To Women Living as Expats: it’s Okay to be Rude Sometimes

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Since moving overseas I’ve had many experiences I wish hadn’t happened. But they did.

Were they my fault? No.

Could I have prevented them from happening? Perhaps, though doubtful.

What emotions did I feel after they happened? Shame. Guilt.

But did I do anything wrong? No.

No. In most of the scenarios there was nothing I could have done differently to stop the experience from happening.

From day one in my new middle eastern city, the bronzed-zippy-Californian-friendly college girl disappeared and in her place was a dark-haired, eyes-straight-ahead, talk-to-me-and-I-give-you-an-icy-stare seriously rude woman.

Gone were the generous smiles and chatty small-talker. If you saw me on the street, you would hardly recognize me.

Why the sudden personality change? I realized that in this country, anything short of looking mean would only bring me unwanted and unsolicited attention.

Yet despite my efforts to be invisible, I am still a woman.

I am a woman living in a patriarchal society.

While the culture has gone through significant breakthroughs regarding equality and embracing modern women in the business world, its roots of male domination go deep.

I’ve had to report multiple incidents to my husband about being touched inappropriately while out by myself.

What’s even more frustrating is that it happens in the light of day without any invitation whatsoever. I could be walking down a sidewalk, riding the train, or waiting at the bus stop minding my own business, and then suddenly be a target for someone’s un-controlled advance.

I’ve stepped on feet, thrown hands away, and elbowed men in the gut. I’ve yelled shameful words and called attention to their disgraceful actions. But whats done is done, and they run away without any real punishment for their crime.

What’s worse is that it’s accepted.

I’ve seen men slapping and hitting their wives in a public park, spitting on them and being rough. The passer-byers just keep passing by. They won’t get involved in a man “controlling” his property.

Before I knew better, if I man started talking to me and touching on the arm, if it seemed innocent enough I would tolerate it for awhile for fear of being rude. I know several other girls who’ve told me the same story. They didn’t want to be mean because they didn’t know if it was normal or not.

Unless the man is related to you, it’s not.

In this culture, the only reason a man touches you is to gage how far he can go.

The man knows he shouldn’t be doing it; local women wouldn’t tolerate a touch from a stranger for an instant.

Don’t even let him start.

If a man says he’ll show you which stop to get off of at the bus, tsk at him and move far away to show how disinterested you are. Don’t give him any reason to start a conversation with you. Some men will jump at any excuse to be invited into your space.

But know this: even if you do your best to send stay-away-from-me signals, you’re still a woman– a foreign women who will be seen as prime material to be taken advantage of.

If it happens, holler and shame the heck out of them. Please feel free to even take your shoe off and hit them with it.

Most importantly, know that it wasn’t your fault. The feelings of guilt and shame do not belong to you; you did nothing wrong.

Go home, confide to your husband or roommate, have them pray for you and give you a hug.

Then remember, next time you go out, it’s more than okay to be rude sometimes.

A Communal Commotion

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There was a bit of excitement on the first floor of the apartment complex as two Americans opened their door to let a rush of smoke billow out into the hallway.

These foreigners (or ‘ya-ban-jihs’ as locals call them) had semi-spiked their neighbors’ curiosity when they moved in about 7 months ago, but as time passed, their newness wore off and the locals kept politely to themselves.

However, as smoke started pouring into their apartment, not knowing who to call, the Americans ran across to the neighbors and knocked on their door.

The old woman opened the door, saw the smoke, and yelled “fire fire!”

Old-man-to-the-rescue pulled on his pants, threw on a winter coat, and stepped over into the young couples’ threshold. They pointed him to the busted breaker, smoldering with putrid smoke. Alarmed, he ordered the American boy to run to the the basement and get the doorman.

The boy leaped down the steps two at a time.

After turning the main electricity off, the boy quickly returned with the doorman. Thankfully the smoke started to slow from its steady stream to a whispy leak.

While all this was happening, the upstairs tenants came downstairs complaining of a bad smell and saw the commotion. Cell phones came out, questions were thrown at them, and noses began to poke.

“What did you do? Why does it stink?” The worried neighbors insisted on knowing what was happening.
“Nothing! We were eating dinner and all of a sudden our house started to fill with smoke and smell bad. But don’t worry, the doorman is helping us.” The blonde woman reassured the covered woman that the situation was under control.

Still, just in case, the man whose wife had been interrogating the blonde dialed the doorman to make sure. Then together they devised a plan for the electrician to come fix the yabancis’ problem in the morning. He left only to come back a minute later, advising the kids to put their meat on the chilly balcony outside so it wouldn’t go bad.

