As the door opened and our elegantly dressed hostess invited us inside, my husband and I walked into a room of 25 women with Islamic veils tossed over their shoulders. Suddenly the room fell silent, and all eyes were fixed on my husband, the only male in the room. Our hostess continued smiling and politely ushered Jose into a side room. My face flushed, and I prayed desperately, “Oh God, couldn’t I just disappear right now?”
Here was another blooper to write home about.
I had only lived in Turkey for a few months when my neighbor Sibel invited me to a reading of the Mevlut, an Islamic poem. It was a celebration of her eight year old son’s circumcision, and I had mistakenly assumed the gathering would be for both men and women.
Sibel introduced me to some of her guests and served me a plate before taking one to Jose in the other room. The women seated around the living room were busy eating cheese pastries, stuffed grape leaves, slices of cake, and cookies. I spoke to the woman next to me in broken Turkish, but I was so uncomfortable that I could hardly follow the conversation. Should I go and ask Jose if he wanted to leave? Could I sneak him out?
Sometime later a middle aged, heavy set woman dressed in a long fabric overcoat and scarf opened a large book and began chanting. The other women were dressed in stylish Western clothing, but they quieted themselves and pulled their veils over their heads temporarily out of respect for their religion. Judging by the expressions on their faces, they were bored stiff. As the chanting continued my thoughts wandered back to my husband alone in the next room. What was he doing?
When it was over, Jose and I walked back to our apartment.
“I am so sorry,” I said. “I don’t know how I misunderstood her invitation. What did you do?”
“I sat there for 10 minutes,” he said. “Just when I was getting desperate, Sibel’s husband came in. We talked a bit, but then I ran out of Turkish, so he turned on the TV and we watched a soccer game.”
Realities of the culture shock stage
Our first year in Turkey, these kinds of misunderstandings happened often. Struggling to speak a language I barely knew in a totally new environment, I often felt like an outsider who did not know how to behave. It was a lonely feeling.
Moving to a different country is a Herculean task. Your first months on the field are a challenging time of getting house set up, starting language learning and trying to make friends while you are missing home. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed. If you are new on the field, take heart. Hang in there! Things WILL get easier. Next week I’ll write a post about surviving your first year overseas.
When you first moved overseas, did you have similar experiences where you were clueless about what was going on?