God Pities the Foreigner


I am a foreigner.

I was born and raised in the US, I immigrated to Turkey when I was 21 and I have since fallen in love with the country and stayed. I worked hard to learn the language. When I arrived, though I couldn’t count to 10, I was placed in a classroom of people who had been studying for 3 years, because beginner Turkish was cancelled. There was not enough interest. Classes were from 9-1, I had private tutoring from 2-4, and I watched Turkish movies and rehearsed Turkish songs from 6-9 pm. It was nearly 12 hours of Turkish for over 6 months. I went through three schools, and on the weekends I sat and did homework with my boyfriend’s family, who kept a cautious eye and a bottomless bowl of fruit next to me at all times.

I am a foreigner.

For a year, I returned to the US, my country, and while I was there I was a volunteer coordinator for the Turkish festival, I danced in a Turkish dance group, I taught beginner Turkish at GWU as an assistant, and I read Turkish news with my friends in a Greek restaurant every Friday night. All my music was Anatolian/Balkan/Caucasian, and friends and family constantly laughed at my tastes asking me to “get better music already.” I would drive hours to find a good Turkish restaurant or market so I could make the food I worked so hard to learn how to cook, and on all of the major US and Turkish holidays, I always invited Turks to my home wherever I was. Eventually I returned back to Turkey, because I read the signs. I knew that something in my soul needed to get done in Anatolia, and it wouldn’t let my Turkish obsession go until I returned to complete that thing.

I moved to Kars to start Balyolu – a rural incubator for food entrepreneurs, funded by tasting tours and socially conscious consumers. We partner with rural women to ethically produce traditional foods and lead tasting trips with our guests becoming culturally aware ambassadors. Our aim is to turn food into a catalyst for women fueled rural development and traveler driven systems change worldwide.

It was both incredible and terrifying. I won’t tell the full story now, because it deserves a book of its own, and I plan to write that book one day. In short, I lived through a lot of things I hope to never live through again. The horror aside, it was also remarkable. We brought something so sweet and true to life by collaborating with village families and building a passionate team of people who really care about improving the lives of rural villagers through unique food solutions. It was cool. Also the environment of Northeastern Turkey is stunning. I have traveled to over 30 countries and I have never seen anything like it. The culture is rich. The people are hospitable. And the mountains are temptresses that haunt me every day, luring me to them, asking me to go discover some corner that simultaneously feels like it has never been discovered and that it was also the first place that ever was. Ancient, here, is an understatement. History oozes from the land, and a natural wildness that brings me to tears soars from every corner of this remarkable place. I can’t even describe how much I love it. Every day I take photos and write about what I see, and it is nowhere near enough. The land has captured my soul.

I have also spent years in villages here, making bread, kissing the tops of grandmothers foreheads and hands, holding pinkies with small children and running to catch baby ducks and hug them to our chests. I have learned the local languages, and sayings, and traditions, how to dance with my pinkies, cry at a kina gecisi, and slap dough to the side of a tandor oven with a stuffed pillow. I have learned how to whisper to bees, and forage for mushrooms, and start a company with my bare-hands from the soil beneath my feet.

I love this place and I love what I do.

But more than once a day – every day, no matter where I am, I am asked if I am a spy. Am I an agent? Am I hunting for gold? Am I collecting butterflies? Am I prostitute? Am I so tall because someone is hiding a bomb in my body? Did I do something terrible in the US and instead of prison I was banned to Kars? And most frequent of all – do I have parents?

Over the last five years, I have joked about these questions – how funny these people are with their conspiracy theories, why, it is quite creative! I have ignored them – ah, this isn’t worth acknowledging I shrug. I have gotten angry about them – and cleaned my house with loud music blaring, or punched pillows, or run so hard until my legs burn and the pain feels a little less. I have cried about them, a lot, lifting my face up to the rain, and wishing that this place I have lived and loved and given everything to, could see me for what I am – a regular global citizen trying to start a company. In many parts it does. And in many parts it doesn’t. For the later half, my conversations frequently go like this:

Stage 1: Do you have parents?

Them: Do you have parents?

Me: Yes.

Them: both of them?

Me: No.

Them: bless your head, I am so sorry.

(awkward pause).

Them: No father?

Me: Yes, no father.

Them: bless your head.

(awkward pause)

Them: Turkish girls wouldn’t be allowed to do what you are doing.

Me: Hm. Yes, I have never seen a man asked this question.

Stage 2: What are you doing here? How long have you been here? Why did you move here?

