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
- 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.
- 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. 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Also, 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. 😉
- 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!
- 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.
- 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. 🙂
- 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! 🙂