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?
Them: both of them?
Them: bless your head, I am so sorry.
Them: No father?
Me: Yes, no father.
Them: bless your head.
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.