My Interview With Asian Geographic Passport Magazine

This Singapore-based magazine with a worldwide distribution approached me for an interview about being an expat in Turkey for the February 2012 issue. Here are my answers:  

Where are you from? What's your job? Could you tell me a bit about your background?

I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area in California, and have lived abroad for almost 15 years.

I was in Kuala Lumpur for five years in the ‘90s, where I learned some good lessons about what it takes to survive and thrive as an expat.

I drew on those realizations a lot during my time in Istanbul, and they inform much of the work I now do as the founder of GlobalNiche.net, a work-life initiative for cultural creatives, mobile progressives and other global souls.

When did you move to Turkey? What brought you to Turkey?

I moved with my Turkish-born husband in 2003 (and we relocated to San Francisco at the end of 2011.) But even before that, we chose an Ottoman palace in Istanbul as the site of our 2001 wedding. So maybe a stint living there was fated?

Could you speak a bit Turkish after living there for almost 10 years?

Yes. I took a month-long course at a language school when I first arrived, and then employed a private tutor a couple of years later to consolidate what I’d held on to and work on advancing my conversational skills.

I get along just fine with transport and shopping but since my work is English-language based and I’m not a linguist (I’ve studied 8 languages and am proficient in none!) my Turkish has never allowed me to express complex thoughts. I no longer agree to Turkish-only business meetings, and swore off Turkish language television appearances after it became clear that they didn’t work well for me.

I have been surrounded by only-Turkish conversation for untold hours, zoning in and out. Sometimes understanding perfectly, responding in English. Other times, lost!

It’s an agglutinative language -- meaning you keep adding endings and some words have 20 letters in them -- and the word order in a sentence is backwards to what I’m used to with English. You have to back into a sentence -- sometimes you never make it to the end. The funny thing is, people either say “Turkish is really easy, isn’t it?” or “Turkish is really hard, right?” and both groups are correct. Most Turks love to hear you try. There are conventional things to say which you can use a lot on a visit. Pick those up.

Which part of Turkey do you think remain pretty much untouched by mass tourism?

Anywhere off the beaten path.

You can even find this in Istanbul, where massive cruise ships dock and zillions of people get off and go to one or two spots.

I suggest you go down a back street, don’t stay in a tourist neighborhood if you can help it, don’t eat at restaurants with menus in English or other non-Turkish languages (or menus at all -- Turks don’t order from the menu, they ask what’s fresh, in season, special).

Try Beyoglu, or the Asian side of town. Try some walking tours to explore areas you might not find otherwise.

Head the opposite direction of crowds, you will find something. If you want to see a mosque choose one by master architect Mimar Sinan, not the one with the big line in front of it.

How would you spend your weekend in Turkey?

Walking along the Bosphorus Strait, eating and drinking with friends at all the cafes and restaurants and bars and clubs along Istiklal, the pedestrian street in the European quarter of Beyoglu. Museums, film festivals, nargile establishments, tea houses. For glitzier occasions, events at a multitude of ancient and antique locations that are now nightclubs and restaurants, concert venues and other hangouts.

How about your food experience? Apart from the traditional dishes like kebab, baklava, what is your favourite and where to try it?

Neither of those are favorites of mine -- in fact, there’s so much more depth in traditional Turkish cuisine than kebab and baklava.

Turkish food is the cuisine of a vast empire, after all. Lots of taste and ingredient influences, and many dishes perfected for the sultan. Try the stewed homestyle dishes made with olive oil (called “zeytinyagli”), the roasted lamb on a bed of eggplant pureed with cheese (“hunkar beyendi”), or a tangy okra stew.

With four different seacoastlines (Black Sea, Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean), Turks do great fish and seafood dishes. A spicy shrimp sauteed in butter and red pepper flakes...grilled octopus. Dreamy! If you visit during the turbot season in winter it’s worth going to a place that specializes in this huge, flat and spiky Black Sea fish.

Desserts:

I’ve been partial to the chewy lokum (what you may know as “Turkish delight”) since I was a child in California, with my recent favorite being the pomegranate lokum studded with pistachios. Malatya Pazari is a national chain that sells it.

Try the different milky puddings at Saray or other traditional restaurants, one even has chicken breast in it.

Basically I could talk about Turkish food all day and not mention kebab or baklava.

If you’re staying in the old town, go to Beyoglu to eat. Greasy bland tourist food is an awful waste of your palate. If you’re after a spicy kebab though, ask for the ground lamb Adana kebab from the Southeast of the country.

What are your favourite nooks and crannies or hidden retreats in Turkey?

I like the private waterside setting of Assk Cafe in Kurucesme, the wild surf around red-roofed Amasra, the archaeology museum in the grounds of the Topkapi Palace and the overlooked mosaic museum under the Arasta Bazaar -- which is where you can see the decor of Emperor Constantine’s palace. He’s the Roman who founded the Eastern Roman empire, and why the city became known as Constantinople.

Hidden retreats are everywhere but most recently I enjoyed a hotel at the top of Assos on the Aegean. If you stay there you can visit the Temple of Athena at sunset, when it’s deserted and the Doric columns are bathed in an orange light. Great for portrait photography.

Do you know anything about the working culture in Turkey?

Yes. I worked fulltime as a cultural writer and producer which means I worked solo but in collaboration with many individuals and organizations. I pitched, sold, edited and published two books with a major Turkish publisher. That’s the anthology Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, and its Turkish translation, both in 2005.

I also wrote for Cornucopia, a magazine for international connoisseurs of Turkish culture published in Istanbul, as well as web consulting for Turkish companies. The work culture differs from my own personal work culture -- closely tracking along cultural differences, as you can imagine.

I suggest you learn as much as you can about Turkish culture if you’re interested in working in Turkey or with a Turkish company. It affects what people expect around deadlines and goals and standards and other basics like that.

It’s good to know what people mean when they say “yes”. Turkey is a Eurasian culture so it’s got a bit of the west and a lot of the east in it.

Is there any particular myths you heard most about Turkey? How much of it you found to be true?

All the cliches.

Wolfish rug dealers. Men in mustaches and tweed suit jackets. Coffee shops with no women present.

That’s all there, but that’s not all there is.

In fact, the reason those things are cliche is because the details in between the lines are missing. Who those people are, why they behave that way, where the women really are.

There’s a huge spectrum of Turkish society from the most rural and conservative to the most urban and secular, and a very young, forward-looking population. There are also deep traditions, an interdependent culture, and a multiethnic population. It’s an ancient place and a modern republic, its contradictions and tensions spring from the ground itself.

Overall, what do you think about Turkey in terms of a place for expats to work and live?

I think there are opportunities -- the Turkish economy is strong and has been only minorly affected by the worldwide economic crisis -- and the lifestyle can be really good.

However, like any foreign country it’s best if you do your homework. Come visit a few times before you try living here.

Make some contacts in both the expat and Turkish communities, and preferably in communities that contain both expats and Turks.

You want to be able to live in a bridged way, not in a bubble.

You’ll also want to know what kind of work you want to do, and where in the country you want to live. Even what neighborhood. The more you know before you commit the better off you’re going to be. Try poking around at an active online forum like TurkeyTravelPlanner.com.

That’s where you’ll pick up some useful lessons of cultural awareness like how to walk through the Grand Bazaar area without being harrassed (hint: it’s things like body language, and appropriate dress).

I have also written a lot about life in Turkey which you can find at my neoculture discussion site expat+HAREM  (www.expatharem.com).