Friday, August 1, 2014

Fark ettimğim şeyler - Things I've noticed

So this is a post that I've been wanting to write since pretty much the first day we got here, but for a number of reasons I haven't gotten around to writing until now. Enjoy some at least semi-organized rambling of my observations of just...things in general that I've noticed here. Enjoy!
  1. Turkey is overall a pretty secular country. - Perhaps I'm a bit biased in saying this, as I'm living in a very secular family in a very secular neighborhood of a generally pretty moderate city in a part of this country which is generally not a very religious area. Perhaps if I were experiencing Turkey in a different city - or, indeed, perhaps even in just a different neighborhood or family - I might have seen a very different side of this country and its culture. But generally, lots of Turks seem to be passively Muslim in the same way many Americans are passively Christian, perhaps only observing religious traditions during important celebrations. My family is quite secular for the most part, and actually did not fast during Ramadan due to a combination of both health issues which prevented fasting, and secularism. One of the things I was looking the most forward to when I learned that I had been selected as a finalist for Turkey was getting to experience Ramadan in a Muslim country. Unfortunately, I must say that I still don't feel like I truly have. 
  2. Related to the above: Turkish society is becoming quite polarized these days in many respects. - It's difficult to talk about this and avoid getting into the vicious dog-eat-dog dynamics of contemporary Turkish politics, so I'll do my best to avoid discussing this in great detail. But suffice it to say that these days, aside from a number of cultural norms and values (such as hospitality, honor, friendliness, sense of community, etc) which more or less unite all Turks, the country is socially and politically divided these days into the very non-religious and western oriented secularists, and the very religiously conservative Islamists, with not much in between, as I've noticed. Aside from some of the uniting values I previously mentioned, these people are very different, and have completely opposing worldviews and ideas about how their country should be run. Let's say that tensions run high.
  3. Again somewhat related to the above: This country is quite safe for the most part. - In the months following my selection as a finalist for this program, I was a little worried about the political situation here in Turkey and how it would affect our program. I was surprised when I got here to discover that it's really a non-issue; for the most part, contrary to misconceptions among some more ignorant people I talked to before coming here, this for the most part is a very clean, developed, and well-kept country, and it is also perfectly safe. I have heard a little about skirmishes going on in the more notoriously volatile southeastern region of the country, but given that these are very far away from Bursa, our program has been left completely unaffected as a result, and as far as I can tell, the same goes for our companions, the NSLI-Yers who are being hosted in the capital city of Ankara.
  4. Turks LOVE their tea. - As an avid tea drinker myself, this is something which pleases me in the extreme. Unfortunately, there tends not to be quite as much variety in types of tea here compared to the States - back home, I drink chai, rooibos, green tea, fruit tea of all kinds, herbal tea, yerba mate, the list goes on. Here, fruit and herbal teas are definitely a thing, but they tend to be recognized more for their medicinal properties than anything else, and therefore people tend to drink them only when they're sick, usually sticking to their staple black tea (çay), which is typically grown on the Black Sea coast. It's served in these elegant little cups with cubes of sugar to mix into it (as it is a bit bitter unsweetened), and Turks drink it continuously - offering guests tea is part of typical Turkish hospitality. Like I said in my "30 ways you know you're a NSLI-Yer in Turkey" post, drinking it up to six or seven times a day is quite normal (though I suppose it's important to know that the cups are very small, so these are pretty tiny portions we're talking about here). Interestingly, it's also customary to leave just a little bit of tea at the bottom; though I have yet to ask why, it's apparently considered rude to drink every last drop. 
  5. Turkish is an amazing and fascinating, but very difficult language. - This I knew from the beginning, but now I can talk about it first hand. Turkish is written in the Latin alphabet, each letter has only one pronunciation, and the pronunciation is not all that alien to a native English speaker, so that's been pretty nice. But the grammar is very different. Very interesting, and thankfully consistent, for the most part. But very different and very complicated. Oftentimes a lot of grammatical information will be smushed (for lack of better terminology) together into a single word, and then the words will vary greatly based on conjugation or based on vowel harmony, meaning that there will often be great variation between different versions of the same grammatical concept or phenomenon. It's a bit hard to explain, and it's quite hard to understand, I can tell you that. xD But I really do love this language. I love speaking it; it's very elegant, it's like a puzzle. So different and unique from anything I've ever known before. I definitely plan on holding on to what I've learned from this experience, and hopefully mastering it as well, so I can perfect my Turkish in the future. 
