On Touching Children

In the United States you are not supposed to touch children familiarly unless they are yours, or the spawn of a close friend or family member.  As a teacher I was always very careful to keep my physical distance.  The only time I touched kids was when I was breaking up fights and tearing them apart or when they graduated and were saying goodbye.  There was one time when I flashed a girl my fun bits, but that was on a field trip to the beach and there were no doors on the stalls of the public bathrooms.

When I was a babysitter in college I always asked what the parents wanted me to do when I had to go to the bathroom.  When you haul a baby into the bathroom it is one thing, but when a toddler talks you want permission.  It was never a problem, “So…do you want me to leave your baby alone and unsupervised or do you want them to come into the bathroom with me?”  It was always the latter, but I still felt the need for specific permission.

In Turkey it is completely different.  Strangers pet children on the head and pinch their cheeks.  In a restaurant a toddler might be carried off by a waiter, played with, coddled, given treats and returned a while later.  Children running around in restaurants (1st difference…this is acceptable behavior) may be snatched into laps for kisses and then let go, a Turkish catch and release program.

In Turkey, parents and their children may feel insulted if you do not touch or snuggle their child.  They might feel rejected or unappreciated if they have not received a certain amount of physical attention.  I have gotten used to touching my students.  It was really strange at first.  In the beginning it made me really nervous to touch them, or worse when they touched me.  GAHHH.  They would come up, lean on me , put their heads on my shoulder, or touch my arms.   *Shudder*  I was so accustomed for this to be taboo it took quite a while to become comfortable with the situation.

Nowadays it is easy for me to touch students.  I have actually pinched cheeks.  I tweak their pony tails, rub their heads, pass a hand over their back, rub their arm, give their hands a squeeze.   Occationally I drag them around by their itty bitty neck ties they are required to wear.  They love it.  It makes them feel appreciated and valued.  It gives us a connection, a foundation on which to build a working relationship in the classroom.  I don’t hug my current students, but will my former students.  I kiss their cheeks when they give me presents, whether it is a bracelet or card they made for me or a silk scarf.

2013-12-08 16.50.02

Today I cuddled a child completely unknown to me, I was walking my dog in the park and the situation led me to it.  He was being chased by a street dog, one I know and never bothers me.   I feed him, and his puppies, he usually rolls over for belly rubs from me and has actually protected my small terrier from other street dogs.  About 10, the boy was terrified, the dog wasn’t biting him, but was barking and lunging at him.  He had gone too close to where the puppies were.  He kept running, and the dog was chasing him.  I told him, in my teacher voice, “Stay still, Don’t run.” I was so glad I know all the imperative forms in Turkish from my hall duty experience at school!  “Come here, son.” (In Turkey you only refer to children as “children”, “daughter” or “son”)  So while the dog was lunging at him (I knew the dog wouldn’t hurt us) I hugged him, stroked his face and talked to him.  “It’s ok, let’s go, together  ok…?” My Turkish is still a little weak.  The dog continued to follow and lunge, so I tucked the kid under my arm and held his hands so he wouldn’t get nipped.  Meanwhile I scolded the dog, who then stopped.  But the minute I separated from the boy, the dog started lunging again.  So I put my arm around him, stroked his face and then Butterfinger and I walked him home.  While I could have helped him regardless of the touching, but it made him feel safer, feel comforted.  Without it he might has still felt scared and lost and alone.

Clearly touching needs to be appropriate, but I have learned the value of it with children, the connection it can provide, a link to help a child, encourage, and console.  Maybe I find this interesting because I do not have my own children and discovering how this stuff works.

As with everything, there are pros and cons for each of my countries.  For example, in Turkey people don’t stand in lines, they push their way to the front and fight for service.  But while you are standing there bewildered and waiting your turn, I guarantee that some old lady will haul your kid onto their lap so they don’t have to stand while you figure it out.

The Vicious Dog in question…

Yes, that is him playing with children on the slide.

2013-10-02 17.21.39-1

Forget CEOs! Teachers Get Bonuses!

In Turkey, November 24th is Teacher’s Day.

Inside and outside of one of my cards. (We are still practicing articles.  There are none in Turkish. My kids think they are tricky—clearly.)

20121205_190831 (1)20121205_190809

  Teacher’s day is a serious business in Turkey.  To understand why, a little history is necessary.     It was only 90 years ago, in 1923,  that five years of primary education became compulsory and publically funded.  It was not until 1951 that middle schools were introduced and eight years of education became available to the public.  It was only in 1997 that it became compulsory to complete 8th grade. 

