version of the same dress. She loved it, as well as the giant plastic lollipop filled with more lollipops, the hot pink purse and the magic wand we bought her. My niece and I are so connected, she was able to predict everything that we bought for her without even looking.

We read Once Upon a Potty to her, which is a classic my niece and I always enjoy reading together. It was Canim’s first time reading it, and when it gets to the part when Prudence “sat and sat and sat and sat…” Canim and I developed a cool rhythm to get through the page without missing a single “and sat”.

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After that, we cuddled up and watched Frozen, because like most American pre-schoolers, my niece is currently OBSESSED with the movie. Canim watched attentively and appreciated the music and the refreshing storyline (you know, the part about women being able to rescue each other and the risk one takes when agreeing to marry someone after only knowing him one day). My niece sang “Let it Go” so well, I cried (as I was filming it, because I may not like taking pictures but I do not hesitate to capture every precious moment with my niece).

On Saturday, we had to leave again. I’ll tell you, one week is not enough time. I’m happy everyone got to meet Canim and I believe everyone has a sense of peace about my choice to marry a foreign man from a mysterious land. They were able to see that he is a normal, sane human being with a heart of gold, a heart that seems to be (inexplicably) overflowing with love for me and now for my loved ones back home.

I cried as we drove back to the airport. I always feel emotional when I leave my family, but this time I cried more than before. I realized moving back to America wasn’t quite as unattractive as it had felt over the summer or even when I visited in January. The difference is that this time, I was with Canim, and I now understand that Turkey, America, any country or city is just geography. If I am with him, I can live anywhere and be okay.

-YB