Mastering çay anxiety: Playing with gender stereotypes through tea service


Lemon and traditional Turkish tea saucer (Image by Liz Cameron)

Lemon and traditional Turkish tea saucer (Image by Liz Cameron)

Perhaps it is the constant nausea and dizziness that are a plague to me this week, but I have spent much of my time with eyes closed, trying to remember bits and pieces of “before sick” to occupy my time.  Sometimes, these memories come forward in a kaleidescope-like jumbled introduction.  Today, I began by focusing on the view of the Austrian Alps outside of my best friend’s childhood home – and ended with the time I served a perfect çay service to M. and my brother in law.  After years of balking at gender expectations, I found myself “curiously into” the “playing out” of what I see as a traditional female gender role.  Let me tell you about my experience…

Placing my back to the window, I hoped to block out some of the chill that flutters through the walls at the front of our wintertime apartment.  I did not want my husband’s brother, Mr. X., to think ill of our new home – it was his first visit.  I couldn’t help myself from following his roving eye, as he took in every detail, rubbing his stomach after a large dinner out.  M. showed him around the house – but he spent much of his time in our dining room, looking at the old, hand-carved wooden details.

My observation of his assessment process was easy enough to do, as the conversation had reverted to a Turkish too fast and vernacular-ized for me to follow.  “Fair enough,” I thought, “it’s their language, they need to speak to one another as brothers who are trying to reconnect.”  The distant whirl of the washing machine spun in time with the fast-moving, slow-hummed string of words that I gathered bits of, one word here, one word there.

Before allowing myself to be lulled into the polite observation and the seemingly permanent placement of a gracious lipsticked smile I have practiced so well, I found myself speaking with the practiced languor of Turkish ladies, in order to offer tea to my guest.  “Pardon me…would you like some çay?” I asked with a surprisingly gracious ease – I was playing the role to the hilt.

“You have teabag?” Mr. X. said, with the corner of his mouth as his neck was now craned around looking at our dark wood dish rail in the dining room.

“No, real Turkish çay.  I am happy to make it.”

Taking in something unseen across the room, Mr. X.’s response was automatic, as if to Svetlana, his Istanbul servant.

“Normal,” he said casually, not really paying attention, “not too strong, not too light.” I noticed M.’s oppositional slump on the couch, and knew he was annoyed at my efforts to play this odd gender game.

Making his way through our home as if it was a museum, Mr. X. headed for the couch, where he assumed an unusual cross-legged position before striking up another conversation with M.  It was clear that I was dispatched for the moment, to the mütfak (kitchen). Oddly enthralled with it all, I found myself glowing with the exercise of a new role.  I had practiced this role many times with American visitors – and felt comfortable serving Turkish tea, but usually I felt uncomfortable and nervous serving REAL Turkish guests. I still have not resolved why this is.

That afternoon, before our dinner out with Mr. X., I knew what was coming down the pike, the playing of the gender role.  I had polished the silver tray, wiped the best çay glasses with a linen cloth just before we left – so that there would be no spots.  I had put aside the çay spoons from Pasabahçe that had been slightly ground up by the garbage disposal so that only the pristine ones remained – and even had lemon wedges of the perfect size under plastic wrap in a crystal dish of my Granny’s.

Ominous image of knife, lemon and traditional Turkish tea saucer (Image by Liz Cameron)

Ominous image of knife, lemon and traditional Turkish tea saucer (Image by Liz Cameron)

As I began the process that was now, after 9 years of practice, automatic for me, I prepared the tray with confidence.  As I waited for the first, and then second boil stages, I leaned against the wall of my kitchen to breathe deep, but I didn’t need to – the çay-anxiety that I usually felt with Turkish visitors was gone.  Instead, I reminded myself of my first teatime with Mr. X., in which he showed his true colors.  You can read about that here and here.  I’ll never forget it. Which makes my strong desire to serve him tea in a traditional manner even more strange.  What is even more strange, is that at times, Mr. X. has made an effort to welcome and respect me in some very traditional ways, such as offering me fish cheeks at the family dinner table. It’s all a cultural discombobulation, I decided, and checked the stove to see how the tea was coming along.

Ignoring all that, I was soon ready for the service. Walking in, I felt my non-presence on Mr. X.’s part – and M.’s protest.  M. refused the tea without looking at me, which upset me, although I knew the reason why.  The entire troupe of Karagöz puppets hovered on the windowsill above the living room, watching my every move, and I heard the silent clucks of approval from Kenne, the puppet known as the Queen of Manners and the Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior.

