Posted by: mollyscafeistanbul | March 6, 2012

Thoughts on being an expat

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an expat. Actually I think all my life I have been sort of an expat, as my family moved around a lot, though in a small area. I had an aunt who taught abroad for some years, so perhaps that made me realize I could do it

Someone recently told me that when one is an ex-pat it is almost always very unrealistic to expect that the friends, however close, one may have made in either the native or ex-pat community will feel they can come to your aid in anything but an emergency or short-lived need. I felt that this was a very negative outlook. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances through my past w

ork (in education) and certainly through the café. Some of those friends, especially Turks, have helped me with various issues, bureaucratic, business, or health. My great advantage is that I speak Turkish, however imperfectly, so I can get help when I need it. In fact, some Turks have worried that I live on my own and that perhaps I would not be able to get help if I were ill. Most people who know me also know that I am pretty independent but I know I can call someone if I need help. In fact, one thing I have learned here is to get over the ‘I can do it myself thank you’ and actually ask for help.too. But what does it mean to live

abroad and to return for visits or for good?

An example of the help I have gotten, among many others, is one day on Galata Square at Seker Bayram, the holiday at the end of Ramazan. I had chocolates in my pocket to give away to people I knew. I ran into a pack of shoe shine boys, most of whom I knew (and now the city has chased t

hem all away). They were clustered around me and it was a little much. One man I did not know yelled at them and told them to get lost. One older boy responded that he was just picking on them because they were Kurds (probably true). The owner of the market at that corner came out and my realtor friend came out of his office. All of a sudden I was in the centre of an uncomfortable event. The two local men calmly told the boys to disperse and I gave them chocolate to soften it. I wasn’t very frightened, but I was uncomfortable, and I was very grateful for the help from the stranger and certainly from my neighbours.


Which leads me to saying how muc

h in these past ten years in Galata I have felt that this is my village. When I walk to the café or home I am greeted by many people who live and work here. That also makes me feel safe and protected because I am known. Even when I walk on Istiklal Caddesi, Turkey’s main street, I always run into people I know. My accountant loves to tell people how I run into people I know all the time when I wal

k with him. He says in the fifteen years he has had his office near Tunel, he has never had a similar experience. Even though Galata is in the middle of a huge city, it is still a village and I enjoy being known as the foreign woman who runs a café (before, I was known as the foreign woman who was a teacher).


Knowing the  language is especially important. I know several expats here who do not speak Turkish beyond asking for something in the market or perhaps directing a taxi driver. Some of them have been here for many years. I think it is disrespectful that they do not speak Turkish and it certainly means that they lose out a lot on being ‘in’ the culture as they cannot just strike up conversations– and Turks love to talk.


What does being in the culture mean? It means different things to different people according to their situations and their personalities. For example, being married to a Turk (or anyone else) means that you are also married to the family, which is a challenge in any culture. That has not been my experience here in Turkey, though I came close to marrying a Turkish man some years ago. So I can’t speak for being a foreign bride. Otherwise, I think being in the culture means understanding somewhat– and it can only be somewhat in my humble opinion– why people do what they do. Reading up on the history helps a lot. Speaking the language helps a lot. I have said before that my body language has completely changed here. I immediately start the Turkish kiss-kiss, which puts off people in North America. I raise my eyebrows to say no, which means something completely different where I come from. I put my fingers together and gesture with my hand to show that something is good. And so forth. Even my language has changed and in North America sometimes I have to pause to think of the English word for something (for example, foreigner for yabanci). So yes, to a certain extent I am in the culture.


However, even after 14 years I still have the foreigner bubble around me. Turks often ask if I am German or English and are surprised when I tell them I am Canadian. I have a hard time understanding jokes, as they are very cultural and often depend on plays on words that I don’t get. Catching the conversation on TV is hard, though I have to say most of the programs don’t interest me much anyway. The news I can mostly follow, since I usually know the topic. I don’t read or write Turkish very well, but I can get the newspaper, again because I usually know the topic and I can look at the pictures. I think anywhere a person lives, if she is a foreigner, she will always be a little different.


That said, in my case, it makes me exotic. In my case, I am a mature white western woman. I am not a black African or a refugee from one of the neighbouring countries, both of which put another twist on foreignness for different reasons. One of my American friends here commented that to the people back home we are exotic for living here and to the locals we are also exotic. However, I have also found that when I am in North America for a visit, few people express any interest at all in my life here and most do not even know where Istanbul or turkey are.


As I deal with the bureaucracy for the café, some people have suggested that I have difficulties because I am a woman. I think it is the opposite and in fact when I had a Turkish male friend try and do some of it, he ended up getting into a big argument with the manager, which did not help me at all. My feeling is that I get more respect by being a western woman. And sometimes it helps that I do not understand the body language or other language that goes along with the person hinting for a ‘tip’. Even in English my language is peppered with Turkish expressions such as inshallah or maalesef.


As far as being a businesswoman goes, I think it was good that I had been here for 10 years before I opened the café, as I had developed a pretty good sense of going with the flow. Often things happen here for inscrutable reasons and it really helps to be able to deal with ambivalence. That may come from not completely understanding the language or just from how things are done. I have learned to be very Turkish in my business dealings. Oh, you don’t have enough money? Pay me later. That would never happen where I come from. I let people smoke in my café (definitely illegal) and like everyone else not everything goes into the cash register. Dealing with the city is totally frustrating but I am used to it and they are leaving me alone for now as I wait for a café permit (yes, the café has not had a permit since last June, they know it, and I am still doing business. Knock wood).


Even when things have become routine, there are times when an expat looks at things with a sense of wonder, especially here in Istanbul. The normal people here are exotic just because they are not like me. And with such a history, you can turn a corner and see something incredibly old. That is not something I expect to happen in Canada. And yes, things do become routine. Like most people, expats get up and go to work, deal with transportation, struggle with various bureaucracies (though the Byzantine bureaucracy was invented here and still goes on). Although we complain about how expensive Istanbul has become, it is still cheaper than a lot of other places and Anadolu is even cheaper than Istanbul.


I would say that my experience here has been mostly positive. I do know some people who come here and can’t handle it and leave, with a lot of whining beforehand (thinking of many teachers I had to deal with in my old life as a school director). This is not Kansas, Dorothy, and things do not work here like they do back home. If you can’t deal with it, stop whining and leave. What I really hate is people who get a superior attitude about the Turks, who are very nice, helpful, curious people. I love this city and I am very glad that I live here and I know when I leave it will be very difficult. Being a repat will be very different from being an expat.





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