Them: What is your business in Kars?

Me: when I was young, my dad was sick and brought me to Turkey, and when he died I had this insatiable ache to travel the world to become closer to his memory. I graduated from an incredible school in the US, and got a Fulbright scholarship to come to Turkey to study at an incredible school in Turkey, and that after I came out east and I saw the enormous potential of starting a honey tasting route that would benefit rural women, I became obsessed, so I started a kickstarter campaign, and I raised over 42,000$ with the Balyolu team. I sold trips, over 500 bottle cap earrings I painted myself, and posters. Over 70% of those funds came from my own friends and family.  I won grants with National Geographic and our team won business plan competitions and I moved to Kars. I have lived here for two years. This is my second year trying to start the company and I have loved it.

Stage 3: How do you fund yourself?

Me: Well, I am actually struggling because a lot of people love to hear my story, but either people from the non-profit sector see that I have a for-profit model, and they don’t know how to wrap their heads around it. Or people from the for-profit sector think I am an idealist-failed entrepreneur because I refuse to make money the easy way by flipping cheap honey or by increasing the costs, number, and size of our honey trips. I am very frustrating for them.

Stage 4: I bet a lot of people are suspicious that you are a spy.

Them: Did you know, many people probably think you are a spy or that you are collecting butterflies. Are you collecting butterflies? You shouldn’t go hiking, people will suspect you are searching for gold.

Me: Yes, I get that frequently, but I think it is ridiculous.

Them: You are being culturally insensitive, you see, there were a group of Israelis here and Russians too and they collected many butterflies. It is understandable that people think this about you.

Me: But I am not a spy. You all want tourism so badly, and no one comes, and you lament, but when foreigners do come, you then call them spies. It doesn’t make any sense.

Them: but you see, we are on borders here, and you speak Turkish, and you look Turkish, but you are a foreigner, and probably a spy. Especially when you try to defend yourself, there is a saying in Turkish – the dog that hides its leg has a wound.

Me: I am not a dog, and I am not a spy.

At this point, the conversation starts to spin out of control. They repeat over and over that there is a history here in Turkey, of spies, and butterfly thieves, and gold diggers (literal ones). And I counter-balance that super bright foreigners come to America all of the time, in fact, most of Turkey’s top graduates leave to go to school or work abroad. Why can’t the same thing happen from other countries to here? Why can’t we all just accept that planes fly both directions? They get mad that I am stubborn, that I don’t understand. They tell me my American accent is too thick and that I will always be a foreigner, that I should probably just go back to the states. They sigh, and with a lot of care and feeling in their voice, they explain that no one will help me because they do not trust a solo American girl living in the East. They tell me to go home to my family.

This makes me cry. A lot.

It makes me angry. A lot.

I would love to tell everyone, please stop. It hurts my feelings. We choose which stories in history that we want to remember. Do we want to remember the two stories of the spies and the butterfly thieves? Or do we want to remember the story of Mevlana, frequently quoted here in Turkey, who spoke of acceptance across all creeds and walks of life. Do we want to remember that everyone is actually from everywhere else and that Turkey is a country of diversity and nomads? That we are all foreigners with our heritage truly rooted elsewhere? That rather than accusing me for things I have never done, why not look at the fact that a passionate, talented, young person has chosen to come here and give everything she has to start a cool company that supports local women and bees? That promotes a love and dedication to an amazing place. This is a beautiful story for Turkey. Why can’t we tell that one?

I would love to ask “them” to try to see things differently. But I know they leave our conversations always the same way that they entered them “poor girl, she would be a lot more successful back in the US, or in graduate school, or near her family. Honey is dead and there is nothing in these mountains.” I know this because I see the same look every time, and I think to myself what is wrong with me that these conversations go the same way every day?

I explain myself to the police, where I register every place that I go before I go there. I explain myself to the senators, governors, mayors, of every region where I work in order to get all the right permissions. No one else does this. But I have to. And I explain myself to the wealthy educated business people who ask me much more frequently about being a spy than any of the villagers. This is probably why I have come to dread my trips to Istanbul and celebrate just being in the village, holding hands with little girls, running through flowers, and working with beekeepers.

The whole point of this post is not to ask all 365 x 4 people I have spoken with during these past few years to take a different approach. No, my strategy for this post is: first, I wanted to show you why I love Turkey.  Second, I wanted you to see a little bit of the hardship I have faced here, learning Turkish, trying to live my life, trying to start a cool idea, and how 50% of the people see me for who I am, and 50% see me as “a foreigner.” Now the point – why even tell this story? Because maybe you have connected with me, and maybe you can think about how we treat foreigners in our respective countries.