Mr. X.’s left hand reached out for his çay over his now confidently spread legs – he had uncrossed his legs to engage in some sort of quiet body language battle with M.  Mr. X. did not acknowledge me as I handed him his tea, nor the effort I had made to be “a good Turkish wife.”  “Why would he?” I thought, rather glumly.  I looked over to M.  He sat as spread out as possible – legs wider than his brothers, stance more macho – continuing his protest and their silent battle over who knows what subconscious matter that likely had nothing to do with me.  They were mirror images of one-another – but one a traditionalist and one a rebel.

Maybe, I thought, I am not performing well as a good Turkish wife, that is why Mr. X doesn’t say thanks, or comment that I am able to make “real” çay.

Maybe I am just too different to deserve a response.  A modern American woman serving her brother-in-law çay in the traditional manner? “I’m not sure what I expected,” I considered, “maybe, maybe this time he is treating me as women in his Turkish sphere are to be treated in most moments – as somewhat unimportant, to be managed, invisible?”

I listened to the two of them – my face plastered with a very convincing smile.  And then it hit me…This behavior of Mr. X.’s is a truth I did not want to accept for a long time, but here it is, settled like a walnut stored for winter by my heart’s very own squirrel.  This is how he is.  He is not going to change.  He will never treat me differently – and actually – I probably don’t care anyway. I could hear M. saying “it’s not worth the effort to care about this.”

With this resolution, I settled down with my little walnut of reality, and made a warm, soft place for it inside.  I sat perched on the finely hewn wooden chair that my great-Grandfather held court in – feigning interest in the tennis match of back and forth Turkish that was so familiar.  I’m glad – thrilled – that it was I who “got” the mirror image brother, who, by the way, washed up after Mr. X’s departure.

So, fellow non-Turkish brides, have you had a similar experience? Do you also get nervous serving tea to Turks – but not Americans? Do you enjoy observing gender role play in your cross-cultural marriage?

The puppets get worried, up Turkish tea infusions


During the nights, the little cenghi puppets (a.k.a. the little dancing ladies in English) plied me with herbal Ada Çayı so I could sleep…but there was an extra empty glass there, and I think it was my Father’s glass. I miss him.

After our return from Turkey (you can read about how the puppets handled that right here, over there and just down there as well) and my Father’s passing, there was a month of fog and gloom – and just general stuck-ness.

Even Karagöz moped a bit, but just a bit.

And then, when the family could gather, there was a wonderful memorial service, and somehow I felt I could move on again. And move I did, with the dog, right on down to our nest-shack in Provincetown. I just got the heck on out as fast as I could – leaving M. behind to work between long weekends with us.

But, I found I had moved on to not much – my mind wasn’t capable of much.  It just felt like being a recluse, living in seclusion and shutting down.  It wasn’t, Perihan Hanım (my fairy godmother puppet) reminds me, “feeling like” doing that, it was just all I could do.  And

For the first three weeks, I spent my days alternately staring at the white-raftered ceiling (which turns from sunny white to neon blue at dusk) and the ever-changing blue-grey-green bay out of my window.

Books left for my summer reading lay limp in the humidity, untouched by human hands that could (but didn’t) bring them into mind-life.

The laptop remained encased in a click-closure.

The freshly made bed was untouched – in favor of the couch and the breeze by that night-light window.

Food carefully picked for a healthy retreat remained in the fridge, passed by for cranberry juice and crackers with many glasses of rabbit’s blood Turkish Rize Çayı from the by-now very worried little chorus of dancing ladies during the day – and herbal Ada Çayı during the nights.

“We think,” the ladies said in quiet, demure unison, “that perhaps you would have felt better sooner if you had followed the Turkish burial tradition – the one about three days?” Sighing and wringing their hands, the little cenghi then felt badly, saying “we apologize, we know this is not very culturally sensitive of us, we know you have a different tradition, but we overheard this in M.’s subconscious mind.”

“I agree, little ladies,” I demurred, while blowing on the tea glass between my fingertips, “you may be onto something there, but I am glad we waited for the family to be around in order to go through it all together.”  Feeling a slight bit of closure, I stood upright if for not other reason than to just move – to change things up a bit. And as I did, a copy of the Provincetown Banner newspaper M. had picked up the previous weekend fell to the floor.

And as if the universe had offered me an invitation, there it was, an announcement about Provincetown’s Carnival 2012 – with “Space Odyssey” as the theme. And, instantly, I knew what I had to do. I knew it in phrase form before the vision appeared in my mind screen – the phrase just tumbled out of my mouth to the dog’s curious ears – “Ottoman Space Invaders.” Safiye Rakkase, the vainglorious dancing girl puppet, jumped up onto the coffee table with a banshee scream of joy – “FINALLY – she said – COSTUMES TO MAKE!”

As if a puppet myself, controlled by Safiye Rakkase’s glimmering puppet strings, I sat up on the couch, googled “silver lamé fabric” and immediately ordered 12 yards before heading out to take a walk in the night sky.

