UPDATE (8/31/09): This story was published in one of the two English language newspapers in Turkey, “Today’s Zaman.” View it here.
Navigating crowded streets filled with the morning traffic of downtown Ankara, I find the plain eight-story graystone that I report to every weekday morning. Nestled away on the fourth floor is a cultural wonderland. In this room, 16 people, who belong to nine nationalities and collectively speak at least eight different languages, come together each day. No, I don’t work at an international agency; this is just my Level 1 Turkish class.
Three weeks ago, I came to Ankara to continue my Turkish language studies at Ankara University’s TOMER program. Certainly, I expected to pick up much more Turkish in the class, but I didn’t expect to see so much diversity.
Nearly everyone is in their mid twenties except Nye, a retired British expat who has spent many of his years (he won’t reveal how long) living and working in Turkey. When asked by our instructor on the first day how he managed so long without learning any Turkish, he replied, “I’m a good Englishman.” The youngest members of our class are a pair of mischievous 15-year-old twins from Kazakhstan who almost always seem to be in sync with each other from answering questions in unison to leaning against the wall and falling asleep together in just the same manner.
There is one other group of siblings in the class, three Americans from Seattle. From ages 15 to 19, they’ve spent almost all of their summers in Turkey with their American mother and Turkish father. I originally met them while lost amidst the crammed registration room during the first day. They had originally been placed by their father in a much higher level, but eventually ended up in the basic class with us several days later.
Two other students came to the class because of husband related needs. One of them, an energetic Bosnian woman in her late twenties, moved to Turkey for her husband’s new job as a television translator. The other woman, a soft-spoken Afghani, is actually trying to learn English in Turkey while she waits for a visa to the US in order to rejoin her Turkish husband. However, English is only taught in Turkish, so she’s taking our class first.
Several of my classmates have taken a giant leap with few safety nets in coming to Turkey. As an American living for the next year on a government sponsored Fulbright grant, I know that I have a lot of resources available. But, that’s not the case for everybody. I think particularly of one young woman in her mid twenties from Iran. During class breaks, she tells us about her longing to return to Iran, and why, for personal reasons, she can’t go back at the moment. Even though I lived in Boston, a city with an outstandingly mixed population, I’ve met few Iranians. I’ve met even less that have lived there within the last five years, so it was refreshing to hear from a recent expat.
Filling out the rest of the class are four foreign students from Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and Hong Kong. The three Middle Eastern students are studying various subjects at Turkish universities. Although their instructors speak English, they felt it was time to try and learn some Turkish. Meanwhile, Ivory, from Hong Kong, is visiting for the summer as a part of her Turkish studies program in Taiwan.
Looking out at the class, it’s quite amazing to see how Turkey has brought us together from all over the world. Together, we stumble through our Turkish vowel harmony as we try to get our tongues around phrases like “Ben burada oturuyorum.” Amidst the incredibly welcoming but still foreign world outside, a world we hope to become better acquainted with by improving our Turkish. By practicing in our friendly group, we’ve stepped out of our shells, dared to speak more Turkish, and strengthened our resolve.
“With almost all of us knowing some English,” said Nye, “I think we’ve really been able to become quite a joined up group.”
Meanwhile, our instructor and her seemingly limitless amount of patience for us has been a saving grace. She continues to smile and encourage us, even while we struggle and sometimes wreak havoc with the intricacies of her native language. While constantly keeping a positive attitude, and often indulges us, by straying from the lesson at hand, and leading a conversation, in Turkish, about movies, music, or our curiosities about each other’s countries instead.
Some of my classmates can’t help but be drawn in by the class.
“I never planned on studying in Turkey, it wasn’t even on my list,” said Ivory from Hong Kong, “It was like fate.”
Whether you believe in fate or not, you can’t deny there is something special about a group of people coming from all across the world…to learn Turkish.
Last Monday was my first venture into Kizilay, Ankara’s downtown. As you enter the area, the first thing you’ll notice is the rapid pace of traffic whirring by you and other pedestrians with sometimes only a dime’s distance apart. Any American used to streets laden with traffic signals and cars giving pedestrians the right of way will have some major adjusting to do. Thankfully that day, my friend and generous host, Mehmet, guided me to the
building where my class was located.
We made our way swiftly through downtown, dodging cabs, buses, and fast moving mini buses known as dolmus. We passed vendors that peddled everything from a donut-like pastry known as Simit to hand crafted wares made of bronze. After 10 minutes of walking from where we got off, we found a large gray building with a small “American themed” cafe below called Happy Days. The cafe looked like a Turkish interpretation of 1960s American Americana. Retro tile floors, a jukebox, and classic Pepsi and Coca-Cola logos adorned the walls. Still, the menu was distinctly Turkish as I stopped in on my second day for a small pastry.
After tripping up a crowded and difficult to navigate spiral staircase, we entered a reception area teeming with people of all sorts of nationalities waiting to hear their number called. The room felt more like an immigration office than a school. “You’re all set, right??,” asked Mehmet amidst all the languages being spoken, the frantic fluttering of papers, and dinging of bells.
I nodded to Mehmet, thanking him for all the help. I won’t bore you with the details of registering, but needless to say I had to come back the next day to “finish my registration.” However, while waiting to be called, I was connected with three siblings, TJ and her two brothers, Erol and Kevin, from Seattle. They live in the US with their Turkish father and American mother. They described how they have spent each summer in Turkey, but still do not have a complete understanding of Turkish. This time, their father registered them for classes, but unfortunately they were put into such a high level course, no one spoke any English, period. Erol explained how the teacher knew very little English herself and that, “Even the people that knew English, wouldn’t speak it because they were so dedicated to speaking Turkish.” That dedication was too much for the three of them, and they were hoping to switch to a lower level.
In a room echoing with voices speaking several different languages and people rushing back and fourth, we were four Americans, lost in translations, just trying to figure out where to go next. By Wednesday, thanks to the extreme patience of our Turkish counterparts, we all found our way to the same beginner class.