One of the benefits of travel is replacing quotidian dramas with more pressing, life-altering, even existential ones. Instead of worrying about taking out the trash, you may wonder where you are sleeping. Instead of fighting with a boyfriend, you fight Russian passport control. Rather than your winter cold, consider a bout of dysentery. Either way, survival demands that you remain awake, changing… adapting.
Initially I planned to stay in Istanbul a week, but was offered a place relatively long-term and almost indefinitely, with some new friends of friends. I settled in quickly, taking over the couch, my things sprawling over the living room floor. I tried to be a good houseguest: taking out the trash, doing the dishes, hanging up my towel, etc. Unfortunately, for my housemates (there were 3 and a 1/2, including a live-in girlfriend), despite my efforts, I am kind of a mess, and always end up leaving a trail, in some cases, literally (dribbles of coffee and wine mark my path from the kitchen to the couch).
For a few weeks, it felt I had an actual home. I was staying with a lively commune of ex-pats who I immediately clung to. Coming from Vietnam, where I passed quickly through cities and inaptly learned names, a little English speaking enclave was a welcome departure from my otherwise haphazard darting around. Also, I liked them.
The definition of “ex-pat” in Urban Dictionary: “A person working outside their own country, sometimes on a fat corporate contract, sometimes as a foreign expert, sometimes just as an English teacher. Often their pay is considerably higher than the locals and they live a life of wanton pleasure while working as little as possible.” Fairly accurate, although many “ex-pats” hate the term “ex-pat” so I am only using it to describe the foreigners I have met working and living abroad, most specifically, English teachers.
In Istanbul, I learned that 1) all the ex-pats seems to know each other, and 2) the ex-pat community is rife with drama (too many worlds colliding), and 3) for obvious reasons, they don’t seem to be particularly interested in non-English speaking locals. Like myself, they work short hours and have ample time and freedom to run around and get into trouble.
There is an interesting relationship between the locals and the ex-pats: on the one hand, the ex-pats seem welcome, however gender dynamics, language, religious and cultural differences, and, probably, most noticeably, economic inequalities can make things complicated.
One of the first ex-pat women I met said to me, “By the way, you should know… the girls hate you here, if you haven’t noticed yet.” I heard this repeatedly, from ex-pats as well as local men. From what I have gathered, Western women are perceived as “loose,” so under a model of supply and demand in sex, foreign women lower the playing field and threaten the chase.
Since I didn’t talk specifically to any Turkish women about this, I cannot say how true or widespread the sentiment is, but I think the rhetoric is best explained by this Facebook wall post (written by a Turkish woman): “Why do slutty foreign girls teaching English in Istanbul without any qualification think that they’re hotshots? Most of them end up here because they can’t get a job in their own country. Turkish men treat you like a princess just because they can’t get laid easily in an Islamic country. Apart from that, I’m not irritated by promiscuous foreign men teaching English here. They’re very welcome. .” (Emoticon is hers).
So many things wrong with this.
I had the distinct pleasure of going out for dinner with this woman, who to be fair, is very young (23). Her boyfriend is a 39 year old Kiwi (New Zealander), clearly insecure that he is an aging musician, balding, and sagging in the middle. To counter his angst, the Kiwi has taken to teaching English in Turkey and sleeping with his 20-year-old students.
Inherently, I don’t see anything wrong with older men and younger women. What is problematic is watching them Eskimo kiss at the dinner table, the way that she defers to everything he says, and his blatant condescension because he knows that he is intellectually superior (no really, she is painfully and relentlessly stupid). More irritating, was the way that he chose to flex his masculinity by picking a fight with me.
At dinner, there were three Americans, the Kiwi, and Turkish Girl. It all started at the restaurant when the Shitty Kiwi (SK) yelled out, “‘Nigger’ what’s wrong with the word ‘nigger’? You Americans just recoil at the sound of it. Why can’t we just say it? NIGGER NIGGER NIGGER. We should be able to say it without cringing.”
The Americans are shocked into silence.
WB: “Can you lower your voice?”
SK: “See. There. Like that. Just the word, ‘NIGGER,’” (he says it louder this time), “And you Yanks have a fit! It’s just a word!”
WB: “I don’ think you understand the cultural significance. Or the history. You aren’t from the U.S., so how could you understand what it sounds like? Would you like me to yell the word ‘cunt?’”
SK: “Sure! Cunt! Nigger! Who cares?”
People are looking and I am praying to Allah that they don’t speak English. Again, SK says, “They’re just words. We should be able to talk about them.”
WB: “Fine. Let’s talk about them. What exactly would you like to say about “niggers” and “cunts”?
He is silent on this issue but keeps repeating the first point, which is that Americans are too sensitive about the “N-word.” Also, he makes fun of me for using the term, “N-word.” This is the kind of person that is never really listening and repeats himself ad nauseam. He probably had this same conversation a hundred times with no resolution, but continues to bring it up for simple shock value.
Turkish Girl, googley-eyed and laughing: “I mean, they call themselves niggers. Why can’t we say?” I know this sentence makes no sense, but, remember, she is speaking broken English. Also, now, she thinks she has made an insightful revelation, which is nauseating. She looks to SK for approval.
WB, about to throw some Moussaka across the table: “Look, Turk,” (finger pointed), “You don’t speak English as a first language. You barely speak it as a second. You have never been to the U.S. No offense, but your opinion, clearly employed to placate your ignorant, arrogant, and uninformed boyfriend, is irrelevant.”
(Okay that last line I did not say, but I really wanted to). I think I stopped at, “You’re irrelevant. No offense.”