  6. I like the relationships between Turks and their stray animals. - This may seem a bit random, but let me explain. I noticed right from the first day that not only are there good official policies towards stray animals in Turkey - for example, in Istanbul there are initiatives in which stray dogs and cats are periodically captured, given all the appropriate shots and vaccinations to ensure their health, and are then re-released with little tags on there ears to indicate their healthy status - but Turkish people generally seem to be quite friendly to strays. On our second day in this country, when we were hanging out in Ortaköy back in Istanbul, there were some stray cats (one of which took a nap in our shadows as we stood around :D) that were hanging around near a group of fishermen, who proceeded to gently pet each cat and later offer them bits of fish they caught, if I remember correctly. ^_^ In other places I've been, strays are sometimes avoided and feared for reasons of disease, and are considered pests, so it was very reassuring and just plain heartwarming to see that stray animals are treated quite well in this country, generally. :) 
  7. Part of the above: Turkish has a couple of letters that are either pronounced differently than in other languages, or that are slightly modified with accent marks. - Most notoriously, the "c" in Turkish is pronounced like "j" in English, so the word "cami" (mosque), for example, is pronounced "jah-mee." Then there's "ş" and "ç," which are just pronounced as "sh" and "ch," respectively. Turkish also has some unique letters: there's "yumuşak g," or "soft g," which looks like this: ğ. It is basically a silent letter that elongates the vowel sound which precedes it. So, for example, my friend Doğukan's name is pronounced "dough-kahn." Then there's "ı", a dot-less i which is pronounced as "ih;" for example, the word for light, "ışık," which sounds like "ih-sh-ihk." And finally, we have "ö" and "ü," which are pronounced roughly as the "er" in "her" and the "ew" in "few," respectively.
  8. I've discovered that Turkey actually has some pretty interesting ties to Balkan nations. - This was a very interesting discovery for me - basically, due to imperialist expansion during the Ottoman Empire, ethnic Turks ended up moving to a large number of conquered territories, especially Balkan nations, and so after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, lots of these Balkan nations ended up with large minority populations of ethnic Turks. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of them ended up fleeing their adopted homelands to escape conflict and sought refuge in their ancestral country, resulting in large resettled communities of these Balkan Turks, and there is a particularly large community of them here in Bursa, from Bulgaria in particular. In fact, as I had no previous knowledge of this community and am interested in exploring these connections between Turkey and the Balkans which were previously unknown to me, I will be doing my "culminating project" on the Balkan Turks, in which I will interview various people I know here on their knowledge of this community, as I am curious to see if Balkan Turks feel more connected to Turkey or the countries where they grew up, and if there are any that still maintain connections with their old countries, or if they are pretty well integrated, or both. I will see (as I still have yet to start my interviews...I'll get on that this weekend...). 
  9. Speaking of which: This truly is the bridge between East and West. - That tends to be a pretty cliche exaggeration in reference to tons of different places, certainly in reference to Turkey. But, as I've discovered, as cliche a statement as it sounds (and is), it fits Turkey well. East Thrace, the 3% portion of Turkey which lies in Europe, and the remaining 97% of the country which lies on Anatolia - and therefore Asia - are joined by the one and only Istanbul. I've got to say, although we never got to make the stereotypical and legendary crossing between continents while we were in Istanbul itself (most of the monument-y things that we saw were on the European side), it's still, for lack of a better term, pretty badass that there's a city where you can so easily traverse continents. Anywhere you go in Turkey, you will find this baffling and omnipresent juxtaposition of modernity and tradition, East and West, Europe and Asia. Turkey cannot fully be described as European, Asian, or Middle Eastern, it defies classification. It is all three, it is none, it is something all it's own, it's all of the above at the same time. It is Turkey, and it is incredible. 
  10. The variety among different geographic regions of this country is pretty cool. - We learned in one of our Turkish classes a few weeks ago that there are seven main bölge (regions): the Marmara Region (Marmara Bölgesi), in which Bursa is located, the Black Sea Region (Karadeniz Bölgesi), the Aegean Region (Ege Bölgesi), the Mediterranean Region (Akdeniz Bölgesi), the Central Anatolia Region (İç Anadolu Bölgesi), the Eastern Anatolia Region (Doğu Anadolu Bölgesi), and finally, the Southeastern Anatolia Region (Güneydoğu Anadolu Bölgesi). Although united under overarching Turkish culture, history, and identity, each one of these regions has its own interesting quirks, traditions, culture, and unique characteristics, which I have enjoyed learning about a lot. 
  11. SO. MUCH. AMAZING. HISTORY. EVERYWHERE. - Not much more to be said about that. I just find it petty amazing to be able to be in a place where in an hour's time, you can reach milennia-old Greco-Roman ruins, Ottoman mosques and palaces, Byzantine basilicas, and pretty much anything in between, when back in the States I have to go out to the East Coast to find anything much older than 100 years. The amazing history and its proximity elicits a lot of fangirl-like reactions from me. That's it. xD 
