Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thicker skin

: a blog-ring project of Dialogue2010
You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts they share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at the writing network SheWrites. Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010
Looking like a tourist while living in Sultanahmet
, the touristy heart of Istanbul, it’s obvious I’m going to be taken for a visiting foreigner. Even though I walk like a Turk along the narrow cobblestone streets, someone is bound to say in English “Hello, the Blue Mosque is this way”. I’m perfectly comfortable being the only ‘one like me’ when I’m on the road. 

But now I’m home. I don’t like to be a foreigner on my own turf.

This is not about my ability to speak the language or to behave as local women do. This is about the outside package: what I look like, and people’s reaction to me based on purely that. Multinational visitors to our shop show little hesitation in stating, “You’re not Turkish” before I’ve even opened my mouth. Do they expect an explanation, an apology? Is that a polite thing to say to someone you don’t know in any culture? And why can’t I be Turkish? I respond that I’m a hybrid, which stops most from asking further, and gets an excited reaction from those who know what I mean.

This week, as I was sitting in our shop, a Turkish woman about my age and her daughter came in to try on some vintage Turkmen clothing we sell. She sat down and launched straight into telling me about a gathering the next morning, a festival of sorts, about an hour’s journey up the Bosphorus from here, and asked if I would be free to come. For a Turkish woman I’ve just met to invite me somewhere was totally normal in my experience…until she continued, “There will be others there – from Spain, Germany, Italy, as well as some British friends who live in Capadocia.
When I saw your face, I thought maybe you’d like to join us.” She even gestured to her own face to make sure I understood.

Granted the Turkish I speak is far from perfect, but I’d just been thinking as this woman and I spoke how lovely it was that we conversed in unhalting Turkish, that we could communicate. But she’d invited me because of my face, not because she liked what I’d said or even that I was a foreigner who speaks her language.

Perhaps I need to develop thicker skin. A funny phrase when it is indeed my skin, my features, at odds here. It intrigues me that she didn’t think it was wrong to call me out as the ‘other’; in fact, she was pleasant while direct – my face was why she was interested.  

My appearance put me firmly in the category ‘foreign’, that large block of humanity that is anyone different than you.

Quite like a conversation the previous week, involving a black American author who’d posted an entreaty on a writers website asking for ‘White Ambassadors’ to promote her new book. At first, the post read as an awkward joke, until it became obvious that the author really did want to appeal to “
White people”, another homogeneous block of humanity. The friend who called this anachronistic article to my attention had been deemed ‘uncivil’ when questioning the writer’s manner and motivation. Perhaps the post was meant to be a humorous way to draw attention to the very real fact that the US publishing industry pigeonholes writers by race, sex, religion…whatever narrow ways they have to define us. But here it was again – this time I was wanted not because I was foreign, but because I was white.

In an age when identities and boundaries are increasingly blurry and lifestyles are becoming hybrid, I understand the confusion and fear that arise. I wanted to comment to that author that I’d be happy to read and recommend her book if I liked the subject and her way of telling the story, but now I’d be averse to doing so because I don’t like someone who wants to put me in a box. Just like the Turkish visitor to my shop. 

Is it just me, or are other human beings rankled when they are grouped like large herds of anonymous sheep, expected to follow the latest shepherd in any direction they are prodded?

I could have posted this opinion while defending my friend’s truthful and direct criticisms. But since living in Turkey I’ve learned to stifle my strong opinions about controversial subjects in public forums, though in private I rarely keep my mouth shut. Not because I’m a foreigner here and will always be considered so, but because my husband is also an outsider of a different kind: an ethnic Kurd. Now, while Turks will claim that there is no second tier of citizenship in this country, there is an underlying and easily understood rule that everyone here must be Turkish, end of discussion, no hyphenated ethnicities need be added.
Happy is he who calls himself a Turk”.

Not such a different situation than black Americans have, when they assert they have their own culture, way of speaking and want to keep both that heritage as well as fit in and be accepted as a part of the larger American whole. But when I’ve questioned looks of consternation after I mention my husband is Kurdish (from my husband as well, for he’s been conditioned to keep ethnic issues private), or equate Kurdish identity in Turkey with any ethnic civil rights struggles that I’ve seen in the country of my birth, those looks become stony and cold. 

After all, I’m a foreigner from a very young country. What right to an opinion should I have?