The apartment still wreaked like a dead rodent. As the foreigners were deciding what to do next, the neighbors graciously asked them to come over for tea. The old man and woman weren’t upset for being bothered late at night. In fact, it seemed that they enjoyed being able to help this young couple and wanted the evening to continue.

The couple was welcomed in, greeted with kisses, and ushered straight into the living room where they were presented with a table of dishes filled with nuts and dried fruits. They were asked whether they preferred their tea in a glass or a mug.

“Eat more, eat more.” The wrinkly face smiled and gestured towards the table.

So they ate more.

It was a typical conversation of who are you and where did you grow up, what do you like about Turkey and what food do you cook… They exchanged favorite recipes and suggested places to go on walks in the city.

The Americans went to bed that night grateful for the turn of events and for the helpful community God placed them in. They praised the Lord for their safety and that nothing worse had happened.

The Way Things Work

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When moving your whole life to another country, what it really means is you get to start over from scratch.
Your old bank accounts, electric company, gas company, water company… none of those work anymore. The convenient online setup options, nope, those don’t exist. Your name isn’t on anything yet. Nobody knows you. You don’t know anybody. You also don’t know how anything works.

So, first things first, establish yourself. Apply for residency in the country.

They way things usually work, in order to apply for residency, you need an address to apply with.

It would seem, then, that finding an apartment is first on the list.

Actually, before you’re able to call any realtors, you need to register your phone. But before you can register your phone you need a tax number. So you go to the tax office, get a tax number, pay the tax, then go set it up with the Cell Company.

Now you can call the realtors.

And the apartment hunt begins…

Once you have your apartment, the utilities need to be transferred over as well. How does one go about doing that? You take your sorry self all the way to the perspective Gas, Electric, and Water company offices, take a number, and stand (or sit if you’re lucky to find a chair) for an hour in a hot waiting room.

Your number blinks on the screen. In your best attempt, you extend your rental agreement and indicate you moved to a new place and therefore need to set up the utility. ” Of course,” they reply. “May I see your residence permit?”

In fragmented sentences, you explain how you just moved to the country and don’t have a residence permit yet, but are in the process of applying for one. “Can you just use my passport?”

“No, I am sorry, we cannot do it without your permit.”

You leave the office, feeling both defeated and confused.

This can’t be right. You need an address to put on your permit application. How are you supposed to have an address if the utilities can’t be set up, because you need a permit to do so? Do you just live in an apartment without any heat or water for three months until your permit appointment?

Fortunately, your landlord empathizes with your dilemma and agrees to keep the utilities under his name until you receive your residence permit. “But don’t tell anyone,” he says, “because I’m not supposed to be doing this.”

Believe me, your secret is safe.

Next on the list, with your house taken care of, you can apply for your permit.

After filling nearly everything out, it asks you for your local health insurance information. Pause. You go to the bank and apply for the cheapest health insurance they offer. Yes, the bank. Weird, I know.

Unpause. You fill in your health insurance and click submit. It tells you your appointment date, 3 months from today. It also sends you a list of everything you need to bring with to your appointment, including a bank statement proving sufficient wages. Back to the bank we go.

The first two banks say you need a resident’s permit in order to sign up for a bank account. You gawk strangely at them because you need a bank statement in order to get your resident’s permit… Can you sense the frustration???

Well, third time’s the charm. Finally, at a third bank, they process you through no problem. But they do need for you to notarize your rental agreement for legitimate reasons.

You follow the red signs on the street for the notary and hand them your contract, explaining your need. “I’m sorry, ” they say. “You need to go to the tax office first and pay the house tax. This needed to be done within 15 days of signing the contract, but you’re too late. Go pay the tax then come back.”

At the tax office, nobody understands what needed to be done. They send you to 3 different floors before getting what you needed.

Back at the notary office, you hand them the tax receipt and they start making faces and tsks and call for backup. The manager hustles over and tells you the tax is too small. You didn’t pay enough. You need to go back and pay more.

“Will you write a note explaining what they need to do? We don’t know what we need.”

So she writes a note and attaches it. “But you have to wait until tomorrow. Everything is closed now.”

You head over to another notary office just to see if they say the same thing. They confirm: “You need to pay more tax.”

“You need you need you need…” Sheesh. All this for opening a bank account…

In the morning you head back over to the tax office. They read the note and consult with each other. Their conclusion: “No, this is not correct. You don’t need to pay any tax for the neighborhood you live in.” They also write a note back to the notary, explaining everything.

You take the note and head to a notary closer to the tax office in case you had to return again. This noter doesn’t even blink. Before you know it, your papers are stamped. Glad to see everyone’s on the same page…. not! Oh well. Relieved, you head back to the bank one final time.