  12. This country is very green. - Something which pleasantly surprised me. Not that I expected Turkey not to be green, but it's definitely not something that I expected. In some of our trips to other cities and villages nearby, we've had the chance to see up close during our bus rides just how lush the forests are which cloak the mountains and hills surrounding Bursa. I love me some nature, so that was a very welcome discovery. :) 
  13. The food is nothing short of a blessing. - As much as I do miss the food back in the States, both homemade and foreign cuisines, Turkish food is one of the best things ever. It tends to be very heavy in meat, yogurt, and bread as staples for dishes. Like I've mentioned, oftentimes food will come with cold, salty yogurt in which to coat it. Some of my favorite Turkish foods include dolma, which I mentioned in my last post; simit, a bagel-like circular bread usually encrusted with sesame seeds; mantı, little dumplings served with yogurt and various seasonings; and lahmacun (lah-ma-joon), bread topped with minced meat. I'm also a big fan of Turkish breakfasts, which include a wide selection of honey, fresh fruit jams, cheese, bread on which to put them, olives, cucumbers, and so forth. 
  14. This is really an observation only relevant to my personal experience, but: I have experienced a near-complete lack of anything which could be described as culture shock or language shock. - Why, I am not sure. Perhaps it's because this country is significantly more familiar to me, as it combines a large number of aspects of both Italian and Egyptian culture, and it was easier to get used to. Perhaps it's because in this experience and program there have been a lot more of group activities, and I've been spending lots of time with other exchange students as a result. Perhaps it's because I went through intense culture shock and language shock in Egypt already, and therefore knew what to expect/was bracing myself ahead of time (and I guess it worked if that's the case?). Maybe it's because this experience is less intense, given that I haven't found the cultural differences as extreme as I did in my first exchange. Maybe it's a combination of all of the above and more that I am not even aware of. I don't know. All I do know is that I had very little to know culture or language shock this time around, and perhaps if I did on an even subconscious level, I was completely numb to it. 
  15. Similarly, I haven't felt much homesickness either. - Although here have been a number of moments when it has crept up on me - on the 4th of July when I was missing the quintessential experiences of the annual fireworks show at my old elementary school and barbecue lunch at my local pool, missing my dad on his birthday on the 5th, and various moments during conversation with family and good friends that have triggered reactions leading me to miss things and people back home, I haven't felt much in the way of homesickness either. And these moments haven't lasted very long either. However, I find this much more logical - I left home knowing that I would be back in a mere month and a half, and since I've been gone, I have been living an exchange which I worked very hard to achieve, and which has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life, in which I've not only been seeing amazing things, doing amazing things, and making strong connections with amazing people, but I've also as a result been very busy. There just hasn't been time to be homesick, for the most part. And as much as I love and appreciate my home, I always make it a priority to absorb everything I can from experiences like this and enjoy them as much as possible as well. So that, at least, makes a tad more sense. 
So this a list of some general, overarching observations and thoughts of mine regarding Turkish culture and life here. I hope you all liked it! Sorry it got a bit lengthy and ramble-y.
I'll be putting up another post about how things have been generally going in the past few weeks at some point during the weekend.
But that's all for now.


  1. Hey, Nico! I'm loving your blog. I actually applied for NSLI-Y before coming to Egypt and I'm going to apply again when I get back.

    A quick note about the drinks. I don't know if you ever found out, but I've learned before in an Arabic class that you should leave a bit if your drink in the cup so that you won't look greedy.

    Like I said, I love your blog and I will get back to reading now :-)

  2. Thank you so much Corie, same to you! :D I had a very similar situation - I applied to both YES and NSLI-Y as well as AFS, but didn't even make it to semifinalist for either of the scholarships. In retrospect that was good because I wouldn't have gone to Egypt with either of those. But I DEFINITELY recommend reapplying when you get back - as you can see I did and I made it the second time around; I think the demonstrated interest in exchange and personal strength made a big difference, as it would for you too :)

    I had a feeling that it was like that - I guess that's a shared cultural phenomenon between Turkey and the Arabic-speaking world.

    Awww thank you so much, I'm flattered ^_^ Same to you ;3 also I only just realized after you commented on both of them that I made two posts with exactly the same name (things I've noticed) almost two years apart for each of my exchange destinations, without even realizing it. xD

    ps: where are you thinking of applying for NSLI-Y? Are you thinking of sticking with Arabic, or going for a new language?