Worse yet have been reactions online, when I’ve posted my thoughts about anything pertaining to the Kurds in Turkey. I’ve been told by Kurds (especially those living in Europe), by Turks and by Americans that I can’t possibly know or understand, that no one would honestly tell me the truth of their feelings or beliefs, that I’m unable to walk a mile in their shoes. 

After more than a decade living with my husband and to a large extent his numerous Kurdish family, spread out all over not just Turkey but the globe, I find it heartbreaking to again be the ‘other’, the perpetual foreigner.

So that may be why I left the defense of my ‘uncivil’ friend to other mutual friends and writers: to our strong-willed woman of color, who could state what we all thought, though we ‘White people’ could not; or to our two European sisters, who could compassionately or cleverly say what we as Americans must not, or be considered ‘uncivil’, a catty comeback women use to bat down assertive female behavior. Insiders, outsiders, each in our own boxes. 

Will we ever be able to state what we feel without all the identity baggage attached, and leave those boxes curbside?

I don’t want to develop a skin so thick that such subjects no longer rankle me. If that 1% difference that we human beings have in our various facial features and skin colors is enough to keep us at odds, what hope do we have of ever reconciling cultural, moral and religious differences? It’s been 18 years since I watched
Rodney King utter that famous cliché on the TV in my Los Feliz living room during the Los Angeles Riots, but truly, “why can’t we all just get along”?

More thoughts on this subject from my fellow HYBRID AMBASSADORS:

Catherine Yiğit's Special-ism

Anastasia Ashman's Great White People Book Club
Sezin Koehler's Whites Only?
Rose Deniz's Voice Lessons from a Hybrid Ambassador
Tara Lutman Ağaçayak's Circles
Judith van Praag's We Write History Today
Elmira Bayraslı's The Color of Writing
Jocelyn Eikenburg's The Problem with 'Chinese Food'


  1. "After all, I’m a foreigner from a very young country. What right to an opinion should I have? " --> this question is something I've asked myself, too. I think if you take out the idea of "right" and think about how everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, has a unique point of view and unique combination of elements that can be shared, it becomes less about right, and more about compassion - you understanding someone else and them understanding you. That even Turks have different backgrounds and opinions, as you've pointed out can validate your 'right' to own your experience.

    I like your perspective on the dualities of inside and outside, and how you deal with being an outsider in your own adopted home.

  2. I feel your pain, Catherine. I hate it when people make assumptions about me or others based on these superficial characteristics, or attempt to lump the nuanced complexities of people into these expansive generalisations. I think this will continue to be a bane of our hybrid existence - seeing the world in three dimensions, full colour, while others limit themselves to one dimension and black and white.

    I also don't want thick skin, but it's getting harder and harder to avoid it. We need to be like Tara's circles, remaining fluid, supple and adaptive. I help you, you help me. Deal?

  3. This reminds me of my sister getting annoyed on a trip to Bodrum. Every seller came out and called her Irish, some even addressed her in Irish! She didn't want to be so recognizable, but with her fair hair, freckles and blue eyes she could only be Irish. She's come to accept that having lived in Canada for several years. It's ok to be recognizable once you are content with yourself. You may be 'other' but that is part of what makes you special, embrace the freedom that it brings.

  4. @Rose - I'm so glad you mentioned the word "compassion"...something that is missing from most public dialogue these days. It seems most people are so caught up in defending themselves and proving the other wrong, they are afraid to take down that shield for even a moment to really look at who they're talking against...not with.

    @Sezin - You have a deal! My favorite shapes have always been circular, but more the sunburst, which radiates warmth, power, energy outward...or the spiral, which is ever evolving, hopefully upward! And yes, we hybrids can't help but see all sides, all colors. Maybe someday those colorless beings will catch up, but I'm not waiting for their approval. ;-D

    @Catherine - Being the other does bring freedom, if you are strong enough to look at that way. Today I had another 'yabanci' woman, her Turkish husband and family stop in at the shop to ask me which cafe in the neighborhood I recommended. The conversation was in Turkish, and she asked if I was Turkish or foreign. I replied "I'm both... are you?" She smiled and said "Me too" Ne guzel!

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. How I wish I would have come across your blog before a couple of months. How great it would have been to meet you and I would not call you a foriegner.

