When you are a student of other cultures and identities it is obvious that, provided you are lucky enough, you will study and live in other countries. This summer I was very lucky to receive a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship from REEEC to study Turkish in Istanbul, Turkey. With the utmost hope and confidence, I set off for my two month adventure in late June. Even though I am in a field that requires a broad knowledge of different cultures and histories, I did not realize how hard it could be to adjust. Contrary to my previous assumptions, scholars of culture and identity are not immune to culture shock!
I was awarded the FLAS to study at Boğaziçi University, apparently the “Harvard” of Istanbul (no pressure). I would live in a dorm and walk uphill (both ways!) to school and learn Turkish. My body was not on the same page when I got to Istanbul: jet lag and sickness made me miserable for the first couple of weeks. On top of that, my senses were inundated with sights, sounds and smells I had never experienced before. My ears were flooded with a language I had started learning less than a year before. What had I gotten myself into? How was I supposed to survive two months and make it back in one piece? I even started questioning my motivations for learning Turkish in the first place.
What helped to clear my mind was a conversation with two Turkish women, one of whom is my Writing/Speaking teacher. We were talking about how I come from a Polish background, my parents being Polish, and the fact that I speak Polish. They told me about the conference in Lodz they went to last year and the subsequent trip to Warsaw they took. My teacher did not know that Warsaw’s Old Town had been rebuilt in its original form after its destruction in World War II. She thought it was the coolest thing and was fascinated when she found out. Her friend was not as impressed. She began by saying that she felt Polish people were sad: they had smiles on their faces, but their eyes were full of sadness. By rebuilding part of Warsaw in the same way it had been, she thought Poles were living within two histories, impacting their satisfaction with the present.
I was so excited to be having this conversation at the time. Well, it wasn’t much of a conversation on my part. I could understand everything they were saying, but had no ability to express complex ideas in spoken Turkish without taking a lot of time out to look up words up in a dictionary. And they had places to be.
Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear her opinion of Polish culture when I have a similar opinion of Turkish culture. I think Turks are living within one history (the modern post-Ataturk one) while ignoring their other one (the Ottoman past). I badly wanted to continue the discussion, but there was no way I could really get my point across. But having experienced it, I realized two things. First, that I really enjoy learning about how people of one culture perceive their own culture and history as well as others’. Furthermore, it is interesting to see how these different cultures interact. Second, I need to learn Turkish well in order to learn about these things from first hand experiences and sources.
So I get up every morning to get to class at 9am. I have four hours of Turkish language instruction which includes grammar, writing, speaking and reading classes. I have to use my Turkish on a daily basis, whether ordering food at a restaurant, haggling at the Grand Bazaar, or trying to buy a bus ticket to Edirne. On the weekends I try to make the most of my time here by visiting and experiencing all that Istanbul has to offer. Except two months is not enough; there is no doubt that I will be back, next time completely capable of having a conversation about the relationship between a culture’s identity and history.
Urszula Biegaj is a 2nd year MA student interested in REEE history, languages and cultures. She received her BA in 2009 from Loyola University Chicago in History and International Studies. She is a child of Polish immigrants and so has a special attachment to Eastern European culture and history. After receiving her MA she will pursue an MS in Library and Information Sciences. She plans to continue studying Turkish and hopes to add more languages to her repertoire.
All photos in this post are property of the author and are used with permission.