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Stranger In A Strange Land: Turkish Delights

July 11, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

As the plane touched down I found myself being disappointed at the place’s un-exotic-ness. My eyes squirmed at the sunlight; the sun felt different here, brighter, warmer but also more piercing without the smog that inadvertently acted as our shield back in Hong Kong. Later I would learn to both love and hate the sun here in Izmir, Turkey. Because of it, me and the other 9 interns had to endure the permanent searing heat that on some days went up to 40 degrees Celsius (not fun when you’re fasting during Ramadan, as were some of my Muslim friends), but it also gave us the most beautiful sunsets we’ve ever seen.

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After a 14-hour flight that included me bumping into my Sexuality and Gender professor at the boarding queue (“By the way, it’s my 60th birthday today, and I just got upgraded!” he told me. I gave him an awkward hug and resisted the urge to ask him why I didn’t get an A for my research project.), I was officially a Stranger in a Strange Land. It was going to be my first time being away from home this long – my voluntary work/internship in Izmir would last 6 weeks, and I had saved another 2 for travelling around the area. Two months were not really that long, not long enough for me to miss my family and friends, but by the third week I was desperate craving for Hong Kong food; I even made a list of things I was going to sink my teeth into the moment I landed in the land of 852.

I say un-exotic-ness, because in truth I had no idea what to expect from the city. When I applied for the overseas programme, I had not been fussed with which country I was heading to – there were tons of places I have not been to, and I was more or less open to visiting anywhere. I figured I would learn and enjoy myself wherever I was, but as a result I also did not do much research. The travel bug hadn’t really bitten back then, and I was not a global citizen – I’d be hesitant to ever give myself that title, though I’m slightly less misinformed now – and in my mind I had lumped it together with a bunch of middle-eastern countries and pictured something involving a desert and kids running about dilapidated street markets in traditional clothing. Safe to say I was initially quite shocked, disappointed even, to find that Izmir is nothing like that; Izmir is a modern, well-developed city with few traces of conservatism. Prior to departure I had received repeated warnings from everyone at home that I should pack more long-sleeved clothing to avoid trouble, but soon I realized this hadn’t been necessary; women there donned even shorter shorts than the ones you see in American teen-flick films. But having nonexistent expectations eventually worked in my favour, because there were many pleasant surprises that laid in store. I had not known that Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey, and though it was not a popular tourist attraction itself, it was close by to many of them, such as Cesme, Bodrum, Pamukkale, and Ephesus. I also had not known that it was right next to the Aegean Sea, which meant that many of my weekends would be spent sunbathing on a boat or the beach, and many of my after-work hours reading by the kordon or chilling on the grass with a couple of beers with my friends while watching the sun set on the sea. I just went  along with the flow, and everything felt like a bout of fresh air – literally.

Turkey taught me many things, the most important of which is how to be ‘with myself’. I hadn’t really understood that until two years later, when I met a guitar-guru Israeli at my hostel in Bangkok, who told me that the first few days of his solo travelling experience, he panicked, because he had been bored out of his mind being alone, and his conclusion was that he must be a very boring person to be this bored by himself. It was only after that he became much more comfortable, and since then he’s never had any problems with it. I had struggled through a similar experience the first two weeks I was in Turkey, only I hadn’t even been alone; I worked and lived with 9 other interns from all over the world. Everyone had arrived before I did, and little groups of friends have seemingly already been formed. People from the same parts of the world who shared the same language automatically found their way to one another. I remember sitting down at the room where we were to be introduced the Mayor of Balcova, the municipality we were working in, and meeting everyone for the first time. I awkwardly introduced myself and waited for the others to do the same. I had little international exposure up till this point; names that were not English in origin immediately slipped my mind (Jorge: “My name is Jorge you can call me George but if you call me Hor-hay it would make me very happy.” Me: “?????”). One girl complained in a Turkish accent, “How much longer are we going to have to wait for? I really need a cigarette.” A couple others nodded in agreement, and I wondered if this was the ‘peer pressure’ teachers talked about back in high school, when they warned us of the common factors that got teenagers to start smoking. Before this it had never been an issue for me, because I didn’t even personally know anyone who smoked.

There was a grand total of one other East Asian (and she and I would remain the only East Asians we ever saw in the city for the next two months), also Chinese, Zoey from Hangzhou, and we exchanged a quiet smile. I was both eager to befriend and disassociate myself from her – befriend because she and I were the only one who shared same cultural roots in this strange land, and disassociate because I was determined to set myself apart from her. It didn’t help that people often mistook one of us for the other, despite the fact that we looked nothing alike. I also had a false sense of Hong Kong pride; I was the girl looked Chinese but spoke fluent English, from the land of democracy (lol!), the girl who’s, really, just like you! After a while, I noticed that Zoey was a lot more popular among everyone, and I got uncomfortable; as silly as it sounds, I felt like I needed to compete with her, just because we belonged ‘to the same category’. In hindsight, I could see why; Zoey’s a lot less pretentious, a lot braver than I was. A sense of animosity arose within me, because I was not a big person then (hopefully I’m better now), and because of my constant emphasis to others “Hong Kong is not like China”, she backed off a bit too. We maintained a cool distance until one evening when we had started talking about Chinese politics and June Fourth by accident, and I dropped all the prejudices I originally held against her. We also, as girls often do, bonded over talking about past relationships and the boys back home.

