Christmas tree: On overworking cultural competence in a Turkish American marriage


My great grandmother's mercury glass Santa ornament from circa 1899.  (Dark and Stormy Image by Liz Cameron)

My great grandmother’s mercury glass Santa ornament from circa 1899. (Dark and Stormy Image by Liz Cameron)

As an academic social worker, I am trained to the gills on the need to encourage my students to work towards “cultural competence,” as they work with people from a range of cultures and sub-cultures. And of course, although I question the concept on a number of levels, there is a lot of good buried in it. And of course, I do my best to work on “cultural competence” with my Turkish husband – who I often feel is more American than Turkish. I am sure he would agree. You can weigh in, dear, if you like.

So, today, I am going to address how I am a slow learner, especially when it comes to cultural competence in the Turkish-American context. My slow learning is usually due to my ability to over-work and over-think things. I am, after all, trained to over-work and over-think everything – that’s my career as a researcher, teacher and academic community member.

I have mastered the basics of cultural competence in Turkish-American land – greetings, simple praise for food, identifying which futbol team my host/hostess is connected to in order to avoid loud Turkish debates, figuring out whether someone is too Kemalist or too pro-AK Partesi in a too out there way so we can be sure not to offend them in any way, or whether they are in the Armenian genocide denial camp. It can be a minefield out there, but mostly in the futbol arena (all I have to say about that is “Cim bom bom!”). What I have not mastered, I have come to realize, is when something is NOT about culture. Yesterday, I learned that in our marriage, the Christmas tree is NOT a cultural issue.

So, yesterday afternoon, we finally bought a Christmas tree. Until this year, I have thought our annual arguments about this item was some manifestation of our Turkish-American cultural and religious differences. Every year, I remind M. that Saint Nick (Santa) came from Turkey after all - so he should embrace that aspect of Anatolian culture given Santa’s relationship with trees – whether that began in Anatolia or somewhere in the Black Forest. And, I feel I have to remind him that the tree is a symbol of something hopeful, and it gives me something to meditate on as a process through the past year – and these past 44 years. And the glowing lights are calming. And sometimes the dog likes to sleep under there, which, yes, is pretty cute.

But this year, I realized that actually, our annual argument is not a battle rooted in cultural, nor religious elements. Rather, I started listening to M. and realized that for him, the thought of wasting a tree in a planet facing deforestation and global warming is abhorrent. And, of course, he complains about picking up tree needles in May. “Aha,” I thought with glee, “this is a battle in honor of all that is green and environmental.” So, I thought I would give thanks to M. for relenting on the green front – and figure out a way to offset this year’s environmental destruction next year.

However, Mercan Bey, the Arabian Spice Trader Puppet, was sitting on the shelf all afternoon, observing. He tried to convince me that he feels this year’s Christmas tree battle led me to realize that M.’s resistence to the tradition may also be a gender-based thing. “M’lady,” he comments softly, “I’ve been all over the world at this time of year, delivering various spices to this culture and that – and I see it as a gender thing.” I didn’t buy his argument – until the following happened:

Karagöz jumps in here “no patience, M’lady, you talk tooooo much, I’ll tell it for you, fast, while somersaulting!

And here’s his version of the story:

“Tree parked in front hall, abandoned. Snigger. M’lady roots around basement like a truffle pig searching for tee stand, lights and ornaments. Whoop! M’lady bats eyelashes at M., says ‘bring the poor thirsty tree?’”

Karagöz does somersault #1

Reluctant Turkish futbol watcher sighs, retrieves heavy bundle. M’lady and M. make mistake of collective effort to place tree in stand – pointless argument #1. Whee! M’lady snips reminder to M., something about ‘important part of my culture.’ Sigh! M. agrees, pointless argument #2 ensues.

Karagöz does somersault #2

M’lady sitting maudlin under tree, thinking of childhoods past, M. sitting maudlin by TV, thinking about global warming and the needles he’ll have to vacuum up and the futbol that he missed during pointless arguments #1 and #2. M’lady more maudlin thinking of her parents’ arguments about tree upping. Why these Americans so focused on trouble tree? Dratted dumbies!
Karagöz does somersault #3

M’lady thinking ‘Is this a cross-cultural issue or what? Maybe Mercan Bey is right.’ Why she so overthink it? Typical. Doorbell rings – blond angel lady arrives – a glowing light lady M’lady call “best friend.” Karagöz no have such one. All huggy-huggy, M’lady and M. ‘fess up about tree troubles. Glowing lady throw back her head with belly laugh, Karagöz like this, says ‘in my childhood home in Europe, as soon as decorating-the-tree-time came around, all the men beat it, post-haste, to the farm, leaving it to the ladies.’ All laugh, M’lady think secretly, “OK, Mercan Bey, you win,” as he winky wink at her, throw her some new cardamom seed varieties he found at the Indian store yesterday.

Karagöz, now dizzy from somersaulting, curls up by the dog, under the tree, and crashes into a deep slumber.

Lesson of the day ends with M. having the last word – something recycled into Turklish from some of my Dad’s last words with me: “Take it little bit easy.” And Yavaş, yavaş,” or “slowly-by-slowly,” I’ll try.