    As for the discrimination, I think it is prevelant in almost every part of the world. Here in Kuwait, we expats contribute to most of the country's working class, from the blue collar jobs to white collars jobs are done by expat. But at a larger scale we are still just labourer for the rich Kuwaitis.

    Thank you so much so stopping by my blog. I plan to re create many of the memories of Turkey through food because thats what I do best.

  6. 'But she’d invited me because of my face, not because she liked what I’d said or even that I was a foreigner who speaks her language.'...This made me stop to consider what else she might have seen in your face besides just the surface colors. My Turkish inlaws and friends comment on people's faces quite a bit, but in most cases it's not a judgement of nationality or race, it's more of a mystical reading of the person's character, intelligence, level of purity, etc. They say things like 'She has a very clean soul, just look at her face.' or 'He seemed like a smart guy, I could tell by his face.' It's something like reading Turkish coffee cup fortunes, or believing in the power of a nazar boncuk, maybe it's just superstition, or maybe there is some ancient wisdom in it, but in any case reading faces is what Turks do. Perhaps, your face bears the look of a culturally seasoned (hybrid) woman, someone with an open mind, a creative soul. Perhaps it's a look that many of us hybrids share, like a mark of sisterhood, something that can be recognized. Maybe the Italian, German and British women that you were invited to meet were part of the same 'face club,' and your Turkish friend thought it would be nice for you all to meet?

  7. Karrie, thanks for your comment - I love to think you're right! I know I have the 'yabanci' chip on my shoulder far too often, and may very well have misinterpreted what she meant, since she did not elaborate. I've personally never noticed friends and relatives reading faces here beyond maybe a casual "he looks like a good guy", though I've had Chinese friends tell me I have an open, honest face. Perhaps my 'chip' made me miss an opportunity to meet several other kindred spirits? A good lesson to learn to drop my defenses - I appreciate that reminder! :-D

  8. Hey Catherine, I appreciate your thoughtful post loaded with complexity.

    It's interesting to consider 1) how other people incorrectly assume we don't have experience with or any innate compassion with a particular issue (such as Kurds imagining Americans as members of a monolithic young nation); and 2) how we hear what others say to us in our contexts and the context we place the speaker (like imagining a visitor to your shop is talking about the color of your skin when they may be addressing the features of your face or the energy they sense coming from you).

    Shows how wrong we can be, pretty much every day, for reasons all our own. Also, how talking it through like in this post and its comments brings both clarity, and an increased level of comfort with the unknowable of it all.

  9. Kulsum, thanks for visiting! Yes, I agree - people are people, so we all discriminate, in many different ways. Interesting about Kuwait and how expats are viewed as one big block of workers, whether they are skilled or not. I know how that feels from working for the mega-rich in California - we are all support staff on call 24/7, regardless the status of our profession.

    I'm so glad to find your site too, and will be back. Your photos are great, and I'll bet the recipes are even better, so will be trying many soon. I've been "Indianizing" food for years and would love to see how you do more Turkish cuisine.

  10. Anastasia, thanks for your comments, and for instigating this very insightful project. I've learned so much by writing about this. Though I've been pondering my 'yabanci' issues for a decade now, I think reading about others with similar mis-perceptions (is that a word?) and identity issues their entire lives has told me to accept and own who I am.

    The older I get, the less I know. Isn't that great?!

  11. I've been wondering about the same thing as Rose: "After all, I’m a foreigner from a very young country. What right to an opinion should I have?"

    Sometimes I think I should just keep quiet and stay out of a mess that was here before me. But sometimes I think I have valuable insights to offer as someone with a fresh perspective.

    Ultimately, we have a responsibility to make some kind of contribution to the place where we find ourselves. Hopefully it's a positive one.

  12. This presumption that I should not voice my opinion is the primary reason the first draft of my book isn't finished. Of course I can tell my half of our story (and that's long been written) but how do I authentically write my husband's controversial tale? This winter, I plan to 'just do it' - no thought to naysayers who don't have the guts to empathize with others with different heritages, or allow others to try.

    If I'm trounced, let it be for my writing skills and not for daring to tell a true story. If I don't tell it, who will? Like the white author who had the courage to write the novel "The Help" and was called out for it by black writers. She'd been raised by a black nanny; she was not speculating, any more than I'd be fantasizing the life of my Kurdish family.

    If we are afraid to walk in the 'other's' shoes, we fail as human beings. Thanks Tara (and Rose) for reminding me about most important part of my post.