Comparing it to the U.S., it may seem strange that children have only been required to finish 8th grade for 15 years, however it is a matter of  when and where education began.  In 1923, when Atatürk created the public education system, only 10 % of the population was literate. 

He had big goals and wanted his country to be modern, to do this he knew literacy was needed, at the least.  However by 1926 there were only 200 teachers in Turkey and to accomplish his goal to provide publically funded education to children until the 5th grade he needed about 3000.  There were simply not enough teachers in the country. 

Teacher Education programs were quickly established, though the dearth of teachers  is one of the reasons for the tradition of large class sizes (in recent times about 4o or 50 students in a class in public schools, 30 in private).   For all of the challenges, from 1923 to 1999 the official illiteracy rate lowered from 90% to 14.3%, a tremendous drop in about 75 years (Karakaşoğlu, 2007, p. 790).

Due to the historical context of education in this country, teachers are greatly valued.  The term “Hocam” (my teacher) is an honorific and a very respectful salutation .  There is no difference in terminology for a university professor with a PhD from a primary school teacher—they are all considered equally important and are all “Hocam.”    On Teacher’s Day in Turkey, students present their teachers with chocolates and flowers, sometimes other presents too.  In the past, in addition to the lovely home-made cards and sweet letters, I have received a set of towels, scarves, mugs, and even sweaters!  On Teacher’s Day our school gives bonuses based on how many years you have been at the institution.  For some of the older teachers the bonus is equivalent or exceeds a month’s salary.  For me, it was a meaningful gift ( almost $300).   Some students even visit their former, retired teachers at home on Teacher’s Day.  It is very interesting to me that as a “Developing” country Turkey is able to financially reward teachers to such an extent.   I worked in the U.S. as a teacher and was never even wished a “Happy Teacher’s Day,” let alone a gift from your employer! 


P.S.There is a Teacher’s Day in the U.S., it is on Tuesday during Teacher Appreciation Week, which takes place in the first full week of May—Who Knew?

Reflections on Turkey

Now that I have been in the U.S. for six months and will be going back to Turkey soon I have been thinking about my experiences when I first went there.  I knew after a fair amount of time here I will have to reassimilate and reacculturate a bit.   I think one of the most obvious, but least problematic issues is the communal culture.  In Turkey, what is one person’s is the family’s, and what is the family’s is the communities. This communal life structure takes time to adjust to.

Because everything is more communal, people will also make comments that would be considered rude in the US.  Goodhearted remarks on clothes, weight, body shape, etc. are considered completely appropriate.  For example, “That doesn’t look good on you.” “Are you gaining weight? You look bigger.”  “Is that a pimple or a bug bite?” Or my personal favorite, after you have been ill, “How is your diarrhea?”

I was introduced to this communal culture when I became Turkey’s “Bride.”  When I moved there I was engaged (I went from girlfriend to fiancé on the trip over.)  That made me a “gelin” or bride.  Usually the woman entering the family is called a gelin, and is called the gelin until she is no longer the youngest or more recently married woman in the family.  It is an affectionate term.  My husband introduced me as his gelin.  His mother and father also called me their gelin.   They would introduce me as “Our gelin.”  Then close friends of the family would introduce me to others, “Oh, our new gelin is American…”  My husband was complemented and told that he had brought such a nice. gelin for Turkey.  I agreed to marry one man and found myself the bride of a nation.

So while I have been here I have been a sister, a daughter and a wife, in Turkey, I will be all of those things as well as everyone’s “bride” when I go back.


Junk in the Trunk? Not in Mine!

The other day I was having a conversation with some male colleagues.  They were asking about the dress code at work.  For women, the rule is–if you wear pants, you need to wear a long jacket, or a tunic.  They weren’t sure of the point.  Why a jacket or a tunic with pants and not skirts?

That is when I had to point out the obvious.  Pants enhance and showcase the posterior more so than a skirt.  That posterior would otherwise be known as “Junk in the Trunk” or the “Badonkadonk.”  Not to create a stereotype, but as my husband says, the women of Turkey have a different chassis.  The general figure here is more curvaceous than the general Anglo build.  (I stress general in both cases as there are always differences within any population group.)

When I started dating my husband and I asked him how he liked my figure.  He told me I had a cute “American behind.”  I did not quite know  how to interpret that.  When I moved to Turkey I realized that  “American behind” was code for tiny heiny.  After I  moved here and tried to buy pants I found I had to get them to tailored.  They had to take out the extra fabric at the hips and behind.  Thank goodness  tailoring is inexpensive.

