Distance and stereotypes: Longing for language love in Turkey

Just another tourist in Istanbul
Just another tourist in Istanbul

“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.

“In English?”

He handed me a learning grammar. This was it.

“How much is it?”

“How much?”

He started leafing through a catalog.

“You have to order it?”

“…sorry. No English me,” and he looked to the ground. He pointed at the price on the page. I paid, said, “Teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”), and left.

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.

Beautiful! But how do I get to know the people?
Beautiful! But how do I get to know the people?

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?



6 thoughts on “Distance and stereotypes: Longing for language love in Turkey

  1. I enjoy reading your posts, they are an eye opener to other cultures but your different accounts of your visits to Greece and Turkey have not surprised me. We holidayed a lot in Greece when I was young but have only ever been to Turkey once. My dad is typically English and doesn’t speak a word of any other language but that has never stopped him communicating with the locals through sign language. We would usual find him with a group of old men who would be buying him drinks because he had 4 daughters and no sons and he would usual know all about their families too regardless of the language barrier. In Turkey it was a different case and his experience was much like yours. We’ve never been back. Possibably if you get of the beaten track you might find more local locals if you know what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting to hear. I’m amazed to hear that the Turks and Greeks would be so different–but maybe I shouldn’t be. I’ve been several times to Spain and I lived in Morocco–quite a few differences there, too.

    I wonder what it takes to “break in” to a Turkish conversation like your father did in Greece. Maybe you’re right: I have to get off the beaten path.


  3. I am actually surprised with your experience. I am a Turk and I never heard people having these kind of bad experiences, especially in Istanbul. Grand Bazaar may be a tourist trap but people are friendly and do their best to help the foreigners. Maybe you did not meet the right people…I am sorry about your bad experience.
    Well if you have time and interest, please check my blog…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t say I had a bad experience. I would say that I didn’t spend enough time there to really get to know the people. I only stayed on the touristy edge of a much deeper culture. I look forward to going again, when I will have enough time to learn the language enough to talk to people in a real way.


  4. ipekseyhan

    Write about Turkey are really nice, but the thought of everyone in Turkey is different, and I write what I like your blog, and I am a Turkish. 😄


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