Friday, January 21, 2011

Lasagna in a Karniyarik World

I was nervous and excited about my very first dinner guests in Turkey. Would they like my lasagna? I hoped so since I didn’t know how to cook Turkish food.

 We were eight people around the table: our neighbors Murat and Selin, their children Ceren and Necat, Jose, me and our two children. As Jose prayed to thank God for our visitors and our food, I looked doubtfully at the beef lasagna with basil tomato sauce and melted cheese. It looked great to me, but would they like it? I cut it and served it carefully onto each person’s plate. I felt butterflies rising in my stomach when I noticed Murat staring at his plate, his forehead furrowed over piercing brown eyes.

 “What do we do with this?” he asked, looking at the lasagna.

 “Well,” I said, “What do you mean? Um…we eat it.” My children Andres and Camille giggled and whispered to each other.

 “Oh, I just wondered,” Murat said, “How do you eat it? Do you put yogurt on top of this? Do we just cut it with our knives and forks? What is it?”

 Oh great, I thought. This evening is off to a brilliant start. Everyone at the table, including Jose, looked at me waiting for an explanation of what lasagna was and how to eat it. My face went red, and I felt irritated inside. Even if he’d never had lasagna before, at least he could be more polite about it. My enjoyment of the dinner I’d worked to prepare was spoiled.

 Murat and Selin managed to eat the lasagna, and they said how good it was, but I could see that their children had a hard time eating it. They looked relieved when the meal was over, and I poured glasses of familiar, steaming Turkish tea.

 When at last everyone left, I remembered Murat staring at his plate. Did he not realize how embarrassed he’d made me feel? What was wrong with me anyway? Couldn’t I even cook a decent meal that my new friends would like? My face flushed all over again with embarrassment.

 By the next day I was able to laugh about it, and after 8 years the lasagna fiasco has become a part of our family lore. My son will repeat, “What do we do with this? What is this?” And we all laugh, remembering Murat’s puzzled expression.

 I enjoy living overseas, and generally Turks are extremely gracious to foreigners. However, sometimes I struggle with being an outsider who always speaks and does things differently. I remember the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” Maybe the Turkish Sesame Street would have had three plates of Karniyarik (stuffed eggplant) and one plate of lasagna. Sometimes I feel like I’m that person or thing that doesn’t belong.

 During my 8 years in Turkey I’ve committed more cross-cultural blunders than I can count, like the time I showed up at an all women’s tea with my husband. I used to agonize over my mistakes and how silly they made me look in front of other people, but over the years I’ve loosened up. I’ve learned the following:
  • Just be yourself.
  • Relax and don’t worry about doing everything right.
  • Don’t take things too seriously.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself.
  • Enjoy differences rather than be bothered by them.
 Since I’m here, I might as well enjoy being that lone plate of lasagna hidden among all the other plates of karniyarik.
If you live overseas, I’d love to read a comment about one of your cross-cultural fiascos.


Choate Family said...

I found your blog through Women of the Harvest. Thanks for sharing your lasagna story! Most of my cross-cultural blunders have been with food, too :-) My attempts at local food just don't turn out quite like my neighbors' yummy creations! Would it be okay if I linked this post to our family's blog? Thanks!
Joanna from the Solomon Islands

OliveTree said...

Yes, I find it to be a catch-22 sometimes. My Turkish food isn't as good is theirs, and my American food can be strange for them!

Yes, you can link this post to your blog.

Tim and Susan said...

I often make lasagna for our Japanese friends who come over. We once had a guy ask for chopsticks to eat his taco salad though...he he he. It's not always easy being stretched in the midst of cross-cultural life. Blessings!!!

Tim and Susan said...

p.s. Thanks for your encouraging comments on my blog and for stopping by!

OliveTree said...

Chopsticks for taco salad. Hilarious!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, you're off to a roaring beginning, Betsy! Interesting different choices for subjects, too. Blessings,
Legal Alien :o)