Saturday, October 1, 2011


setting and adjusting

A boy massages a girl's shoulders. They play with each other's hair, he puts his arm around her, she leans into him. They might sit on each other's laps and give each other complements, but they're just friends, in a few minutes they'll move on to another classmate and do the same things again.

As someone who usually cringed at hugs, it's taken me a while to get used to this level of intimacy.  in my pre- Turkey days, my hair was strictly off limits to any, stroking, fingering, styling etc. By the end of my first day at school, I had become more or less resigned to the fact that my hair was public property.  Eventually it became normal for the student sitting behind me to absent-mindedly start playing with it in class. I was still surprised, however, when the boy sitting next to me took my hair in his hands and started stroking it

"cok guzel" he said. I just looked at him,  trying to force something like a smile

"He says your hair is very beautiful" Another boy translates.  I had understood the first time, right now I needed a cultural translator, not a language translator

"tesekurederim" I managed. Soon he lost interest and I relaxed.

I would say I've come to a point where just about anything anyone does to me is normal. In my mind, I've replaced "this is awkward" with "I wonder if this is awkward" a reminder that my view of normal is a tool I use to navigate MY culture.  I'm learning to use my friends reactions as a gague of what is OK in Turkey, and when I need to draw the line. ( I've had to do that a few times too)

I'll admit this system isn't perfect.  One situation stands out particularly in my mind where the other people around weren't in a good condition to be judging what I should allow. Looking back, I think I handled it well, deciding for my self where my absolute boundaries lie. It was at that point when I realised there are some parts of my culture I will hold on to no matter where I go.

At school, I don't mind if someone is massaging my shoulders, or pinching my cheecks.  I'm used to the greeting kiss, hand holding, head patting, and all of those little "touches" that are so normal when conversing with a Turkish person.  I've even gotten to the point where I can awkwardly put my hand on someon's shoulder when speaking to them.  I probably will become more comfortable with all of this as time goes on, but there are some boundaries that I'll keep with me.


  1. Hi Kyla,

    Your post reminded me of the personal space issues I had to get used to in Niger, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. There was definitely a different sense of personal space. For the most part, males and females did not interact much in public. But males would get uncomfortably close when conversing. I remember going to the local forestry office to get mail and to check-in (it was about 6 miles from my village). I would sit outside on an empty bench. One of the local, male forestry officials I knew would come sit right next to me with our legs touching and often place their hand on my knee. Like you, I knew this was not unusual as I observed this was a common behavior among males when talking. Males would also hold hands walking down the street if they knew each other. How does an American get used to this? Does one interlace their fingers or just avoid as much contact as possible? I think I tolerated this and did not adopt those practices when I returned.

    One thing I still notice myself doing these days is using my right hand to give and receive items. Most people in Niger did not use toilet paper, so the left hand was considered dirty. One gave and received items with their clean, right hand. To do otherwise would be rude or an insult. At the base when I am in my car, I will reach with my right hand to receive my ID back. Just yesterday I had to force myself to get my ID back with my left hand.

    Kyla, I am so proud of you. I think it is difficult for many Americans who live comfortable, middle class lives to go and live in another country and have to adapt to the local norms and customs. You are very wise and perceptive and those traits will take you far.

    Keep up the good work and the blogs.


  2. Thanks for the comment Dad! I love hearing about your days in the Peace Corps, and they are more relevant to me now than ever!