Our two months in Istanbul were so...mixed. The first three weeks were mostly fine - everything was new, I liked the food, my students were pretty good - maybe it was the honeymoon period. The second three weeks were rough - my co-teacher and I really struggled with our group of kids and I felt like we had a lackluster response from our superiors when we cried out for help, I started tiring of the food, and I got sick - basically, everything started wearing on me. The last three weeks were better, but I had multiple frustrating customer service run-ins (one of which I'll get to soon), gravitated towards foods that I was familiar with with an increasing frequency, and basically found myself really looking forward to leaving Turkey on many days.
One of the perks of our job was that each staff member was given a credit card-like card that once a month was loaded with Turkish lira, and they could use it at a host of different establishments on campus and around Turkey (for food). For the first month Danny and I were very frugal with our cards, using them primarily in the university cafeteria, where a meal usually cost around 7-9 Turkish lira, or $2 - $2.50. We ate breakfast and lunch with our students, and then dinner at the cafeteria, so after a while, we realized that we could perhaps get a bit wild and buy treats at the coffee shop at campus after a bad day or go crazy at restaurants that accepted our card when we went into the city and so on.
Fast forward to the end of the summer, when we took a trip to southwest Turkey to visit Pamukkale and Ephesus. The weather was hot all weekend long, and I was also sick at this point, so not really feeling at my most adventurous with new foods. We didn't expect to find any restaurants in this part of Turkey that would accept our cards as payment for food or drink, but as we drove between Pamukkale and Ephesus, I saw a sign for Starbucks. It was three in the afternoon, we hadn't had lunch, and the day hadn't gone as planned at all - but don't feel sorry for us! These things happen, whether you're traveling or whether you're just living normal life. We figured it was a long shot, but if they would accept our cards as payment, we'd be happy to get some free, familiar food (we'd been working hard for it with our students, but we didn't have to hand over our actual lira for it, so it kind of felt free) and continue on our way.
Sure enough, this Starbucks accepted our payment cards, and we were pretty happy. Danny got two sandwiches and a drink, and I got a muffin and a juice. I felt sick with a sore throat, chills, a cough - this food and this space felt familiar and comfortable. That is, until I placed my order and the barista pointed at Danny who was sitting with his sandwiches, motioned to the case of food, spoke to his coworker, and they both started laughing. Of course, I don't know what they said, but I felt small. I turned around, and a woman was staring intently at me. It was terribly intimidating, and so I turned away, and then turned back around, and still, she was staring. I felt really foreign, really uncomfortable, really out of place.
Danny went on to order a dessert, and then we went up together to get some granola bars for later on in the trip, and again, the baristas laughed openly at us, as though we were telling them funny jokes or were wearing silly costumes. I wanted to hide but Danny made us stay, unbothered by the situation.
The next day as we waited to fly back to Istanbul, we visited Starbucks at the airport in Izmir. It accepted our cards as well, and it was close to dinner time, so Danny got a few sandwiches, and a cookie and I got a sandwich, a cookie and a juice. I ordered first, and after I placed my order, the guy I spoke to turned to the guy at the register next to him, said something in Turkish, and they both laughed and looked at me, and then the guy who I'd ordered with spoke to me again about my order. Now, again, just like yesterday, WHO KNOWS what was said. I just know that I felt vulnerable, sad, and embarrassed. I grabbed my cookie, sat down at the bar and started crying. It was all just too much. I collected my sandwich while I still had tears running down my face, because I just didn't care. Let them see, I thought, let them see that the foreigner has feelings too.
I know that these examples are so small. They really don't matter at all. In a month or two I'd probably have forgotten about them completely if it weren't for me writing about them here, and they hardly affected Danny at the time (he's much more easygoing than me, and he also didn't struggle with Turkey in most of the ways that I did). I share them here, though, because I think they give a tiny glimpse into what it's like to be a foreigner.
Danny and I went Starbucks maybe five times in our last two weeks in Turkey (which is probably more than the amount of times I've been to Starbucks in the U.S. in the past five years or more) because it represented home and comfort and a known quantity to us. We also went to Shake Shack on our second to last day in Turkey for similar reasons (keep in mind we didn't have the ability to cook this summer, which we much prefer over constantly eating out, but it certainly wasn't all bad).
I'm sure that we did plenty of other things over the course of the summer that were strange to Turkish people, but they are easy and enjoyable (and normal) to us, so we did them. How about people new to your community? Immigrants, refugees, expats, foreigners of any kind? Do they congregate with others like themselves? Perhaps restaurants no one else in town likes, but they do? They surely have customs that seem odd to you, or do things you don't understand, but surely they feel the same about you. What if instead of staring, or laughing, we smiled, said hi, or asked good questions?
I've never really experienced such frustration in a country and with a culture like I did in Turkey. We weren't settling into Turkey, but two months in one place isn't necessarily traveling either. I don't fully understand it, and I probably will be thinking back on my experiences from this past summer for a while, trying to make sense of some of my feelings and thoughts and how they fit in with my worldview and ideas about travel and people and religion and equality. I don't necessarily think it's all Turkey's fault or all my fault - we both messed up, I think, and overall we both put on a pretty good show, too, so I'm not wanting to throw Turkey under the bus here. I do want to say that being a foreigner and not understanding what's going on around me and why, getting acquainted with all the customs and culture, isn't easy. It can be confusing and overwhelming and sometimes (a lot of times!) you just want to give up and stay home and not do the hard things, like meet new people or learn the language or try new foods or explore your new home. So maybe the next time we run into someone we think might we new to our country, we can offer smiles instead of laughter (unless we're laughing together), and just a pinch of extra kindness, because when the tables are turned...I think you'll be glad someone did the same for you. :)