There is a term here called “balik etli.”  Literally translated it means something like “with fish meat.”  The actually meaning is plump, or full figured but with a positive connotation.  Here women with a little  meat on their bones are considered sexier than thinner women.  One way to see this is the translation of thin.  In Turkish thin translates as “zayif,” but it also means weak or poor.  That the word for thin actually means something else with a negative connotation is very telling.  When people, particularly women and children are slender they are often seen as being sickly, weak or potentially ill.  Last spring, when I  lost a few pounds for my wedding I was chastised quite often about my weight.  I was told I needed to eat more, and gain weight.  I was practically force fed at family dinners.

I have to say it is nice to live in a culture where I could gain ten pounds and be considered more attractive.  While it is good to eat healthy, it is nice to know the focus is on health and not weight.  It is lovely to be relieved of some the pressure and internal guilt about food and weight that is so stressed in American society.  I suppose for that, I am willing to wear a jacket to cover my non-exist behind.

Oh Real Life? Ouch!

Back from the delicious lands of vacation and back to work.  This year I have adjusted my teaching style from Western to Turkish.  If I treated my students in the US this way there would have been a mutiny.  I am serious.  I stopped wearing dangly earring while working in San Diego because I was afraid they would be RIPPED from my earlobes while I broke up fights.  I am not kidding.  One time I thought these girls were going to toss each other from a window (3rd floor.)

Turkish students are used to authoritarian teaching, they do not respond well to the US style of teaching.  They see it as weakness and walk all over you.  Since I have modified my style the students behave better and learn more.  Class is a little less fun for all of us, but since the learning has improved I will suck it up and be a crazy b*tch.  On the plus side they are much more respectful in general, and are very sweet.

Today was a long hard day. Hall duty and 7 classes which means I have to stand in the hall darning ALL the breaks including lunch and only have one class off all day (40 minutes at 10 am—that’s when I eat my lunch.)

After eight hours of standing on my feet and holding both my bladder (we are not supposed to leave the hall to use the bathroom) and my patience, I went home and started to cook.  Cooking relaxes me.  However I followed a recipe and it was a big fat fail.  I now have to figure out how t salvage all that craptastic soup.  Cooking did not work to relax me this time.

So now I am having a glass of wine.  And it seems to be hitting the spot.

One Year Anniversary

I have been in Turkey for one year.  A full year of living in a country where I am not part of the hegemonic culture.  Being an outsider in a different land has allowed me to observe Turkish culture closely and learn more about my own.  When your culture is not the mainstream culture, it is easy to see what your own culture is, since it contrasts with the culture around you.  It has been a great year, and a fun one, filled with food, travels and excitement.  Things have changed a little since I started working again, become more routine.  However, life is still fun and exciting.  We are finding our niche, making friends.  It always takes a while to make a new city “home.”  We are finding our favorite places, our favorite restaurants, bars and hangouts.  The process in itself is fun and exciting. I am sure the next year in Turkey will be just as great as the first.


My breasts are communal.

Breasts in a way are fairly public sphere.  I mean, they are out there, some more than others.  They are constantly being appraised and viewed.  When I used to nanny I found that small children view them as comfort objects or alternatively, as balance handles.  It is also fairly common, when trying on clothes to have your breasts touched in some way when the fit is being altered.  And this is the case which I will address today.

I went shopping with Bülent and his mother.  There was a store with buy one get one free sale, so I swooped in there like cotton was going off the market.  I found two lovely dresses.  I was in the dressing room deciding which size I needed while Bülent and his mom waited outside to see the selection.  So I come out, and they both love the dress.  His mother starts to fuss over the fit, apparently it was sitting too low.  In the effort to alter the fit she was adjusting the bodice and occasionally touching my breasts in a business like manner.  Anyone who has been fussed over for fit knows what I am talking about, the casual, non-sexual brush and poke.  I did not even notice it, I was paying attention to the dress.  But Bülent did.  And the look on his face was priceless.  Apparently it never occurred to him that his mother would be handling what he considers his personal play toys.  As if he wasn’t scandalized enough, she didn’t like they way the dress looked on my breasts and starts asking him if I was wearing a bra.  (I wasn’t.)  When she figured that out, she said, “Oh, have her wear a bra with the dress, it will lift the breasts right up”…and started to demonstrate.  And she has a formidable bosom.

It was at this time I told Bülent to meet me at the cash register because I wasn’t sure if he was going to start crying or go catatonic.  He was pretty uncomfortable.  I thought it was hilarious and she had missed the entire by-play and thought nothing of it.   Later I intensified his discomfort by telling him about how she had already seen my breasts another time when we were trying on clothes.

He is still recovering.