I spent a morning recently with a good friend, a long-term expat of this land. It’s always nice to spend time with someone whom you can laugh at the idiosyncrasies of life a la Turka with, things not out of the norm yet far from our beaten track. I’m thankful for a handful of the friends, for the chance to be me no apologies, no explanation, no muting of my thoughts or words.
If being an expat takes another expat to understand it; sometimes we need to step back to understand it ourselves.
Five positive things being an expat has taught me
To be a good host
My in-laws, bless their hearts because it’s never been mentioned, have probably never forgotten the first time I had them to dinner. G and I had been living together for a couple of months and my Turkish cooking was bad. I hadn’t mastered rice and though you made olive oil vegetables by steaming, then pouring. Knowing this, realising me cooking would likely end in disaster – no chance of presenting a roast! – G suggested we order pizza. They like it, he said, it’ll be a treat for them, he said. Ho ho ho! Looking back now I cringe, though it makes me love my (now) hubby ever more: the poor things must have gone home fearing for their sons’ health living with this woman who couldn’t even cook them rice!
I’ve since learnt how to cook that formidable rice, set a table for a Turk, and simmer olive oil beans; I’ve also learnt that takeaway isn’t a treat like in the UK, it’s the ‘lazy way out’ – don’t take it. ( (or if you do; decant the goodies before serving, no-one will know.)
In the UK, if someone drops in unannounced, you pop on the kettle, maybe open the biscuit tin and wave bye-bye in an hour. Here, anything less than a fruit platter, three cups of cay and a thrice proffered treat is an insult to the guest. Again I learnt the hard way (brother-in-laws this time, doh!) but now, I’ve cracked it and like to think I’m a good – well, passable anyway – tea host. (The key’s in the freezer: Freeze pastries, cakes, cookie dough; when you learn someone’s coming, pop a couple in the oven. Your home smells delicious and you’ve won the battle of the guests.)
Think now; speak later
Knee-jerk reactions are a product of our past. Within these reactions, though we’d like to think otherwise, are oft prejudices, pre-judgments on the event or word we’re reacting against. Over the past five years, I’ve butted so many heads my forehead must bear a permanent scar but in the past few months, it’s more a nudge than a butt – simply because I learnt to pause, breathe and think.
Living amongst Turks, my opinion is almost always the odd one out which means it’s often thought as wrong. Slowly, through experience, I’ve learnt not to react right away, not to defend my every point; we may just think a different way or it just might be that they’re right and I’m wrong. Now I go away and contemplate what was said, evaluate what I think and if it’s important enough, serves a purpose at all, return later to clarify or defend or simply state how I feel. In learning to apply the “think now, speak later” rule with Turks, I’ve learnt to do that with others. It doesn’t matter if they look just like you or wear a sari as a belt, we all bring our unique opinion, values, morals into interactions that we have. Rather than react straightaway, taking a step back allows me to remember this, to find where the other’s coming from: it’s rare someone’s’ intention is to hurt, annoy, offend.
To read the eyes not hear the words
Each culture has its own definition of politeness, each full of subtleties you don’t notice ’til one is missing in your own, don’t notice exists until you’re shown them in another.
Whenever I interact with anyone now, be it another foreigner or a Turk, if an invitation, promise, offer or apology is offered, I listen with my eyes not my ears. I learnt the hard way, realised the hard way, that often times our interactions aren’t as genuine as they could be.
This is a conscious change I’ve made.
The importance of the right kind of tea
..or coffee, or even temperature of water. Refreshments are a minefield waiting for you as host in a foreign land!
In Turkey, make sure you know:
*never to let your guest see the tea-bag (unless the guest is a Brit, then pass them the Tetley’s to sniff!)
*never serve ice-water, or juice straight from the fridge (ovaries freeze, so do lungs. While we’re on this; close the windows – necks might crack, else)
*never ask how many sugar, just put three cubes onto each saucer
*never serve tea in a mug or cup but always in a glass
*if your guest’s not a Turk (breathe a sigh of relief), put the milk jug on the table & remember to swap the glasses back for mugs & serve the sugar in a dish.
*Never, ever, ever – ’til you’ve taken a Masters in the art – offer a Turkish guest a coffee. That doesn’t mean filter, it means a la Turka with foam and you’ll never, no matter how long you stay, make a coffee like a Turk. Stick to tea (loose leaf, topped with water in the glass) and enjoy the coffee once they’ve gone – your sanity and guests will thank you for it.
To laugh at myself
I’ve served Starbucks roast to my in-laws, asked a neighbour to help herself (!) to water from the fridge. I’ve accepted invites not genuinely meant, unintentionally forced people to give me gifts (never admire an object in a home or on another’s person!) and given the “come for tea sometimes” goodbye only to find a doorstep full of guests hours later. I spent two months drinking milk with meals because I couldn’t pronounce water correctly and I’ve acted cringe-worthingly inappropriate more times I can count in an entirely oblivious way. You either have to learn to laugh at your mistakes, mispronunciations, miscommunications and so on or you’re going to go insane. I choose to laugh, at myself, and with others –it lightens the mood and no matter what the culture, that can only ever be good.