Person of Two Cultures, Master of None

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

That was a Turkish street merchant asking if I, who spent 16 years of my life in Turkey, was in fact from somewhere else. The realization that I was seen as a foreigner in my own country hit me hard. It also helped me realize a part of my personality I’ve kept locked away for way too long.

Growing up, I was branded “Amerikalı,” Turkish for “American.” My foreign last name, my inexplicable talent in English classes, and my tall, lanky looks were no help. The fact that my life began abroad meant I could never be fully Turkish — even though I was born to Turkish parents, even though I spent my entire childhood and adolescence in Istanbul.

Istanbul is where I had my first kiss. It’s where I learned how to drink, where my rebel personality first planted its seeds, grew, and tamed before I got to college. It’s where I was caught by cops sitting on ancient steps in Beyoğlu sipping on beer at age 15, where I watched my parents divorce and remarry, where my sisters were born, where I first found my passion for movies and books. It’s where I became me.

When I moved to the U.S. from Turkey, I left a lot behind: My grandmother’s cooking; the intricate, curling cobble-stone streets of the city; the juicy, bright red Çanakkale tomatoes that I could savor only during hot summer months; the chaos and crowd that made me boil with anger and feel alive at the same time; the rare moments I got to reminisce about “the old Istanbul” with a shopkeeper; the street food that’s more satisfying than any pricey restaurant; the Bosphorus that changed color depending on my mood — mint green, turquoise, midnight blue, ash gray; the long and steaming summers by the Aegean sea; the warm, familiar feeling of going home to my parents and savoring a home-cooked meal.

The most stark difference, however, was that I was no longer “Amerikalı” when I moved to the United States. I suddenly became the “Turk.” Even after six years of living in the U.S., I am still introduced as “Sim, the Turkish girl.” I am the imminent foreigner at any party, the citizen-on-paper but not in any other sense of the word.

I felt this way for many years, struggling to put a finger on it. I now know what I never had the courage to accept.

I am too foreign for here and too foreign for home.

One glance at my overflowing bookcase and my packed studio apartment hints at my dual identity: Turn of the century Turkish books juxtaposed with American classics that inspired my writing career, the pot of bulgur pilavı or the tray of börek cooking in the kitchen, the coarse wool kilim on my cherry-wood floors bursting with colors of turquoise and orange, my television streaming a brain-dead comedy show in the background, American art hanging on the walls, my sleek and modern Target furniture.

The fact that I’m a person of two cultures has been no secret to anyone but me.

Why has this, a huge part of my personality, been so unbearably impossible for me to accept? Why have I been so hurt and heartbroken every time I was called American in Turkey? And I felt frustrated each time someone introduced me as “This is Sim, she’s Turkish” — like that could possibly be the only way to describe me? And why have I felt judged whenever someone’s idea of my exoticness, my brown hair and olive skin were all shattered when my near-perfect American accent was revealed? How many times have I been told that Turkish accents are sexy, and such a bummer that I don’t speak that way?

I am a person of two cultures and a master of none. I won’t understand most of the TV shows you watched in your childhood, or the games you played. I won’t understand all your customs, let alone your idioms. I don’t know the lyrics to Star-Spangled Banner, I had my first Thanksgiving meal at age 18, I haven’t seen Breakfast Club or Hokus Pokus, I grew up on Flaubert and Turgenyev, not Hawthorne and Lee.

But in a lot of other ways, I’m American. I am open-minded, I believe everyone should have the right to exercise their beliefs, wear whatever they want, act however they like as long as they don’t hurt others. I feel free riding the metro and knowing that I won’t be judged based on what I’m wearing, or how I look (most of the time). My favorite thing about the U.S.? The First Amendment and knowing that if you work hard, you’ll get far. This can’t be said about many countries around the world.

So I’ll forgive the merchant who called me a foreigner. I’ll forgive myself, for belonging to both places equally and not belonging at the same time — for trying to fit in but also enjoying the perks of being different. I’ll forgive myself for being on the move all the time, for building comfort zones just to break them down again.

Perhaps it’s having to fit in both cultures that makes me deeply aware of my inability to do so. But I finally accept it.

I’m Turkish and I’m American. Even if it means I’ll always be a foreigner to both.

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