I HAVE BEEN LIVING in Türkiye for just over one week now, and so far I am fascinated and happy with the process of cultural immersion I have undertaken. I find that when I write these posts, I relentlessly try to find a common theme to what I’m saying. While this often produces interesting posts (hopefully?), it does not always allow me to capture the myriad of cultural observations and mores I have noticed. So in this post, there is no order to things, no central unifying theme. Instead, here is a list of interesting things I have noticed after my first week as a temporary expat:
1. It is impossible to summarize the culture of Istanbul. It is far too complex. To begin using language in that effort is to begin to generalize, to cut away at the subtleties, contradictions, and multifariousness. But, if one is forced to use that medium of expression, he might say that Istanbul is a place where on one city block, you will see young people in jeans and tee shirts, middle-aged female business executives rushing to work, impoverished children, middle-aged women in headscarves, intellectuals in cafes, and a few women wearing the hijab (burka), covering them from head to toe except for the eyes. On the same block, you will see colorful, mysterious-looking shops (often, I think, pushing the image of the Middle East which the West has imagined, to appeal to tourists), and also very modern, well-known stores from the West. You will hear the call to prayer from a local mosque, as you watch a group of Turkish students enter a loud, rollicking pub. You will hear classic rock music coming from one shop, juxtaposed with an old man playing Ottoman-style music on a pan flute. It is a swirling mix of old and new, religious and secular, traditional and contemporary.
2. I was very surprised to observe the influence of French on the Turkish language. While the influence is by no means predominant, there are several cognates or near-cognates (e.g. mangir and preservatif). There are other bits of French which remain separate from the Turkish language, but which are extremely common expressions heard on the street (viz. pardon and merci). This French influence further illuminates the striking complexity of this culture (and of any culture, really).
3. If you force me to generalize, I would say that things tend to be much more formal here than in the States. Dress is most definitely more formal, and there is a sense of duty that seems to be shared by just about everyone. That’s not to say that everyone you see is wearing a suit and tie, but students typically dress nicely, and restaurant workers are often wearing suits. The servers in the cafeteria at my university wear tuxedos.
4. For the most part, Turks are extremely welcoming, and view foreigners as guests in their country, who should be helped.
5. Gender norms are quite different as well. This topic could occupy a book-length manuscript, but here are some fascinating cultural differences: In public spaces, physical contact tends to be closer between members of the same gender, and more distant between opposite genders. Of course, you still do see boyfriends and girlfriends being affectionate in public, but it is perhaps moderately less common than in the states, and not as obvious. It is very common to see two male friends holding hands or walking with linked arms in Istanbul, or two women. Members of the same gender often greet with a hug, sometimes with the standard kiss-on-each-cheek greeting which is common in Europe.
6. There is a great respect by nearly all Turks for Ataturk, the momentous political revolutionary leader and founder of the Turkish Republic. His picture is all over the place, and people take his dedication to secularism very seriously.
7. In that vein, secularism is imperative to the public order here. Women on university campuses throughout Turkey are not permitted to wear head scarves, in an attempt to avoid creating the impression that state-affiliated institutions have religious motivations or underpinnings.
8. Despite the fame of Turkish coffee, tea is actually far more common in Istanbul. Everywhere you go, people are sipping çay (tea), from the university, to the spice market, to the Grand Bazaar, to the police station, to public transportation.
9. The streets here are remarkably clean for a city of 15 million inhabitants; every evening, you see shop owners and municipal workers scrubbing off the sidewalks with large buckets of soap and water.
Well there you have it: nine cultural observations.