In my country, in the United States – how do we treat foreigners? Especially in light of the recent Boston Marathon events, I can’t even tell you how many times I have read truly insensitive racist xenophobic comments about Muslims, the Caucasus, and terrorists. Yes, as a small confession, I do feel relieved when I leave Turkey sometimes. Because I think, ha! Now we are in my world – where people speak English and they look at my degrees, and they respect me. But in that world, so many foreigners feel the way that I feel here and much worse: tormented, second class citizen, judged, stereotyped, alienated, outlawed.

It needs to stop somewhere. We have to let go of the way fear makes us cling to these ridiculous versions of history that don’t let us see people as individuals.

I can only lead by example. So I will say this: as a result of the way I have been treated (and I like to think because I am a good person and this should be intuitive), I will never do any of the following:

–       I will never criticize someone for their English.

–       I will never suspect anyone of being a terrorist, or a spy, or a butterfly catcher unless I see proof that I don’t think was planted on them.

–       If someone is trying to do something good in my part of the world, I will help them, and that does not mean pat them on the back and say “nice work,” or correct their mistakes grudgingly, I will actually ask what they need help with and extend a hand.

–       I will do my best to make people feel included, like they belong, and like they have the same rights as I do. Because even if they don’t, they should.

I hope my story makes you question the way you treat foreigners. Because somewhere in the world, like me, you are a foreigner too.

About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on April 21, 2013, in Culture, History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Dear Cat,
    When they tell you to go back to the US, that is because they care about you. They want you to be happy. They have a hard time understanding your mission. You need support from the top. Your cause needs to be acknowledged and supported by the government, or by the media or just by someone who is influential in the region. Kars is a place where noone wants to go. Nobody sees its beauties like you do so locals have a REALLY hard time understanding you and your mission. What would a girl as intelligent and as smart (and beautiful) as you are do in Kars? Please give them time and be patient (and careful). I love reading your posts! You are a very special person.

  2. Dear Cat, beauty and mission as currency is difficult to grasp when the eyes cannot see and the stomach is empty. You are an extraordinary person, extraordinary. As though Turkey did not yet know how to hold and welcome you. Many do. Please keep those people close to you so your fire does not burn out.

  3. Dear Cat,

    I am so impressed by you. Please don’t let anyone’s questions deter your dreams. My aunt was the first Turkish woman fighter pilot in Turkey many many years ago. Turkish people know women are strong. What you are doing is amazing. Just know that you have many supporters everywhere.

  4. Dear Cat, diversity of lifestyle is rare in Turkey so your example doesn’t fit their pre-existing narratives. It is hard for them to imagine something outside of their experience. I think Americans are subject to the same problem. I could feel Americans being uncomfortable not knowing the nation of origin of the Boston bombers. We all needed to know (me too) to fit them into our pre-existing narratives. You are creating a new narrative. You are a pioneer. Someday, they are going to ask some young woman: “are you a highly educated American woman here to honor her father’s memory, have an adventure, and at the same time do some good in this part of the world? Because once there was this girl here….”

  5. Thank you so much for this lovely blog. This is the first I’ve read from your adventure and am intrigued. I also am a yabanci in Turkey. My story is different in many details, but my love affair with Turkey is much the same. I have felt your same frustrations albeit in different ways, some subtle, some overt, and I too have a new passion for explaining to people from my mother country that it is imperative they treat “foreigners” with grace and hospitality, withholding judgement and assuming the best of people who are different from us. If I were to be judged in my new country of residence for the sins of my nation of origin, well… let’s just say they would have every right to ostracize and shun me. Most don’t though, as you well know, yet I am often embarrassed to confess where I am from when asked.

    Keep your courage up. What you are doing is honorable. And who knows what fruit it may bring down the road? I will do some research about your endeavors as I would like to know more, and I hope someday to travel to your region of Turkey. I hope you are still there! Blessings and in the meantime…..Adventure on dear soul.

