Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014 - No comments

Our Home and (Perhaps Not) Native Land

A few days before I came back to Turkey, Mom and I went to Pajo’s at Garry Point to celebrate my birthday.  As we sat there enjoying the best fish n’ chips in the city (#3 in Canada, I might add), we were trying to guess the story on the big group having a potluck at the picnic tables nearest us.  The chopsticks were flying, with noodles and rice dominating the spread.  At first glance, I would’ve told you it was a Chinese extended-family picnic, but there were a couple of Middle Eastern looking men and a few Koreans thrown into the mix.  Guys that married in, perhaps?

On a napkin-and-ketchup run, I tried to get the scoop from a young Asian woman sitting off to the side with her little boy.  

“You all look like you’re having a lot of fun.  Is this a family picnic?”

She looked like she was struggling to put a sentence together.  “”

I looked over to where the group had gathered for announcements of some sort.  “Is it for school, for a class?”  

Her eyes brightened.  “School!  Yes!”

Later as Mom and I went to make a pit-stop at the washroom, we passed by close enough to the group to hear a Caucasian guy who appeared to be the leader asking trivia questions like, “Who is the mayor of Richmond?” and “Who was the first Prime Minister of Canada?” 

“Ah,” we thought.  “An ESL class, most likely.  Or maybe something for new immigrants looking towards becoming citizens.”

As we got ready to head over to the beach side to walk along the Dyke, the leader handed out sheets of paper to the thirty or so members of the group, and began to lead them in a rather halting, uncertain rendition of “O Canada.”  Some used their fingers to follow along with the words; others, like one particularly boisterous Asian man, had clearly practiced the anthem and belted it out with operatic gusto.

Now, if you know my Mom and I at all, you know we are suckers for “foreigners” and “patriotic sappiness”, so it will come as no surprise that we marched right on over and joined in.  Several people looked up from their lyric sheets and, stumbling over the words, returned our encouraging smiles before finding their places again.  The addition of these two “enthused locals” to the group seemed to bolster their courage - hesitant voices getting louder as we moved past “with glowing hearts” towards “the true north, strong and free.”    And by the time we got to, “God keep our land,” I’d gotten all choked up and had to mouth a few lines before we all proclaimed in unison, “We stand on guard for thee!”  

I don’t know what it is about national anthems, but they get me every time.  Nary a Çocuk Bayramı (Children’s and National Sovereignty Day) goes by that I don’t have tears in my eyes as I sing along to Turkey’s (painstakingly memorized) İstiklal Marşı at the opening of the neighbourhood school’s celebration.  Once when I was teaching English in China, we were doing a lesson on American culture and when my Yankee teaching partner couldn’t remember all the words to the Star Spangled Banner (for shame...) I had to jump in and finish it for her.  And wouldn’t you know, somewhere around “the rocket’s red glare” I got all emotional....and it’s not even my anthem!

“O Canada”, of course, is in a class all its own when it comes to the waterworks - all the more so when I’ve been away for awhile.  I remember so clearly the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics - standing alone in my living room in Turkey, thousands of miles from my hometown host city, hand on my heart, tears of pride flowing freely as I sang along with my countrymen via Eurosport.  So I guess it’s no wonder I got all misty-eyed as I stood there, four days from my departure to my “other-home”, watching all those immigrants so intentionally make the home I’ve left their own.

A half hour or so after we’d left the group, Mom and I were sitting on a log on the beach when an older couple walked past, the woman leaning heavily on a cane.

“See the way her headscarf is tied?”  I said, indicating the way it was tucked into the neck of her long coat .  “I’d bet anything she’s a Turk.”

Mom, always up for meeting some new friends, said, “Let’s go stalk them and find out!”

So, off we went, following far enough behind so as not to be creepy, but close enough to hear what language they were speaking.  And, sure enough, it was Turkish.

“Hello!” Mom called out as we caught up with them.

When they looked our way, I followed in Turkish with, “Excuse me, are you Turkish, I wonder?”  Their eyes lit up as they answered in the affirmative, and a swirl of conversation about how we’d “chased them down” ensued.  They kindly switched to English for Mom’s benefit  - his accent flawless, hers with admirable evidence of having worked extremely hard at her second language.

When I explained how it was that I came to know their language, the woman smiled knowingly and said, “I think we’ve heard of you!”  It turns out that a Turkish lady I met last summer at the grocery store is a good friend of theirs, and she’d told them all about “this local girl who is a photographer in Turkey and can speak Turkish.”  

He is an economics professor at a local university, and she gave birth to and raised their children in Vancouver.  Their house is just a five minute drive from where I grew up, and my Turkish family lives one bus stop away from their old family home in Istanbul.  

Small world indeed. 

I was sad to have to decline their invite to come over for çay (four days left and a mile-long to-do list) but when I told them about my “homeland” book project, they said they’d love to be interviewed when I’m back next summer.  They’ll be the perfect candidates, too.  “We’ve been in Canada thirty-five years,” she told me, “but I’m still completely a Turk in my heart.”

She looked so wistful when I told her I’ll be spending all of July in Istanbul for my language course, remembering with fondness, I imagine, humid evenings of tea and backgammon and wedding fireworks over the Bosphorus.  I, on the other hand, envy the fact that she’ll spend the summer walking the Dyke and the path around Garry Point, eating all the Pajo’s fish n’ chips she wants.  And both of us, no doubt, will hear the laughter of the seagulls and inhale the salty sea air of our second homes and long for the places we came from.

As I sat at the Vancouver airport last week, eating my traditional “last meal” of yam fries and chipotle mayo at A&W before heading home to Turkey, I thought back to the national-anthem singers and the Turkish couple.  The former were getting ready to mark what would be, for most of them, their first Canada Day.  The latter have celebrated more Canada Days than I have, having lived in my hometown longer than I’ve been alive.  And I, the only locally-born one in the bunch, would be in the air on July 1st, flying further and further away from the Salmon Festival and Timothy’s Frozen Yogurt, and closer and closer to Ramadan and the tinkling of spoons in tulip-shaped tea glasses.  

The new immigrant painting a maple leaf on her face, my new Turkish friend waving a flag at the parade in her headscarf, and I wearing my Old Navy Canada Day t-shirt as the familiar Mediterranean coastline came into view outside my economy class window - who’s to say which one of us carries “O Canada” most strongly in our heart?