The Madame Bovary Syndrome
© Copyright 2008 by Alizah Salario
"Do women shave their legs over there?"
I tried hard not to laugh. On my way from Los Angeles to Chicago, two firemen happened to take the seats next to me. They doused me with your run-of-the-mill boy trying to chat up girl on the airplane questions. Until, that is, I mentioned I live in Istanbul.
"Is that out there near Aurora?" one asked, referring to a western suburb of Chicago. His friend cringed and knuckled him in the shoulder. "No, dumb ass, it's in Europe. In a different continent."
I didn’t dare correct him for fear of sounding pretentious, but I was tempted to point out that Istanbul straddles two continents, Europe and Asia.
"Oh, sorry. So you like, live there?"
That's when the questions began to sound like the opening of a bizarre foreign erotica film.
So maybe the poor guy got Turkish legs mixed up with French armpits. Don't get me wrong: I don't expect everyone from the U.S. to have memorized a primer on Turkish culture. I certainly didn't before I moved to Istanbul. However, that does not prevent me from being taken aback when I’m confronted with American cultural conundrums about Turkey that, after a year of living in Istanbul, strike me as either ill-informed, absurd, or just plain ignorant. I thought of the many perfectly coiffured, impeccably dressed, and yes, smooth legged Turkish women who put me and my stubbly shins to shame and laughed. But I am not one to judge the ignorant and offensive from the curious but uninformed. Or am I?
I often find myself doing just that. I justify my judgment by telling myself that I am in a unique position that allows me to do so. I am simultaneously an insider and an interloper. Had I been Turkish and living in Turkey, I doubt Mr. Burly Fireman would’ve mustered the courage to ask me personally about my grooming habits. Had I merely visited Turkey, I would not carry expert status. I believe many people do not indulge their curiosity about other cultures out of political correctness or fear of sounding idiotic or offensive. My position as insider and outsider makes me safe, and consequently I get bombarded with questions people are often afraid to ask.
On one level I enjoy sharing my experiences abroad. On another, adopting the role of pedantic informant makes them feel cheap and about as unique as getting drunk with other foreigners at an expatriate bar. Details about Turkey comprise a complex chapter of my life, but in the retelling I find that my anecdotes become a series of static snapshots someone else can use for their own cultural edification.
Furthermore, such a barrage of questions always puts me on the defensive. Suddenly I feel judged by an invisible jury of shoulds, coulds, expectations and normalcy. I am on the witness stand defending my decision to move abroad, and I feel pressure to come up with a a seamless argument as evidence that my unconventional life choice was the right one. Why Istanbul? This question makes whatever I've eaten last slither up my throat. I feel the anticipation of friends and strangers alike, and it seems that an assessment of my entire character and my very worth as a human being hinges upon my response. I find it interesting that people find it so interesting, and therefore I don't want to disappoint them with the truth: it just sort of worked out that way.
At least, that’s the short answer. The long one is not as romantic as it seems. I did not move to Istanbul on a whim. My decision was based on a number of qualitative factors: I wanted to see the world, I was tired of teaching in the States, I wanted more time to write, my mentor had taught in Egypt for four years and always encouraged me to teach abroad, and I was aching for a major life change. Still, these reasons didn't compute to packing up and committing two years of my life to a country I'd never visited to teach in an unfamiliar system where I knew no one besides the woman who hired me. The impetus for living abroad was partially based on a very instinctual, qualitative response to what I did not want: to get stuck. As many of my friends were getting engaged, earning advanced degrees, or in one way or another establishing themselves as full-fledged real adult people, I felt that with each decision the walls of possibility narrowed until traveling ones path felt about as liberating as walking blindfolded along a precarious, splintery plank. So it wasn't Istanbul, it was that Istanbul just happened to be somewhere else. Moving across the world meant uprooting myself and starting fresh. As hard as that seemed, it wasn't as daunting to me as falling in step with yuppie sheep treading the path towards “success.” When others call me brave, I wish they were privy to the truth. If they really knew me, they’d know my decision was motivated by fear. I was simply more afraid of regret than risk.
In the end, the decision to move to Istanbul was rather anti-climactic. I never reached a point of crystal lucidity about the right thing to do, or had a 'this is it' epiphany in the middle of the night after a prophetic dream as I had always imagined I would before making a huge commitment. If it wasn’t Istanbul, it would’ve been something else. There were pros and cons to each possibility, but I didn't weigh them very carefully. I chose the one that happened first: I registered to attend an international teaching job fair, went through a whirlwind weekend of interviews with schools from across the globe, and in the end I found myself choosing between a concrete offer to teach in Istanbul for two years on the one hand, and an uncertain future full of unexplored possibilities on the other. I chose the bird in the hand.
Then something changed. Once moving abroad became my reality, it no longer appealed to me. The other possibilities that remained flawless in fantasy land suddenly shone brilliantly somewhere down the path not taken in contrast with my dull choice. This perplexed me. Didn't living abroad conjure images of the jet set and drinking fancy wine in outdoor cafes and personal growth in the popular and new age imagination? What was wrong with me? I could not transfer my fantasy to my reality. So instead of a vivid high-def movie about embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, my future took on the sketchy, pencil drawn, unremarkable quality of all the other mundane, ordinary plans I'd made – the ones I was trying so hard to avoid. My focus on the foreground details - obtaining my work visa, transferring my credentials, deciding what to pack, worrying about safety issues and all the people I'd have to leave behind – obscured my view from the life that lay just beyond the horizon. But I didn’t really feel like telling all this to strange but handsome firemen I met in the sky.
So when people asked me why Istanbul, rather than explaining myself I usually respond with a sardonic remark: I'm in the witness protection program, I'm a secret agent, eanie meanie miney moe, I just closed my eyes and pointed to the map, and, of course, why not?
Now that I’m here, I still don’t have any answers. Sometimes I feel I am living a dream. Other times it feels like my life is relegated to a narrow moving walkway, the likes of which you find in airports and subways around the world. "Foreigners, please stand on the right hand side and hold onto the guardrail for safety. All others are free to pass on the left." Technically I am living in Istanbul, working in Istanbul, and moving through the space that is Istanbul, but when I get too close to that ephemeral "this is it" I bump into the clear protective glass that buffers me from the rest of the world. There is an imperceptible limit to my interaction and integration, and it makes my stories of life in Turkey feel somehow disingenuous.
Perhaps I traded one small world for another. The only difference is that the latter is halfway around the globe. What's your life like in Turkey (another question I loathe) usually elicits a banal response: I wake up, go to work, go to the gym or do a few errands, come home, make dinner and eat it while grading papers in front of the television, read, and go to sleep. Much the same routine as my life in the States.
I get frustrated with this explanation, this
conversation, this life. I am sick of long-winded explanations and
sharp sarcasm. I am tired of explaining how life can stay the same
and be so very different. It is impossible to describe the duality of
maintaining two distinct lives in two separate places and having them
both feel complete and true in their own ways. I am not satisfied
with cliches about journeys trumping destinations and the power of
the present moment. Its not that I don’t agree, simply that
statements of truth do little to quell the anxious questioning that
persists in whatever contienent I lay my hat. That’s why
sometimes I wish I could tell a story other than my own. However mine
is the only one I know how to tell truthfully, so I have stopped
wishing in order to focus on the telling. I have stopped thinking
that in the telling lies the answer. The telling is the answer.
in the subject line of the message.)