Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009 - 2 comments

Identity Crisis in Seat #2

(written while on an overnight bus ride, July 16th)

Yabancı.” It’s one of my least favourite words in the Turkish language. Literally, it means “foreigner” or “stranger.” My Turkish Dad tells me that in terms of the former, it’s more like “guest” and is a positive word. To me, it usually feels more like “someone to rip off,” “someone we can get away with flirting with” or “someone who likely doesn’t speak Turkish.” Whatever the meaning, it’s not really something I want to be.

I want to blend in! I want to be "Jane Doe".....or, rather, "Ayşe Yilmaz." I want to be able to walk down the street and not have someone call out, “Hello lady!” I want to be able to have a conversation with a shopkeeper without them asking where I am from! But, alas, with blue eyes, freckles, an accent and the confident stride of a women who’s never worked a day in the field, been beaten by her husband, or been subject to the sorts of insults and shame that cause people to grow up with slumped just ain’t gonna happen.

Some days I play the local part very well. I dress right, I don’t make any language mistakes, and I move through society in perfect sync with all the unspoken rules. Then other days, I feel like I have a big sign on my forehead that screams “YABANCI.” Today is one of those days.

It started with a mix-up over my seat number on the bus. I thought that when I booked my ticket I’d gotten the front seat, which I always go for cuz it helps me not get car sick. But when the bus attendant checked tickets, he informed me that I was sitting in the wrong spot. The annoying thing was, even though I was speaking Turkish to him, he tried to explain the problem to me in (very broken) English, cuz, you know, my confusion had to be due to the fact that I am a foreigner and foreigners are easily confused. Doesn’t matter that the same thing could have easily happened to a Turk. Another passenger kindly offered to switch seats with me so I could sit in the front, but our game of musical chairs apparently confused the “system”, further irritating the attendant who, I am sure, thought the whole thing was due to my not knowing my numbers.

There are a number of things you can do on a bus that no one would bat an eye at if a Turk did, but if I were to do them, it automatically labels me a yabancı. Tonight, I did all of them. I read a novel, I took my shoes off, and I am listening to an iPod. (Sure, the song playing right now is “Sweet Home Alabama,” but the one before it was “Ah Be Kardeşim” from the new Yalın album I just bought – doesn’t that count for something?) Oh, and the fact that I am writing in my journal just now – a dead giveaway. (Does it help that its cover is brown paper from a bag of Turkish coffee?)

Everyone on the bus probably thinks I’m a starry-eyed tourist, enchanted by the exotic East. They don’t know that this “exotic East” is my home. They don’t know that yesterday I saw Ice Age 3 in Turkish and understood nearly all the jokes. The bus driver doesn’t know that I know he shouldn’t be smoking that cigarette because I read about the new law against smoking in closed places in a Turkish newspaper today. The lady beside me doesn’t know that the reason my eyes are glued to the road is not because I am afraid of the crazy driving (I’m quite accustomed to that!) – in fact it’s because I am scanning the numbers on license plates to see how many of the country’s corresponding 81 provinces I have correctly memorized. (That and I am desperately searching for the elusive number 79 – Kilis – which is the last one I need to find to beat my roommate in our little competition!)

A perk of Turkish buses is that they serve snacks and drinks. When I am travelling by bus or by plane, I so often order çay (tea) even when I really want coffee. Nescafe always seems a bit more “uppity” to me, but tea is “the people’s drink” and ordering it somehow it makes me feel more like a Turk...even if it is bag Lipton tea and not the real stuff. But sometimes it feels good to go for preference over image, and so I am sipping a Nescafe. What’s two more “yabancı points” when I am already in the hole?

We stopped for a meal break a little while ago. At the Adana bus station, which I am quite familiar with. I went straight to my “usual” restaurant and ordered some lentil soup - the quintessential Turkish comfort food. (And, no, I didn’t get it to try to look more local – I really do love it!) But even though I ordered and paid for my food in what I know was perfect Turkish, the cashier still replied with, “You’re a foreigner – where are you from?” Grr! I know he was just trying to be friendly, but he picked the wrong girl on the wrong night.

It just goes to show that I could live here the rest of my life, be an active member of my community, quote Turkish TV shows without a trace of an accent, walk my kids to school in a headscarf and baggy village pants, cook eggplant and crack sunflower seeds with the best of ‘em....but to every new person I meet for the rest of my life, I will always be a “foreigner-where-are-you-from?” It’s like someone’s written “yabancı” across my head with a Sharpie and no amount of scrubbing will ever wash it off.

Sigh. If I already look the part, there’s no sense in pretending. With that, I’m putting on my very non-Turkish sleep mask and at least getting a good night’s rest. :)