Handing them your notarized documents, they finalize your new bank account. The only thing left is to transfer adequate wages and get a back statement for your permit. This also takes time and effort with your employer, who eventually agrees to give you an advance in order to show sufficient funds.

Next stop, the courthouse. The courthouse? The courthouse.

There you will get a translation and notary of your marriage certificate to prove your marriage in the country you’re applying residency. Which is necessary because all the other documents happen to be in your husband’s name, so you better be able to prove that you’re linked, or else!

Are you exhausted yet? I know I am.

Even so, this is just a small glimpse into the way things work around here. And this is literally just the beginning.

Midye

Today I ate midye: mussels that are stuffed with spiced rice and flavored with a squeeze of lemon.

I was told my life would be changed.

As it somewhat resembled sushi -which I’ve always wanted to like but every time I eat it I battle some texture issues- the thought of it made me gag.

However, I’m turning over a new leaf and trying new things.

Especially if it’s gluten-free… anything to expand my options!!!

So I said yes and before I knew it, I was holding a clam in my hand.

I stared at it long and hard.

Midye, you’re going down!

In a swift (yet awkward) movement, I scraped the contents unto my palette. Yikes- it was a rude amount to try and fit in my mouth!

Step 1: chew.
Step 2: swallow.
Step 3: keep it down.

As soon as I realized I had accomplished Step 3, I smiled a triumphant smile.

For in a way, it did change my life; I grasped opportunity by the horns. It was a moment that could have easily come and gone with little meaning, but instead, I made it count.

Come Back Next Week

By now, we all should know that time in Turkey is… slow.

Slowing, waiting, practicing patience– these are all traits of grace that have yet to flow naturally from my veins. My character’s tendency is to activate, think quickly, maximize time, and serve with efficiency.

There’s nothing worse than being halted in my tracks; painstakingly frozen on the bottom step, unable to move forward. I have goals, a plan. Places to go, people to see.

I see each day as a gift to be unwrapped and used to its full potential, leaving nothing untouched or wasted.

Maybe it’s the American achiever in me, or maybe it’s the genuine desire to obediently live out a life of stewardship and responsibility with whatever God puts under my feet.

These feet, however, had suddenly been forced to a standstill. Weighed down by one notably important factor determining my steps and very much affecting the future of my work: the infamous visa.

I applied for it about 7 months ago, but since Turkey’s population is daily being stuffed with new immigrants and asylum seekers, my appointment ended up befalling in March.

Nervous beyond limits for the grandeur of the occasion, I arrived on my assigned date with the necessary paperwork and passport. With the exception of a minor complication that sent me running through an unfamiliar neighborhood in stressful search of a money exchange office that would give me a receipt for proof of a heinous dollar amount, the initial visit went quite smoothly.

I left the police station with a slip stamped “April 8”- the retrieval date for my visa.

April 8 was a full day so I went the 12th instead. As long as I got it within a month’s notice I’d be fine.

Excited to finally become an official resident of this country I have come to love, I sat in the lobby with my roommate eating pre-celebratory M&M’s, waiting to hear my name.

At the sound of my name I jumped up and stood at attention before the source. He looked at me, then back down at the slip of paper he was holding, the one stamped April 8. A new stamp had pressed its inked letters unto the white surface: April 17.

“Come back next week,” he said.

Trying to refute this delay of documents, I meekly asked, “Why?”

“It’s not ready yet,” was his short reply and he turned to gift someone else their bit of bad news.

Following orders, I faithfully returned the next week where I was handed the same instructions of “come back next week” along with a new stamp.

Now, the trek to this police station takes about half a day… It’s not terribly convenient. But then again, convenient is a word I barely recognize anymore.

My third trip at an attempted retrieval followed the same suite as the first two. I began to wonder, did they lose it? As soon as familiar phrase was repeated I confronted in brave Turkish “I think you lost it. It’s been almost a month, I’ve been back here three times already!” To which he replied, “it is not lost, it’s just not ready.” Then tagged it again with “come back next week.”

Not wanting to be bested, I brought along my Turkish friend to fight for me the following week. We waited in the lobby for about 2 hours, ears tuned for the only English name in the overflowing room. Babies cried. Mothers scolded. Multiple languages were being voiced. My friend and I scripted out our response for if I was overlooked again.

She heard it, and we went up to the front. I almost didn’t believe what was happening as they pushed papers towards me to sign… then it clicked: MY RESIDENCE PERMIT WAS READY! I nearly jumped up and down.

I doubt they’d ever seen somebody as happy as I was- happy that I’d never have to journey back to the station again.

