As an exchange student, there are two dimensions to what makes me happy and unhappy here. You guys can see underlined text, right?Feeling close to/on the same level as my friends
So of course, hanging out with my friends makes me very happy.Feeling distant from my friends (or just from other people)
Of course, this feeling I've had to fight since sophmore year, so it's nothing new. Thankfully I can always find exchange friends to get dinner or hang out with. But unfortunately I don't get to see 2 of my Turkish friends, Mali and Burak, all that often. (For reasons I'll explain below.) Maybe once a week, or once every 2 weeks. This is quite a bummer, and it makes me quite sad at times. But it also makes me glad I will be here next semester as well so I can keep seeing them.
The second dimension is related to living in a foreign land:Feeling like a Turk
,living like a Turk,
(and especially) being mistaken for a Turk
all of these fill me with in an inordinate, unrestrained joy. I've gotten out of my post Bayram-slump and have had many moments in the past 2 weeks where I've been 100% happy with my decision to stay here. So no problems there. But there are moments when.... I'm inextricably confronted with something that reminds me I'm not a Turk
at times like this, if I'm by myself, I feel a sudden, icy stab of total lonliness. These moments are temporary, fleeting, and thus they will never overcome, in my mind, the happy memories I have had here.
Let me give examples of both. I hate to write down happy entries in the midst of a somewhat negative/analytical entry, but writing my feelings out like this is the only way I can work through what I'm feeling.
Happy memories - Sunday night,
I was eating dinner with Vikram (American) and Ahmet (Australian guy of Turkish descent).
We were talking earlier about how Ahmet went to go visit his gradmother in Trabzon that weekend, a city in Northeast Turkey on the other side of the black sea. If turkey is a rectangle, Istanbul is the top left corner and Trabzon is near the top right. Here's a map
. It's sort of a running joke about how I always hope that people think I'm from that north-east area, as that's the only region of Turkey where some of the people are remotely pale/fair skinned as I am. (It's near Georgia/Russia/Ukraine.) There's an ethnic group there called the Laz, who are fully Turkish yet famed for their supposedly "blond" hair and blue eyes, etc.
Anyway as we're going to pay at the register, the owner, a woman in her 50s or so, asks Ahmet where we are all from in Turkish. He replies that he's Australian and that Vik and I are American. She thinks for a moment and says something. Ahmet laughs and says that she thinks Vikram (who is Indian-American) looks more American than I do. Curious, I ask Ahmet to ask her where she thinks I'm from, and I'm expecting some place like Britain or France since she knows I'm not Turkish.
She thinks for a second and says "Trabzon", and we all freak the fuck out. I almost started crying. =]
Then the very next day, I'm walking on a narrow sidewalk when I see an old man in a taqiyah cap
and white beard approach from the opposite direction. Of course, out of respect I step off to the side and let him pass first. As he passes me, he smiles and says in a wonderfully lilting voice,
and it's a moment I'll never forget. =)
Thanks to little things like that, I can now walk around the neighboorhood, around school, and feel perfectly confident that the average person on the street thinks I'm Turkish.
Some Bogazici students probably know better because there are lots of exchange students at our school, but even in the surrounding area I feel that people just regard me as a pale Turk from up near Georgia. I can't tell you what a relief this is, from the beginning of the year where I was so worried about standing out.
I'd rather stand out (in their minds) as a pale turk than as a pale foreigner. Hopefully you can understand why, but it seems like a lot of the other exchange students - the ones who are blonde, for example, or who are too dark to pass like Vikram - just accept it, like I would if I was studying abroad in India or Japan. Then there are the few exchange students here who blissfully don't give a shit at all one way or another.
Anyway, you may be skeptical, and I admit that most Turks look solidly Mediterrean, or Greek, while some look more Arabic. Actually it's a really sexy country as the people look like a mix of different phenotypes. But there are indeed a few Turks here who look very northern European - of course they're a minority, and I when I see them I feel a perverse sort of kinship with them. But in their own minds, they probably don't feel like they stick out as much as I do, because they actually speak
Turkish and freaking are
Turkish. So I don't feel too bad for them.
When the rest of my beard comes in (right now I just have my thin goatee, although I think even that helps) I'll probably feel even better as that's the biggest and most depressing thing that physically separates me from Turkish guys. I don't even want to be swarthy, I just want my beard! But let me give another anecdote:
I was studying on this little cliff/bench area on campus, watching the sunset. As I get up to go, I notice another fair-skinned guy with my body shape and hair color, which makes me a bit happy, although then I sadly note as he gets closer that (of course) he has a pretty good scruffy-beard thing going on. A bit bummed out at this failed comparison, I get up to leave when I hear Burak calling my name - it turns out he was walking with this guy and I didn't notice him.
So we walk up the hill to the exit of campus and chat a bit, and I'm happy because, as I said before, I only get to see Burak about once a week, if that. It's mainly because we don't have any classes together and he lives with his parents, about 25 minutes away. (This is much more common in Turkey.) We start talking about classes and he says he has a lot of projects and presentations coming up for the next 2 weeks, and then right after that finals start. So it sounds like I might not see him again for a while, which bums me out. Then I notice the pale classmate he was walking with has run into another friend of his going the opposite way, but this classmate's friend is out with his entire family. The classmate asks his friend "Is this your brother?" (referring to a chubby 10 year old), greets the mother and aunt (in headscarves), etc. Burak and I don't really intervene, we just wait until he's done speaking to them.
Anyway, little things like this just remind me that, whatever kinship I felt with this pale scruffy guy, who was roughly my height and maybe weight, who didn't look much older than I did, and who could be said to resemble me - is all superficial. I'm not fluent in Turkish. I didn't grow up with a Turkish family. My mother doesn't wear a headscarf. (although she probably would, in this alternate universe)
It's times like that when I wonder, why the fuck do I bother trying to pass so hard? Why, at times, do I expend a large amount of mental energy trying to imagine what my life would be like if I was a Turkish student graduating from Bogazici, or why I expend a large amount of mental energy trying not only to look like a Turk, but think like one, even?
(because I love Turkey! and that's true, but also;
because it's the only way I can live here. To feel as if I am accepted by others.)
Anyway, the next time I am out on the town with my Turkish buddies, or even with my good exchange student friends, these feelings will disappate. The seperation I feel from Burak will disappate whenever I happen to see him next. I don't know. I just don't know how to react. I think I know why I feel this way - because it's thrill of creating a new identity for myself. I can eject whatever painful childhood disappointments I had whenever I fly across the Atlantic at 25,000 feet and create a new identity for myself as someone who had the childhood and adolescence I wish I had.
But I can't create a new Turkish life, of 20 years, to fill that void.
So where the hell does that leave me?