This ridiculous conversation led to another gem where the SK proceeded to tell me that everyone at the table spoke the same dialect, what he calls “World, international non-dialectical English.” According to him there are no American dialects, British dialects, regional dialects or vernaculars. There was only one version of English he did distinguish: “Ebonics” (his word choice, not mine). He says in his best gangster voice, “I mean no one heah is talkin like dis. We ain’t speakin no ebonics, yo.” Hands gesturing, clear that he has totally misinterpreted scenes from The Wire.
The whole night went from bad to worse: racism, women hating, hyped up and mind-numbing stories about his heydays as a traveling drummer. This wasn’t the first time I was put off by a New Zealander. There was the flock of 18 year-old- Kiwi girls traveling around Australia trying to be sexy by getting drunk and talking like porn stars; the Kiwi nerd in Bali who tried to climb in my bed at the hostel; the Kiwi chick that pulled a stage 9 cling-attack, stalking me from Bangkok to Chang Mai. Now this guy.
The Istanbul Kiwi was particularly irritating, but I often get the feeling that New Zealanders are kind of isolated, geographically and culturally, making them seem just generally, a little bit, how should I say….“off.” It would be like if the American South were an island and after a couple hundred years of genetically insulated procreating, a few of them got loose. Also, New Zealand produced Flight of the Conchords and invented bungee jumping—two things that make absolutely no sense to me.
In the name of friendly stereotyping, I came with an analogy. It all started because, I was thinking, “If the world was high school and nationalities were cliques, the New Zealanders would definitely be sitting at the nerd table.” Out of boredom and the very basic human need to classify (“one of these is not like the other”), I added a few more:
Germans: The Hipsters. They have tattoos and read Nietzsche, smoking cigarettes and kind of hate everyone. They feel that no one understands them and they are a little embittered, have daddy issues, ride fixed gears, engage in ironic humor and rock skinny jeans. Generally, very fucking cool.
French: The Art Kids. Paint brushes in one hand, cigarette holders in the other. There is always a plate of cheese nearby. Again feeling misunderstood, everything they do is attributable to an intellectual movement. They sleep with the art teachers and call it existentialist. Striped shirts, interpretive dance, baguette, in hand…
Italians: The Gangsters. Obviously, the modern equivalent of the T-Birds. They steal electronics, drag race, and deal drugs. They have the best parties and the hottest girls. Watch out though, the guys can get pretty grabby, and don’t mess with their hair.
Aussies and Brits: The Jocks. They know more than everyone about sports. Don’t DARE call football “soccer” or they might, well, beat you up. They flex their muscles and like plain faced blondes who are “fit.” And by “fit,” I don’t mean physically “fit,” just, generally, hot.
Americans: Glee Club and Student Counsel. They believe wholeheartedly it is their personal and societal obligation to “help” (for everyone else’s sake, of course). With their SUV’s and parental PTA donations, they have clout. They come up short when it comes to making use of factual knowledge, but it doesn’t matter because they are REALLY so, so happy-ALL THE TIME. It’s GREAT to be American! (Breaks out into choreographed hallway musical dance).
New Zealanders: I did this one already. The Nerd Table. They are a little awkward. Terrible dressers, and, fortunately for them, they have no clue about this.
The Asians: Yearbook staff. It’s a good thing somebody is taking all the pictures or we would be void of every critical memory. And I mean EVERY memory. The shot of the school lunch tray, the bathroom door… the spit loogey in the drinking fountain on Tuesday…
I had to cut this analogy short because I didn’t want to get into, you know, what nationality would be riding the short bus or who would be deemed ”the smelly kid.” Unfortunately in travel, it is much more likely that you will spend your time with other travelers and ex-pats rather than locals, particularly if you don’t speak the native language. Everyone plays a part.
When I was in Costa Rica, I was traveling with a friend from college and his dad, a divorced ex-pat living outside San Jose. Most of his friends were in their twenties teaching at the international school. His Spanish was more accurately Spanglish (dinner reservations: “Let’s make that for cinco y media”), but he was dating a 21-year-old, who also didn’t speak English. While it seemed awkward, I am learning that this is not so uncommon(ex-pat men dating younger local women).
We drove from San Jose to Cahuita speeding along the narrow Costa Rican highways through the coffee farms and into the mountains. I am not usually nervous, but got the feeling that this guy was on a new mission in life, one that did not concern itself with the health and safety, or even the law, “Dad slow down,” my friend pleaded after I smacked him in the arm from the back seat.
An ambulance came flying through creating an otherwise non-existent third lane. We pass a rolled jeep. “This is how people drive here,” they both tried to reassure me, as though the local lawlessness should justify their own; both father and son broke the speed limit in a way that they would have never in the States. By the end of the trip, we had to deal with both an overheated car and slashed tires for parking illegally.
You don’t have to be yourself in a foreign country. The social mores are skewed and at the very least, you can claim ignorance. A 58-year-old would most likely not date a 21 year old in Chicago, the same way that the Kiwi probably wouldn’t have yelled out “Nigger,” in a more controlled or socially familiar environment. Acting out becomes more natural. It is much easier for us to slip in and out of character.
I always know it is time to leave when my problems become nothing more than everyday annoyances. I decided to leave Istanbul when I started wondering why the weather hadn’t shifted into spring and caught myself initiating very earnest conversations about whether or not I should dye my hair. Then there was the ex-pat drama. The house was backing up with empty beer bottles and no one had done their laundry. My character, settled.
Fortunately, my plan is always the same: Time to go. I bought the plane ticket, stepped aboard, landed with a new hair color, and settled loosely into London. Here I can tell the same jokes, recycle some stories, and get a new pair of boots. Back in an English speaking country, the term “ex-pat” no longer need apply (though I am no better). Hitting the restart button, I am enjoying the disconnect, the impermanence, the freedom of character that comes with change.