Due to the frequent trips as well as my Turkish celebrity-like appearance I had made friends with many of the policemen… As nice and kind as they were, I didn’t mind saying goodbye. I was beyond relieved. My feet were free! I was free!

Free to live and move forward as a resident of Turkey.

The wait, though painful, was worth it.

Spools of Thread

April 23rd is a holiday in Turkey. They call it Children’s Day, dedicating the hopeful future of the nation to the children of the republic. People dress-up, flags are strung, and picnics are spread out on every green surface available in order to glorify this commemorative festival.

However, outside of the city, April 23rd takes on a more subdued mentality.

Every year on this same date, 50,000 pilgrims of all faiths crowd Buyukada -what I’ve come to call one of Turkey’s “getaway” islands- for a soul searching pilgrimage to St. George’s monastery. Known as “Aya Yorg,” this historic orthodox church peacefully sits atop Buyukada’s highest peak, looking over the turquoise seas of Marmara.

Ever since I heard about this event from a stranger in a coffee shop, it immediately caught my interest as well as my curiosity. A Muslim nation making a prayer pilgrimage to a Christian monastery?

As the date neared, some friends and I decided to ‘participate’ in the pilgrimage. We brought along a guitar.

The hike wasn’t easy- it was about an hour and a half going uphill. Trail-side venders seemed to be making a killing on fruit and water…

As part of the spiritual ritual, many people were unwinding spools of thread, twirling it around the trees and fences from the bottom of the hill all the way up to the monastery. It’s said that if their spool lasts the whole way, they have found favor in the heavens…

The roadsides quickly began to layer with the tangled thread in every color, like a brightly-woven chaotic river.

It was an epic day for the church in Turkey; people came on this pilgrimage with hopes and prayers, so the church made itself useful. Prayer stops were spaciously stationed along the trail. The voices of believers and nonbelievers blended in requests for various needs, searching for answers, seeking out truth.

We paused once we reached the top of the mountain to take-in the breathtaking view. But my gaze was quickly reverted to the monastery. Outside the exit, the pilgrims were writing their hopes on paper and tying it to the branches of trees.

Prayers were being written with chalk on the rocks nearby.

An array of candles lined the rock wall, wax melting into a colorful stream.

Their focus was on ritual. On outward action.

We took out the guitar and for the next four hours, every pilgrim who exited the monastery was washed with melodies of praise resounding from the Hope living in us.

Hope that is Alive. Hope that’s Real.

Piercing the air with song, we breathed out worship to our God. Sometimes in Turkish. Sometimes in English. It didn’t matter.

What did matter is that we weren’t just singing; we were full-on fighting.

This was no ordinary mountaintop experience.

Bowling Gangnam Style

On many occasions since living in Turkey, I have had to pause in whatever I was doing to ask myself, “is this real life?”

A couple times it’s been because of supernatural surprises. Other times it’s been for the sake of measuring how far I’ve come in culminating to cultural normalcies. But then, there are the times that I am hit completely out of the blue with something I never in my wildest dreams could have conjured up.

The most recent occasion was a trip to Mars (metaphorically speaking).

I’m still in a state of subliminal shock that it actually happened. Really, it was so jaw-dropping unbelievable that I don’t think it ever fully sunk-in.

Wanna know what the fuss is all about? Well, picture yours truly in a cosmic bowling alley, co-hosting the 2013 Open International Bowling Tournament. Oh yes, somehow I was chosen to MC this spectacular event.

First things first: the parade of teams. Nine different teams marched around the bowling alley, strutting their colorful jersey-knit uniforms and mentally preparing for the games ahead of them. Intensity was in the air. It was obvious that each team noted the seriousness of how their lives could change once they won the coveted Championship Trophy… Each team but one.

In lane number 7 resided Team Gutterballs. Very much resembling their name and lacking both official jerseys as well as skill, the Gutterballs stood out like a tall American in the Philippines. Oh wait, we were tall Americans. From the sheer ethnic make-up of the other teams, it felt like we had transcended geographical barriers and were indeed bowling on an island in Asia…

Complete with the Filipino National Anthem as well as a live intermission performance of “Baby Baby,” the finishing touch that best capped the tournament’s overall dynamic was when “Gangnam Style” came over the loud speaker; not a single person was left standing still.

After a special thanks to the sponsors and announcing the highest scores (Gutterballs strongly coming in last- although might I add that my last two bowles were strikes…), I was dismissed of my MC duties and handed in my bowling shoes. Leaning back against the counter, it was as if I saw my surroundings for the first time; the pause was inevitable.

Consequently, that pause brought forth that most familiar question: “is this real life?”

Mundane, ridiculously fun, and humanly uncharted… Yupp, looks like real life to me.