Karagöz hoots at the statement “I’ve been better”


Karagöz is literally dancing and rolling around the living room. He is hooting and hollering with gut-splitting guffaws the likes I have never seen before.

And I am mad as hell. Karagöz has been listening in on a phone call between me and M., and it has him in a giggle fit to end all giggle fits. I am not sure anyone else would think it was funny, but for some reason, well, Karagöz does.

Daily life with M. involves a lot of small miscommunication moments in which we miss each other’s meaning. I often speak in English language “phrases” that do not necessarily translate when interpreted verbatim. I am sure I would be totally lost in Turkish as the English translations M. regales me with re: Turkish sayings often leave me scratching my head.

This is really the essence of difference re: frames of references. I have learned that I need to be less frustrated about these moments. This is something that is central to the experience of a life in a partnership in which language differences exist.

Let me give you an explanation about all of this.

So, there I was, sitting in my chair, when M. called. I was feeling grumpy and overwhelmed by the gargantuan set of tasks before me for the day. Impossible for any one human to finish. M. had called to check in and send some love, always a welcome call, and asked me how I was. My response was – “I’ve been better.”

Canım sweetheart,” M. sang out over the phone, “I am so glad to hear it.”

Sighing, I breathed in my grump, and breathed out the following “No, it means I am not having a good day.”

“But you said you have been better today!” M. said, ardently.

“It is a manner of speaking, it means that you have been better than you are right now.”

“Oh, I see, so,” M. was confused, “so you mean that you want to be better, that you are not good. Why don’t you just say you are not good? That you don’t feel good. I am sorry you do not feel good, canım.”

These moments of clarification are many in our life…and they are so numerous, in fact, that I am not really sure why they bother me so much. I guess I just presume that my relationship is my sanctuary from my difficulties in life. I guess I wish for it to be free from the drama and difficulty of interactions with all of the other people in my life – but this is rarely the case.

This, of course, is part of relationship having. Lately, as I have tried harder to “hold a candle” for M. in these moments, I realize that he does this for me, shows kindness when I make a mockery of Turkish. He is always patient and calm in his corrective teaching. I have a lot to learn. In this way, I’ve been a better person to my students learning statistics than I am to my husband who is achieving the last vestiges of English fluency – aphorisms and odd turns of phrase. I can do better.

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Perihan Hanim speaks: On the limits of sharing


Perihan Hanım, my fairy Godmother puppet paid an unusual visit to me tonight. You may recall meeting her, several months ago, in this post.  I found her on my shoulder, stroking my hair and watching over my shoulder as I alternated between my newfound love of pinterest.com and the data analysis I am supposed to be working on tonight.  I noticed her presence, but waited for her to speak.

“M’lady,” she began, in the most loving tone possible, “it is one thing to want to do good by sharing, but it is another thing to create discomfort in your loved one’s life.  It is not a great discomfort as he is about to walk up the stairs and tell you, but it is enough for you to listen to.  You can be true to your goals for this blog without putting in the kitchen sink, you know.”

Of course, Perihan Hanım was referring to the disagreement M. and I had the other day, and the ruminating that has been going on since about which aspects of our various responses were culture-bound.  Some of this was shared in my last blog post.  All is well, dear readers, no emergency here, just normal marital murky moments, as I like to call them in a lighthearted way.

Hopping off of my shoulder, my fairy Godmother floated down the stairs like the seed of an oak tree only to capture M. in her invisible turkuaz-colored ribbon and guide him up the stairs into the mango room, where we commenced to having a good and productive discussion about what does and does not go on this blog!

When I began the slowly-by-slowly book/blog project, M. and I talked about it ahead of time. He said “I support you no matter what and I will never censor you.” As an artist, anti-censorship has a special importance for him.  From time to time, I have run posts by him to make sure that he is ok with what I am posting. While my intent is to push the envelope, so to speak, with respect to what is discussed in the public world about cross-cultural relationships – I don’t want to overstep.  I thought that by sharing, normalizing the challenges of cross-cultural marriage without the vilification that is so common in what writing exists out there, I would help some people to not feel quite so alone or confused in their own marital murky moments.

In many ways, this blog is about a reaction to the seemingly constant stereotypes about men from Muslim countries – that they are macho, patriarchal, have many wives, abusive, fill-in-the-blank negative adjective, falan  (yadda yadda).  I do feel that it is obvious that all couples have disagreements and challenging moments…but I see that we have reached a cultural impasse on the limits of sharing – when it is it ok to share and when is it not.  Is it a Turkish tradition to be fiercely private? I am not sure one could lump that in as Turkish.  Is it a Turkish tradition to be fiercely loyal to one’s family? In M.’s family, yes, thus the use of a pseudonym here…much to my regret.  Is it a Yankee tradition to be private and loyal? Yes, but somehow I have broken the mold on the Yankee side of my cultural upbringing.

As our friend A. likes to say, we work hard to “take care of each other” and this should involve as much “holding out the light for one another” as possible.  So, thank you, A. and thank you Perihan Hanım for your words and wisdom. It takes a village to raise a marriage, and thank goodness for it. :)