  6. You are a (great) woman from another continent trying to adapt to a small village surrounded by georgous Caucasian mountains where people hardly leave their village if they are not forced to.
    I cant keep myself from asking “What were you expecting?” :)

    The same things very well applies to the Turkish people as well. When we travel in the country we also have to answer exactly same questions…
    Do I have a family? Whats my business in their village? What my parents say about it? If I m student and its summer why I m not working part time and travelling?
    Eventhough I m from a little village in the southeast, at times in my hitchhiking trips around the country, I ve been called almost anything; a spy in the southeasternmost corners; a terrorist in Anatolia, a communist in the Aegean… I guess thats the nature of things. The benefit of being from the country, you can easly fight off these questions before they annoy you as you understand the cultural context very well, and you yourself belong to it.
    I think even speaking the language fluently will not help as that was the case for me in Azerbaijan and most places in Iran. Things are very different when you carry a different passport… There you instantly get the foreigner stamp no matter how well you can communicate.

  7. Love your courage and commitment.

  8. Dear Cat, you put your heart and soul into everything you do! I love reading your posts whether I’m sitting in Istanbul, back in the US or now in Poland. I love seeing your photos and how you capture the beauty, mother nature and uniqueness that is NE Turkey. I was just back in the US when the Boston marathon bombing happened. I was angered to hear that some Americans were confusing Czech Republic with Chechnya. Seriously! Some people are quick to judge, are ignorant and say things that just make me want to scream!

    Keep doing what you’re doing and know that you many PAWI women behind you! xo

  9. Hi Cat,

    Well, I’m native Turkish from Istanbul but I don’t look Turkish – or at least that’s what I was told since I was a little kid. I’m quite fair-skinned but I’m actually not that blonde, I have green eyes and apparently my nose (yes, my nose!) tells that I’m from the Balkans (my grand grandma was an émigrée from Bulgaria but really, who cares?!). I always had kids running after me in Sultanahmet, calling me “hey turist! turist!” because they assumed I was a tourist. I was asked by random strangers in bus stations whether I’m from Bosnia or Romania. My usual conversation with total strangers is usually like this: “- so where are you from?” “+ istanbul.” “- your family?” ” + istanbul, too.” “- yeah but everyone is from istanbul, where are they from originally?” “+ istanbul, like for real, for generations.” “- hmm.. are you sure? you should look into that. You MUST have relatives from Balkans or something.” + …” See? telling me to revisit my family tree just because they have some stereotypes in their mind feels totally OK to them!

    The funny thing is, this is not limited to Turkey. I lived in the Netherlands for a year. There was a Turkish butcher from Yozgat and the first time we met he literally questioned me on why I was studying abroad, what my parents did for living, how I funded my studies, how long I was planning to live in the Hague etc etc. I know that it all boils down to “hemşeri” – It’s a sense of belonging, they want to know me so they could protect me. The problem is that I didn’t ask to be protected, nor I wanted to tell my life to total strangers just because we both are from Turkey. I know it’s because I’m a woman, a single woman, which does not feel right to them. Even worse: when I was interviewing state officers in Turkey for my MA thesis, they asked me if I were a Dutch spy! Now I live in London. I had all the same “but you don’t look Turkish, yenge!” stuff here, too. But I’m “yenge” or “abla” – so far so good. :)

    I just wanted to say: it’s not only because you are a stranger but more because you are a woman, a single woman. Women could be very dominant in rural areas but not the single women. Half of these questions could be easily avoided if you were married to a man from the town. You would automatically be “gelin”. A Turkish man wouldn’t marry a spy, you know? It’s like a credibility check, unfortunately. They ask about your family, because they sincerely think a woman needs a man to take care of her. If not a husband, then a father. I’d say, this is beyond any nationality. In fact, it could be even worse for a native Turkish woman from another city because you know, we are one of them, not a stranger but somehow, still a stranger. We are expected to know how things work and obey them, not challenge them. Such challenges are more tolerable if they come from a foreigner – even in larger cities. So yes, being a stranger is very difficult but it is also your strength.

    OK, it’s already been a very long comment! Final words: the government now has many incentives for SMEs (KOBİ in Turkish). I have very limited information, but I know that it is easier to access such incentives through cooperatives or if you have Turkish business partners. UNDP also has some joint projects with the Ministry of Agriculture. There should also be some EU funds available though I don’t know all the procedures. I’m sure you’ve been looking into all that. Anyway, if you ever need any translation or similar support, I’d be more than happy to help. I could even read & summarize the documents if you like :) Just send an e-mail to micoyumben@gmail.com.

    Good luck! You’ve already done more than what many people even dare to imagine.Your enthusiasm is inspiring.

  1. Pingback: Kars Is Sweet With Balyolu | Katrinka Abroad

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