Bachelors, dudes and dağı: On respecting your elders…and reality TV


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The Bachelor shows his potential wife’s Filipina Grandmother a sign of respect upon meeting her – cultural responsivity hits the mainstream (Image by Liz Cameron)

It may come as a surprise that M. and I watch a really trashy American reality television program each week.

Namely, I say blushing, we watch programs from “The Bachelor” TV franchise. In this reality series, one man (The Bachelor) or one woman (The Bachelorette) interacts with what can only be described as a pre-marriage harem of men or women for possible marriage potential.Of course, not surprisingly, this is a heterosexually biased show so far.

The watching of this program, however, does not seem to phase the Karagöz puppets. It is natural to them that marriage is preceded by parades of eligible, potential partners. They are still in shock, those puppets are, that we eloped in a love marriage, versus a traditional arranged marriage.

And, while it might sound old-fashioned to think that arranged marriage still exists in modern, Western Turkish cities such as Istanbul, this phenomenon has been coaxed along more informally through family networks, even in the circles we know. Wishing M. to be married, even his own Father and stepmother set up an introduction once.  Both M. and the woman he was set up with graciously got out of it as soon as they were out of the reach of their parents. M., you see, wanted nothing to do with this type of parental control. He is a free spirit, an independent thinker and values his independence with vigor.  And lucky me, I wouldn’t be with him, otherwise.

In any case, M. and and I are fascinated by the group dynamics that appear to emerge as a result of social isolation amongst the women or men vying for the Bachelor or Bachelorette depending on the season.  We are most interested in how “group think” combined with copious amounts of the alcohol we observe being consumed on the set play out. It brings out the worst in the contestants. But I make this sound as though it is an intellectual exercise, which it isn’t really. In any case what in the world does the bachelor and all of this have to do with respect? Or Turkey or cross-cultural relationships, for that matter?

“Well,” Hacivad Bey says, “you may well ask, because I’m asking!”

Showing respect to an elder (Image from Filipinofunfacts.com)

Last season’s “The Bachelor” was nearing the end and – with four potential brides left in the mix – aka during the “the hometown dates” in which the bachelor meets the families of his finalists.  M. and I were thrilled to see that this season’s bachelor took a cross-cultural cue from his Filipina-American girlfriend, who suggested that when he greeted her grandmother, he take her hand and put it to her for head. Apparently, this is a sign of respect in Filipino tradition.

Of course, Turkish readers or Turkish-American folk into vintage Turkish etiquette will recognize this sign of respect. I will never forget the first time I saw it. M. and I were at an art exhibition honoring the paintings his Uncle, now deceased. I watched our Teyze greet all of the young artists milling around her to talk about her husband’s art. Many of them took her hand, kissed it and then placed it on their own forehead. I did not know what was going on I had never seen such a thing – it seemed almost medieval to me.

Quickly, M. explained that this indicates a sign of respect for an elder, and that it means something along the lines of “May your wisdom come to my mind.” It is a lovely gesture and I feel honored to know now when to use it. In our private life, M. and I do this to one another in moments when we are feeling especially loving and respectful of one another – even though M. is hardly my elder and I am not his elder.

For example, once, we were walking along the street in Antakya, enjoying the French and Arab influences that abound in that small city.  A young man bumped M. by mistake on the narrow sidewalk and said “excuse me, dağı.” Now, dear reader, let me explain this word, dağı, as I understand it.  My young friend M.T. tells me that it has come to mean “dude” even though traditionally, it is a term reserved for addressing an elderly uncle. In a rare show of upset, M. grumbled loudly, saying “I’m no dağı, that punk, who is he calling dağı???!!!” I realized that M.’s years out of the country might mean that he was not aware of the evolution of the term towards the “dude” and of the spectrum from the “elder” side.  Or, perhaps the “punk” was a traditionalist – given M.’s grey hair. Wanting to return back to our happy, romantic stroll, I took his hand kiss it and put it to my four head we had a good laugh.

I am curious, dear readers, do other American partners of Turkish American marriages use this vintage etiquette? I believe it is still used commonly in on Anatolia, but perhaps not in the cities? What’s your experience?

Şekerleme: On the work of both rest and cultural competence in Turkey


Now, if I had this in my backyard, I would have no problem with workaholism, no? Must make a living, though.

Well, this week has been a full and deep one, as I have contemplated both work – and a bit on rest as well. I have noted that there are differences in approaches to work between east and west, as is evidenced in my marriage from time to time.

And I have also discussed, much to my embarrassment now that I am becoming aware, that I used to see work as relaxation – must be the Yankee work ethic upbringing? But let me stop on that point, on relaxation. As this reminds me of how I learned of that wonderful thing the Turks call Şekerleme (“shehk-air-lem-may”).

Now, this word comes from “Şeker” (“shehk-air”), which means a kind of sugary candy…I guess a nap is a really nice thing to take, akin to something sugary. The Karagöz puppets, wise in their ways of the world, roll their eyes at me, as if I am stating the obvious.

