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Turkey corespondent Serfie Turkoglu eloquetly reveals to REALTIVITY OnLine the multi-layered complexities of being a life-long international citizen and child of the world. The touchstones of culture are everywhere, unseen and in the shadows of our mind. These subversive elements help us define the cult of individuality that fuels the human experience. But what if one was “from” more than a single place? What if you belonged everywhere and nowhere?
“I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed”
Orhan Veli Kanik
When Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul, he did not conquer a city, but the world itself. Istanbul. . . the magnificent, beloved and liveliest city; the city, by which many poets and philosophers are inspired.
Although we are proud of every city in Turkey, Istanbul certainly has a distinctive place for us and this is justified by the millions of people who visit from all around the world. If you have a look at Turkey in general, you can see that Istanbul is the best summary of the country. Walking down the Istiklal Street, you see people from every race, religion, language, culture and nationality. That’s why I say Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered the world itself. Accordingly, every type of Turkish citizen is represented by Istanbul in some way or another. The modernizers, the teenagers, the conservatives, the adventurers, and the freaks all have something to find, to love, and to associate themselves with in this threshold city. Istanbul also represents the glamour and awkwardness of being a bi-cultural and bilingual citizen.
What else am I other than Istanbul? I am the embodiment of two continents: I am both European and Asian. Of course, the matter is not solved when I simply say I am of both cultures. Actually, the problem is born at this point. The fact that I am a Bulgarian Muslim living in Turkey makes things a bit complicated. It’s less due to my origins, and more about my personality they slowly discover, day by day.
I’ve never been ashamed of being a Pomak in Turkey, but if you embody more than one culture at once, you will often face struggles with the people around you. The most overwhelming thing is being misunderstood by others. I remember unintentionally breaking my friend’s heart just because I said “I hope I will see you” instead of “Inshallah, I will see you” while seeing her off.
In theory, both mean the same; but in Turkish, the first one reveals irony when not uttered with the correct tone. As a result, my friend thought I didn’t have the intention to see her again and got cross with me. Later on, I learned to use the correct diction, but the first experience made me cry.
Another incident happened while at college. In my family, we all tend to speak at a high volume – at least high enough for Turkish people to think of us as awkward. It was not a big deal for me until I came to university, since most of my friends in the neighborhood are Bulgarians and speak just like me. We also have the habit of using many details when we tell a story and furthermore, do it loudly. Unaware of my nature, many of my friends at university criticized me due to my speaking style. They always asked me to speak quietly. I try, but I can’t help it. Can you give up a habit that is a part of your lifestyle all at once? I can’t do it either.
Sometimes I even felt offended by people. So long as they know this is simply my way of speaking, why the hell do they ask me to change? Why don’t they just get accustomed to it? Why should I be the one acclimatizing myself to them? When they warn me about my speech, I want to say “I can’t speak like you, I can’t be quieter and I can’t cut it short… because I am Bulgarian. We tend to talk like this, it’s in our nature.”
But I don’t. If I say so, I think they’d assume I’m trying to show off by being different or that I am trying to act like an exotic stranger, and not a Turk. I’ve been in Turkey for 17 years and they probably think I should’ve overcome certain differences. But no! One can achieve this only to a certain extent. I wish they could hear some of our exclamations. They would burst out laughing.
It’s not only the concrete facts that people find different in you. In many cases, your spirit, even your mood makes you distinctively heterodox in the community. Inspecting your figure, people feel something is different in you, but what? At those times, I want to shout “Me! It’s all of me that’s different than you!”
In our first years in Turkey, my father always forced me to be self-confident about my actions. I was to never let people think, decide or act on my behalf. I was supposed to be hard-working in order to lead a happy life, since I was a new comer and had to gain my place with my own effort. Years passed and this motto created the young woman I am today.
I’m now sure why, but I also got used to disregarding people’s ages and can communicate with anyone I like. As long as I act respectively, I can communicate with the eldest people around me. In Turkey, however, although the younger generation has changed this norm to some extent, one is not supposed directly to talk to your elders. Your respect to them is measured by your meekness, which I don’t have in abundance. Thus, some of my teachers thought me too courageous and blunt. I always felt the necessity of giving an account of my words and actions. Otherwise, I prefer to stay passive. I don’t like to be marked as different by a person who only prefers to criticize my distinctiveness.
It might be a ridiculous simile, but I think of a superstar in disguise able to taste the flavor of an ordinary life. Are not bi-cultural people like superstars somehow? We have to suppress part of our self in order to get along well with people around us. Moreover, we lose that sense of belonging, which is the biggest shock for many bi-cultural people. Honestly, I’m glad that I don’t have that sense of belonging. Of course, I don’t mean my roots or the things that create my identity – I mean the commitment to a place.
Living in many places among different cultures enriches your personality. On the other hand, it numbs your sense of attachment to specific thing so that you don’t feel sad when you are separated from it. You await the arrival of new things in your life. When I came to Turkey I was 5, so I didn’t weep for leaving my hometown. My hometown meant only my family at that time. Before settling down in Manisa, where my family lives now, we moved from city to city. I got used to moving on, changing neighbors and friends. It became our lifestyle, so I learned to adapt myself to new conditions. That’s why I didn’t have a hard time in my first years at high school and university, unlike many of my friends. Lacking a sense of belonging became an advantage for me.
Now I live in Ankara, nine hours away from Manisa, yet I don’t miss my city and I won’t miss Ankara when I leave it next year. I don’t think I’m cold or insensitive; I’ve only learned to live like this due to how my life has unfolded. It’s my parents, friends and loved ones for whom I care. In the end, I know I don’t belong here.
The most miserable thing about this issue is I don’t feel like I’m a piece of this whole wide and colorful mosaic. In some ways, I can’t fit in! This basically happens, for example, to Turkish people who go to Germany for employment. After several years, they come to Turkey changed. Their children belong to a different culture and the parents can’t speak Turkish as well as they did previously. People think of them as Germans. On the other hand, back in Germany they are regarded as Turks; therefore they come to belong to neither country. They become temporary dwellers in each country, floating on the breath of culture.
Last weekend, on the bus coming back to school, I felt something deep inside me I can’t explain. I am not one of those pessimists who get lost in their thoughts and believe they don’t belong anywhere but this time… the feeling was the same. Why don’t I miss a particular hometown like the tragic heroes in the movies? I forced myself to yearn for a specific place to which I belong, but I could not. Instead I could easily imagine the places I could go in the future.
In actuality, as much as I try to see the positive, it also hurts. You are incomplete when you feel you belong both everywhere and nowhere and sometimes I don’t know which one is better. It mostly depends on the time you think of it. I have friends happily saying “we are going to our hometown for summer holidays.”
Yes, I am going to Bulgaria for holidays too, but I don’t say it as feverishly as they do. I can’t be completely myself when I am there, and I can’t be completely myself here either. Sometimes, it’s hard to cope with the feelings.
There are many advantages of being bi-cultural, I don’t deny it. You can interact with different cultures at the same time. In some way, you can become different individuals and it’s fantastic. Here I preferred to talk about the other side of the coin. I keep trying to balance both of my selves. . . at least it is easier than Dr. Jekyll’s struggle. I think the process of balance itself will come in the invigorating challenge creating my own identity.
And then I say. . . I am Istanbul. Within me, I live wrapped in the comforting cloak of different cultures, different languages and different identities.
Now, I am listening to myself, free, intent… my eyes closed.