When I Found Myself in Turkey

When I was 22-years-old, I moved to Turkey.

I wish I could tell you that it was a decision based on a significant amount of research, or some passion for Turkish culture, or a tie to my family background, but it was more of a panicked decision after months of not knowing what I wanted to do. I had recently graduated and was living in a small dark room in my brother’s house while working as a nanny. I wanted something new, off-the-wall, some story that I knew not many people could claim.

So I packed my bags and moved to Izmit, Turkey. A small town in a country I knew little about.

When I arrived, I had two full suitcases and met a man with a mustache holding my name on a cardboard sign. He didn’t speak English, but conveyed to me that I was to board a bus to the neighboring town where someone from the school where I would be working would pick me up. So, on the bus I went, tired and sleep-deprived, slightly afraid, incredibly confused, and mostly excited. I sat down, armed with a Turkish-English travel dictionary and which I studied obsessively during the two-hour bus ride.

Within a week, I was “settled.” I lived in a hotel with a room that was just wide enough to fit my yoga mat. I met the teachers with whom I would be working. One of them, a handsome Australian with blonde hair and wide shoulders, looked me up and down and laughed. “You’re never going to make it,” he said.

In my first class, I could immediately sense the doubt in the room. My students were all in their early 20s, some older than I was. Two of them sat in the front, boys in college with hair perfectly styled. One of them spent most of the class with his hand under his shirt, rubbing his 6-pack and sending me winks.

I stood in the front of the room wearing a dress I had bought that very morning, my hands shaking as I wrote grammar roles in blue marker on the board. When I asked for an example in future tense, 6-pack’s friend said, “For example, teacher, will you go to the movies with me on Saturday?” I called a break shortly after.

Within a few months, I found my rhythm. I had left the hotel to live in an apartment ontop of the highest mountain in the city. I lived with three Turkish girls and every morning, we’d kneel on the floor around their coffee table, drinking tea and sharing a platter of olives, eggs, cheese, cucumbers, and tomatoes. I learned to read fortunes in the bottom of Turkish coffee, how to say “I’m a foreigner” in Turkish, and how to gain the interest and respect of a classroom.

It was a time of reinvention. Slowly, I peeled back the layers of the girl I had learned to be in America and discovered a new person, one who I liked better. I hugged people longer and learned to let go of the need to be independent because here, I couldn’t be. Every little task required assistance — going to the bank, buying groceries, sending mail. I learned to be okay with asking for help.

It was also an exhausting time. I worked 7 days a week, sometimes teaching 2 classes a day. When I as not teaching, I often wanted to hide away from the world. In a small town in Turkey that received few visitors, I was an enomaly. I often received stares, and sometimes glares. Some people would ask me questions about America and want to have their photo taken with me. Once, a restaurant didn’t serve me because I was Muslim.

But whether it was positive attention or negative, it was always exhausting. After 7 months, I finally decided to leave, buying a ticket to Indonesia to meet my mother before I returned home to the U.S.

The day I left was a sad one. My roommates and best friend took the bus with me down the mountain on which we had lived, into the heart of the town so I could catch the shuttle to the airport. We tearfully hugged each other goodbye and as I stared out at Marmara Sea while the bus traveled down the interstate, I felt my heart break for I was not just leaving a country, I was leaving behind a life I had created and found myself in.