Basically, in many parts of Turkey, it is so hot (or humid) in the summer, that most activity slows down or stops during the hottest hours of the day, when the sun is high over the heads of the populace. Some people sleep and some people just take quiet time to read or do their craftwork, for example. It is, tabi canım, just like siesta in Latin America.

Now, Before my first trip to Turkey, I did a lot of fast work to “get up to speed” on the customs of the country – as of course a good girl who attempts cultural competence at any and every turn must do.

And it was through this effort, that I found a certain book that filled me in on ALL the right details about Turkish cultural etiquette, including şekerleme. “Naps,” I thought, “that works for me.”

Of course, I must admit, despite my good intentions on the road to workaholic hell, I worked through that whole vacation, laptop in hand whenever down time was up. Pathetic!

Those days are done, canım benim.

But let me diverge a bit from work, workaholism & noontime naps, and talk instead about the work of cultural competence (which İ think is a flawed concept anyway) and the related dangers of buying into the advice of any cultural etiquette book – and for this, I will tell you how just as my e-friend over at Turklish, I too fell pray to some of the stereotypes and misnomers found in one particular book on the culture and customs of Turkey – aptly (hah!) named “culture smart.” Now as a maven of etiquette at my worst, of course, I bought this book as well.

At this point in my writing, Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Maven of the Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior Including Cross-Cultural Etiquetts of All Shapes, Forms and Types, throws me a headlong glance, wondering if she is seeing the slob she critiques most days – but applauds the effort, although it is in the past.

Here is the book in question:

L., the authoress of Turklish, read in this book that Turkish women take great pride in having lovely, manicured nails at all times, and of course, to make every attempt to fit in, she got the manicure of a lifetime – replete with hard-to-remove gel polish. You can read the slightly cringe-worthy yet hilarious and self-compasionate write-up of L.’s first trip to Turkey to meet the family, realizing too late that her perfect gel-polished nails were a too far on the side of neon pink – causing her to be referred to in terms of those nails amongst the extended family for some time to come.

I can relate, as I had a nail polish experience of my own with M.’s family, but I could never do it the justice that Turklish does, so please check out her writing. The one thing I – and the book – did get right, however, was that Şekerleme is totally alive and well – in the leisure class, at least.

Perhaps I need a little more Şekerleme in my life these days – both literally and figuratively.

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Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike behavior – hits the rakı!


This is Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike Behaviors, including etiquette, mind you
(Image is -Proper Ollie: Manners in Minutes · Sculpture by J.Seward Johnson)

It’s a rare thing to see Kenne at a loss for words, but it did happen this summer, if you can imagine it.

Kenne, as you may recall, is the puppet Queen in charge of Manners and the Maintenance of Lady-like behavior (including, tabi canım, etiquette). You can read more about who she is by clicking here.

In any case, Kenne is well-known as the member of the Karagöz puppet troupe that sounds off (some say pontificates) on all matters etiquette at just about any moment – opportune or not.

My beloved M., as usual, was the target of Kenne’s sharp tongue on the etiquette front this summer. Now it is important to note here that I am a lady trained in etiquette by both grandmothers as a child (“a lady of sorts!” Kenne sniffs, insisting that I have lost most of it). You see, I had to sit through numerous etiquette courses during the summer – in the moldy basement of the local Episcopal church my Granny was a member of – in lieu of swimming at the local bay beach…it was torture. BUT – as Kenne is happy to point out – eventually, I bought into it for a time.

And so there we were, this past summer, when Kenne’s fury hit full force. We were in the hospice with my Father, with Kenne hovering nervously around my head, as I learned that my husband, my dear M., had been asked not to spend the night in the hospice anymore. We were all taking turns staying with my Father in his last days, and M. had taken the first shift. As our private nursing assistant left for the night, she told M. “be sure that he is turned every 2 hours.”

Being the Turkish military trained soldier and deeply-caring golden-hearted man that he is, he took this instruction to heart. As he told me later, he could barely sleep, afraid he would not hear the alarm to wake him at the next 2 hour mark, to make sure that my Father was turned. At the three hour mark, with no nurses in sight, M. went to advocate – and then again at the 4 hour mark.

In good Turkish tradition, I now learn, M. took what he thought was a respectful approach to the situation – an approach others described as loud and confrontational. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to the nurse, “it is my understanding that (my Dad) is to be turned every 2 hours – but it has been 4 – could you please turn him? Isn’t it in your chart?”

In his mind, I am sure, he was being firm but respectful. But unfortunately, M. comes across as loud (Kenne adds “and often boorish”) all the time. Without getting into the poor handling of this matter by the hospice – and the subsequent good handling of the poor handling – M. did not spend any more nights but was a valiant supporter of those of us who did – bringing food, a blow up bed – and the dog, who brought comfort to many.