To be continued…

“Let nothing die inside:” Karagöz puppet chaos and wisdom


old ship compass north south east west compass rose

The puppets, and M., encourage me to go more east than west in the way I live my life...this old ship's compass sits on our coffee table,reminding us of the presence of different approaches that exist in our lives...today, the puppets are all over the compass rose in this regard!

When I last left you, I was basking the glow of a purple, lavender-scented foot massage and paraffin bath.  OK, at least my feet were basking in that glow.  I awoke this morning to the horrific beat of my heart and the anxiety of knowing that I am desperately behind on work.  Even with all the “no” answers I am giving now that I have the security of tenure almost gained (one more hoop to jump through, the Board of Trustees needs to rubber-stamp my letter), the work is just piling up higher and higher.  Not enough hours in the day, etc.  I often lament M.’s ability to clear his mind, take time and space for himself, and just generally take it easy. “Eastern approach, canım, is a saner way of life.  Join me in it?” he says, smiling on some days, his hand outstretched.  I am rarely able to let myself do so, I am sad to say.

Today, I bypassed the Turkish tea offered by the chorus of dancing ladies – sweeping aside the bed covers and making a mad dash for the kitchen.  Instead of taking their kind morning offer, I went straight for the red bull Nepali-style super sugary milky tea to blast myself into productivity.  I started to furiously make lists, Skype with my struggling student research group, catch up with a former student, talk with an administrator about a failing student at school, sort papers and type – seemingly all at once.  Slowly, the tears started streaming down my cheeks.  “How am I ever going to get all of this done and do a good job and do right by my students?” I wailed to nobody in particular as my dog looked at me sleepily from nest on the floor, one ear drooping sleepily across the room.

The puppets looked worried.  Karagöz tried doing a few back flips to make me laugh, no dice, just more tears.  The little chorus of dancing ladies began to chant for Peride Hanım, my fairy godmother, to come and save the day (she hasn’t shown yet, and they are still chanting) and Khadijah took time out from preparation for her impending nuptials to try to massage my neck, which didn’t help, as Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Ladylike Behavior was berating me for not “just” being a housewife and instead allowing myself to be dressed in pajamas, a plastic apron, a light blue pashmina scarf and mis-matched socks with messy hair and no lipstick at 12:20 p.m. on a Monday.  “You need to quit this job, m’lady! This is TOO much.  This is not a life fit for a lady.”  Karagöz interjects: “damn, so much ranting today, how bout that??”

Hacıyatmaz grins as all of this goes on, wobbling back and forth as he does 365 days per year, reminding me of all the personal writing that is welled up inside me like an impossibly perfect and ready to be sliced watermelon on the hottest of summer days.  “You must get it out – you have that new Turkish mother-in-law idea that your e-friend gave you to work on that is already half written in your head, what are you waiting for?”  The write-a-matrix just turns to look at me and starts cracking her whip on either side of the massive stack of papers that represent all I am to do today.  All the while, I am wailing.  And at just the crescendo of this madness in moments marbled together in a pounding heart, I get the email from a journal editor explaining that my review of a manuscript is 2 months overdue – and this one hadn’t even been on my radar!

Victoria Falls entered my living room, and all the puppets were washed away.  After the falls receded into the memory of my unconscious, I looked around at my somewhat clean slate.  Yes, my life is cushy, I am financially stable, I have a dream job, I have health insurance, a partner I love, a family who cares about me and friends galore.  I know all of the truths and reframes but in this moment, I am still at my wit’s end.  I can understand people’s desires to “tune in and drop out” and today, I am not far from it.  Yes, I put too much pressure on myself to do good work, but isn’t that part of what is important?  So much to figure out. So much to do.  So many limits to set.

As I listened to the water dripping around me, I sat, slump-backed in my great grandfather’s chair, staring at the blinking cursor on my screen.  And slowly, one of the shadow figures made their way across it.  Yehuda Rebbe appeared there, looking at me intently and gently and truth be told, he made things one iota better today.  Well, at least he stopped the tears, for now. And at least he got me back into a somewhat-functional-mode. He just came up onto my laptop, stood in the middle of the screen, directed the puppets to hand me a Kleenex, and said these words:

The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live. A man named Norman Cousins said this, and I don’t know who he is, but he is wise.  I suggest you meditate on this today, as you try to do some of this work.  But whatever you do, don’t let anything die inside of you today, m’lady.  Take the eastern route today, if you can, not this nonsensical, unhealthy, soul-stomping western route to mania and mayhem”

So, that is the goal for today.  Nothing will die inside.  The puppets all seemed to agree with this, so for once, there is consensus in the puppet household called my head.  Let’s see what happens tomorrow.