“Do you have a book in English to learn Turkish?” At the large book fair next to one of the universities in Istanbul, I figured I’d find something I’d enjoy. “In English?”
He handed me a phrase book.
“No. To learn Turkish. Grammar.”
He handed me a Turkish grammar book—in Turkish.
He handed me a learning grammar. This was it.
“How much is it?”
He started leafing through a catalog.
“You have to order it?”
I have an easy time connecting with others thanks to my language “superpower.” But what do I do when circumstances eliminate that ability?
Here was a young man, selling language books next to a university. How could we not have something in common? But I would never know. At the end of my recent trip to Greece, I spent a day-and-a-half in Istanbul. Without being able to speak any Turkish, I had a disappointingly difficult time connecting with people there.
When I say I don’t speak “any” Turkish, I mean I can say “hello” and “thank you,” but I sometimes mix up “good morning” and “good evening.” I can’t remember how to say, “Can you help me?” or “Do you speak English?” My Somali, or even my Farsi, is better than my Turkish.
While many people I met in Istanbul spoke English, many speak only Turkish. Even some cab drivers and restaurant servers speak only basic English, even though they must experience a lot of contact with tourists. I don’t believe that anyone should speak English, but for such a touristy town like Istanbul, I would have assumed that those with extensive contact with foreigners would.
With my unabated desire to connect, I tried my best to connect with my Turkish hosts. I tried to learn a little more Turkish from our taxi driver who never smiled or engaged us. While my family thought he was extremely grumpy, I thought he felt awkward or even embarrassed that he couldn’t speak English.
In the Grand Bazaar, I tried to chat with shopkeepers about everyday things. I asked where they were from. I learned that most people are not from Istanbul, that many folks of this and the previous generation came there from elsewhere. “No one is from Istanbul,” one person said. I also asked about how the fast was going—it was Ramadan. June is a very hard month to fast in (the longest days), so mentioning that got some chuckles of recognition and other professions of atheism.
Overall, I did not feel good about my interactions with people in Istanbul. I felt like a mark, a white guy walking through with money in his wallet to be had by the guy with the most hustle. The Grand Bazaar was a tourist trap: “Special price, just for you!.” Outside every major site waited multiple carpet salesmen: “Free to look! No need to buy anything!” I told my mom that it’s sad that the environment teaches you in one hour that “my friend” no longer means that someone wants to be your friend.
As a mark, I felt less than human and defensive, which didn’t allow me to gain a good perspective on Turkey and Turks. Granted, I was only there a very short time, but I was there for just a little longer than I was in Thessaloniki, which left a great impression on me.
Language allows me to connect personally with people in a way that breaks the paradigm. Without language in Istanbul, I was stuck in the overwhelming paradigm wherein the interactions between Turks and foreigners were commercial. In Turkey, everyone seemed to be fulfilling a predetermined script, yet I know that every individual I encountered was much more than that script. Language can drill down to a more basic level to connect with the complex being who is thinking and feeling about much more than buying and selling, but without the language we fulfill roles as predetermined stereotypes.
What happens when you’re without foreign language? Do you struggle to connect with people on a more personal level?