Over the years, I have come to realize that M. has no awareness of how loud he is – and cannot hear the tone of his own voice in the context of a given moment. When I heard that M. was not invited back, I had a sense of just what had happened. Since then, I often say “sweetie, I am sitting right next to me, you don’t need to yell.” My artfully positioned placements of Miss Manner’s Etiquette Tomes, such as the one in the picture to the left, are usually rebuffed.

“When,” M. rightly says, “will your family just accept me for who I am – don’t they see how much I love you and care for you and them as well?” The tone issue always raises the specters of bad conversations past – proving that without directly processing through it, it is sometimes hard to let bygones be bygones.

Early on in our relationship, I found this tone of voice issue to be very painful…and during the years when my family approached the idea of M. with trepidation (after my first, failed marriage to another foreigner), this issue came up on a number of occasions. My sister, for example, complained that he and my Italian brother-in-law were “too loud and competitive” while playing, of all things, a word game. Later, she said “I am sure it is the macho, Turkish culture.” I felt crestfallen that M. is seen through what I believe is a stereotyped lens. Thankfully, she has gotten to know him better since then and I hope has seen that macho is one of the LAST words that should be attached to my M.

What she is right about, I have come to realize however, is that there is an element of Turkish culture that IS involved in this – namely – the use of a loud tone of voice. In Turkey, I find that loud tones (I might even say “yelling”) are ever-present – and when you couple that with what our niece calls “the Turkish lack of a personal space bubble” – it can be oppressive. I often awake in the morning to M. talking with friends or family on Skype – in other words – I wake as the tone is so loud. Before I understood much Turkish, I thought something drastic must be happening, or a major fight – but with time – I realized that ALL conversations were loud – not even due to the potential vagaries of Skype Internet connections.

And this is where Kenne comes in. The night after I learned that M. was banned from the hospice during the night shift, I turned to Kenne for advice. “Kenne,” I ventured, “what is to be done here – am I missing something?”

SIlence. (I am thinking – “THIS NEVER HAPPENS! Where is the shrill shrew of a lady, already?”

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Surprising everyone, even her nervous nelllie like a bowl of quince jelly puppet handmaiden named Zenne, Kenne sat down, slapped off her proverbial high hat, and reached for the bottle of iced rakı that Tiryaki had on hand. Not knowing quite what to do, as usual, Zenne began to wring her hands and fan her lady – hoping that this would help to regain composure and the proper practice of ladylike behavior. It didn’t, unfortunately, do a whit of good.

Now back to that iced bottle of rakı provided by our resident addict. You may recall that Tiryaki is the resident narcoleptic, opium-addicted puppet, if not, you can read about him by clicking here. Seeing that the impossible was becoming possible – Tiryaki opened his eyes wide to observe it – the unthinkable – Kenne consuming a not very tek (small) glass of rakı - but rather going for a straight shot out of the bottle.

Taking a deep swig of the potent anisette-like alcohol, she seemed to enjoy the swish of the milky-looking liquid in her oh-so-proper mouth. After what looked like a heavenly swallow – as if the chains of years of proper-ness were bursting simultaneously – Kenne tilted her head back in repose. But it was not to last.

“Terrible!” Kenne cried out with true nail-scratching horror “Now that I have placed my lips on this bottle of rakı I must finish the whole thing!” To this knowledge, Zenne fainted. The little chorus of dancing ladies just creeped up and dragged her off, like some reverse body-surfing activity.

After several more attempts to ‘do her duty’ and finish the bottle, Kenne was finally able to address my question. “Well, m’lady,” Kenne half-hiccuped, “I really don’t know what to tell you. Even in the Sultan’s court, the louder tone of voice was de rigueur – and in the Grand Bazaar – well – obviously! I just don’t understand how to handle this – what’s right at home is not right here, and it is hard to re-wire the brain. What to do? What to do? And especially as it was in a good effort on his part – and the hospice staff should understand that the family members of people at the end of life may be upset!!”

As I look back on her drunken, slurred words, I realize that the question is this. Co-existence in a culture where American norms are presumed by many to be untouchable – well – it is a challenge. Where is the line between what people should acculturate to – and what the dominant society should accept? In my experience, being in a relationship and marriage with this Turkish man, the ideals of acceptance and cross-cultural understanding often fall by the wayside in favor of a dominant society preference. Is this fair – in some instances probably yes. In some instances probably no. It is a lot easier to talk about cross-cultural acceptance when we are abroad, I am guessing, than in moments that are located squarely in the grey area. I wish all sides could compromise a bit more in the moments such as these…let’s hope for the best. Kenne, clearly, is undone by it all.

The more she drank, the more she confused herself, rambling on and on…until finally, Tiryaki laid out his cape for her to rest in, and she fell into pickled-cucumber-like inebriated sleep. I didn’t stick around to see what she was like the next morning, but suffice it to say, there are no easy answers when it comes to cross-cultural communication.