Tongue Tied

The hardest part of being in Istanbul so far, has been the language barrier. After a few days of communicating with “merhaba” (hello) and “teşekkürler” (thank you) sandwiching a series of elementary gestures, I knew that this just wouldn’t do. I realized that I missed the small daily interactions in the street: the quick chats with the bus driver or the grocery store clerk, the small joke exchanged with the person you slam into when the bus brakes unexpectedly. As inconsequential as they are, those words and interactions have always made me feel connected to the place where I live, and have given me a sense of community. A shared moment of understanding with a stranger can make my day.

Without these moments, I fear that I will forever be relegated to the outskirts of Turkish culture, a perpetual outsider. It is frustrating to have the thoughts and feelings in your head only to have them turn to vapor, when you open your mouth. Worst, some people seem to be so disappointed and impatient with you, when they realize you can barely make it past “How are you?”! Several times, people have tried to continue a conversation with me after the initial greetings, only to shake their heads and wave me off, when they perceive how futile their efforts are.

I am of course an outsider, and it is naïve to think that I could somehow seamlessly insert myself into daily life here. Still, I am motivated to break past the 3-year-old conversation level. After a few Turkish lessons at school (part of the package offered to teachers here), I have started to recognize words spoken to me on the street and my response time has gotten shorter (3 second time lapse, instead of 10). I am also starting to master the greeting said when leaving a group of people (hoşçakal) as opposed to the one said when people are leaving you (güle güle) and now have an assortment of greeting that correspond to the various times of day. And, although this is a little harder, I am starting to understand the more subtle gestures such as the lifting the eyebrows paired with a quick sucking or the teeth means ‘no.’ It is so satisfying to say the correct greeting and get a response (that I understand) back. A small step, I know, and a far cry from complete camouflage into Turkish culture, but it is a connection with a person nevertheless... and that feels good.

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