Repatriation

Biber dolması, mücver, and bulgur salad

Landing back in the US and knowing that I'll be here a bit longer than anytime in the last five years has been a bit of a challenge. I never really thought that reverse culture shock would affect me, considering I've come home every summer since I've lived in Turkey. This summer, however, feels different. 

Many of us who go abroad are in some ways escaping something back home. For me, it was the conventional and the routine that I found myself seeking refuge from: the expectations of progressing along a timeline of marriage, home buying, and making children. I never fit into that pattern, while everyone around me seemed to easily fall in step with it.  Moving to a place where I was viewed as a stranger- yabanci- and therefore not held to the same local standards, was immensely freeing. I didn’t have to follow Turkey’s expectations or the ones back home. I was in an in-between neutral zone, where I met many more people like me and people I admired. Strong women who had traveled the world, journalists, artists, photographers, teachers- all people who had heeded the call to shake things up in their lives and see what lay outside the boundaries of home for work or personal reasons.

Adjusting to life abroad came with its own set of challenges, but overtime I found my niche and felt a sense of belonging in Istanbul, as an outsider-insider in another land. Now, as I return home, my place here is undefined, my identity in a new context needing to be shaped once again. I am out of synch with the culture back home. I try not to be too shocked at the price of groceries, or compare the farmer’s markets here, where fresh produce seems to be a luxury good, to the bustling produce markets of Istanbul where fresh fare was tasty and affordable- part of the daily rhythm of the city. I look out on Lake Michigan and miss Istanbul’s ferries’ daily criss cross dance. The more modern buildings here don’t make my heart go pitter pat like the ancient domes that lined the Istanbul skyline. I miss being smacked in the face by the more chaotic and louder bustle of Istanbul daily life a few blocks from my front door. I know that I will soon reconnect to life here, in time.

One nice bonus of being back in an English speaking country is being able to make myself understood without needing to rely on other people. I went to the Apple Store yesterday to look into a technical issue I was having with an iPod and midway through my interaction with the "genius", I was struck by how easily I could communicate. No gestures were needed, no half-broken phrases. I was able to say what I needed to say, slip in a few pleasantries, respond quickly to questions. All of these things that we can take for granted, I can now appreciate for a little while as a fresh transplant back to the US. 

As I waited for my iPod to be restored, I glanced at the man sitting across from me at the table. He was an older Asian man, waiting, as I had, for service. Looking down at his hands, I noticed his iPhone laying on a slip of paper with a handwritten note, explaining the problem with his phone in English. I felt my heart swell as I remembered countless such pieces of paper that friends and colleagues of mine wrote in Turkish for me to bring to the hair salon, the phone shop, to communicate with my jewelry teacher... I remember fumbling around with my feeble Turkish before handing over the note, a written incantation that would express my needs and open doors. Seeing this man with the same type of note made me smile. I know what that feels like, I thought, and wanted to share with him, but held back. I know the feeling of feeling worried that you are not conveying your ideas clearly and the frustration of not having the language to do so- the struggle with simple daily tasks that come when you are new to a language and country.

I made a mention of this to the "genius" assisting me, but it came out as out of context- a nonsensical jumble. And, I guess that is the thing with coming back. I can communicate much more easily, sure, but it is still difficult to convey the range of experiences I had abroad. When speaking to friends and family, I often feel like a broken record, “In Turkey, it’s like this….”, “This is what’s expected in Turkey…”. It’s been the bulk of my experience for the last 5 years and difficult to stop myself from comparing one country to the next and seeing how the US sizes up to what I loved in Turkey- just like I did in reverse when I first moved there.

And now comes the task of figuring out who I am here, with the wealth of new experiences I carry with me. The other night, I dusted off one of my Turkish cookbooks and gathered a few recipes online (mücver and bulgur salad) to make some Turkish meze for my brother and sister in law. Just like keeping up with all of my favorite NPR shows when I lived abroad, cooking some Turkish dishes brought a dose of comfort to my transition back- a small buoy to keep my heart afloat in this sea of adjustment.




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