Mostly I couldn’t deal with the fact that here, I was simply ‘a girl from Hong Kong’. You always underestimate the influence of your culture on you until you go traveling or meet people from different parts of the world. It’s not just the way you eat or do certain things. It’s part of your personality and more importantly, your identity. In a strange land surrounded by strangers all those inalienable parts of you, the bits of your past that people back home said defined you, suddenly mattered no more. No one cared what prestigious school you went to, how well you’re doing academically, how well off your family is (or is not); they first get to know you to know your culture, but eventually, they take everything at face value about you, and not in a bad way too. It feels like starting afresh, but it also feelings like losing your identity.

Gradually, I dropped my insecurities and made friends, and on the other hand also learnt to be with myself; I no longer felt the need to run off to parties I did not enjoy with my others simply for fear of missing out, and I no longer compared myself with anyone. On the fourth week, instead of going on a junk trip with all of my other friends, I took a bus to Ankara and later Konya by myself, where I visited Ataturk’s Mausoleum, made Turkish food with fellow travellers at my hostel, learnt about the whirling dervishes, and discovered the poetry of Rumi (I also had my first ever tequila, but that’s another story). My intern friends, bless them, were some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. When I’m just the slightest bit upset Jorge can tell; he’ll put his arm around me and take my hand. When I was caught in between work I had signed on to do in Hong Kong and my internship in Turkey, and unfulfilled obligations and responsibilities on both part, I had a semi-breakdown, and the others gave me a group hug and held me while I sobbed. When an intern from another programme tried to rip me off over a bus card, everyone else was even more worked up than I was, and Lucia and Agi even insisted that I should use take turns using their cards because they won’t be able to use all the money inside anyway. On a day when I was feeling feverish and sick; Colin offered me a piggy back ride home (he managed around 10 seconds before I asked him to put me down, at the rate I was eating I worry I might kill him), and Sam insisted on making me drink his magical Indonesian herbal tea when we get back. Despite my complete lack of ability to converse in Turkish, this had not stopped them from communicating their kindness in other ways. On one of my last days in Turkey I was stuck without a place to stay, and a family had kindly took me in at a moment’s notice. The only thing I could do is say teşekkürler – thank you – over and over again. “Teşekkürler,” when they gave me their son’s room, forcing him to have to share a bed with his mom; “teşekkürler,” when Filiz’s daughter took me around town under the fierce Turkish sun, hunting for souvenirs with me; “teşekkürler,” when they secretly went out to get figs and a turkish coffee maker for me as I was in the shower, because I hadn’t been able to find them the first time; when they told me I was always welcome back here, when they insisted on helping me get my bags and waiting for the airport bus for me for a full half-hour, because they wanted to make sure I got there safe…at one point, we sat in front of a computer screen with Google Translate, trying to get the words out, trying to make the other understand. But we already did.

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Even today the legacy of the trip still stick with me in ways. There are memories I’d recall fondly – sneaking up a forbidden hill at 4am to see the sunrise and almost getting shot with a rifle, the post-Ramadan feasts, jumping off a junk into the Aegean, falling asleep while partying as one of Turkish’s heartthrobs sings live at the club, getting whisked off to Turkish weddings and being told you’ll be on national TV, etc. But as cliché as it sounds it’s really the connections that matter the most. The 10 of us don’t regularly talk anymore, but every now and then I’d still get updates; Jorge called me just last week (though I was sleeping and had missed it), and yesterday Sam and I snapchatted each other and we discussed the Indonesian elections. Agi is going back to Istanbul this year, and Lucia is now flight stewardess. Colin is to be a Peace Corp at Cameroon soon. Last year when I had been feeling lost about life, I started chatting to a friend whom I had met on that trip. He had moved from Turkey to Brazil to be with his then-boyfriend, now husband, another wonderful person I had the fortune of knowing from my time in Izmir, and told me about how love changed his life for the better; then he encouraged me to go for my dreams, saying “and I envisage a Karen who is always on the road, writing, reading and living her life to the fullest’ – till now it’s still one of the sweetest things anyone’s ever said to me. Sometimes when I listen to my favourite band, I remember how on one of the last days in Izmir, I gave my deathbat necklace to one of the kids I was teaching English to on my job, whom I discovered was also a fan of the band. Even when the actual images of the trip fade to a pile of fuzzy nothingness, I’ll still remember that somewhere some time ago, somebody had touched my life, and I had touched theirs.


If anyone’s curious, I went to Turkey through AIESEC HKU, where I served as Vice President two years ago. No, this is not product placement, no one’s paying me, though I’m still good friends with a lot of peeps who still work there, and if any of you read this, I am a little short of cash lately…anyhow, you can learn more about them here:

P.S. I realised i have come to end of the post but have not once mentioned baklavas, even though it was in the description. So just in case anyone was lured here under the false pretences that I would be talking about the sweet gooey pastry: here you go: baklavas. Istanbul Express in Wan Chai has some pretty good ones, if  I accidentally made you hungry!