Moros y cristianos, siyah ve beyaz and being “black and white”

English: A black and white view of Istanbul. T...

English: A black and white view of Istanbul from Wikipedia

Recently, after posting my review of the new book, The Globalization of Love, M. and I were doing the dishes, and talking about the book, which is about cross-cultural relationships.

“It’s not a really BIG difference,” M. said, “I mean that author, her husband is from Austria and she is from Canada, I mean they are both western countries.” Karagöz and the rest of the puppets turned from looking at M. to see what I would have to say – as if once again they were watching a tennis match from the orchid-covered windowsills where they were perched.

“Hmmm, well, we can’t be the judge of that – who knows what their reality is? Western countries can be very, very different from one another!” Handing me the bowl to dry, M. continued, “Subconsciously, you know, you are Unitarian, right? You grew up in that Christian church. And you don’t go to church now, you feel that you are agnostic, but subconsciously Christianity is somehow just IN you, like fluoride is in the water here, and no matter how much you can be not going to church, you are still Christian and that impacts who you are and how you think and how you relate to the world. ”

“So that makes you Muslim?” I said, feeling a bit taken aback. Karagöz, the agent provocateur, spun a mighty spin on my shoulder, yelling at me to pick a fight.

“No, I just gave an example, you know, I am being black and white, as you say” M. said, with a wicked wink, as he turned to scrubbing the bean pot. Oddly enough, we were cleaning up from a dinner of “moros y cristianos” – which is a Spanish dish my Granny made, consisting of black beans (the Moors) and yellow rice (the non-Moorish Spaniards). Hacivad Bey, the Sufi peacemaker, encouraged me to breathe.

As I dried the bowl, I thought about what I often do, that I have a pretty westernized, anti-macho (car negotiations aside, as you will recall from this recent experience) Turkish man for a husband. He is, after all, standing next to me, washing the dishes of his own accord. In fact, he had to cajole me to get me to dry them as I was slacking off with a book. Placing the bowl on the shelf, I turned back to M.

“Man, we’ve been dealing with black and white for years now in this relationship, haven’t we?” I asked, curious about what he would say, and he did not disappoint, responding with “yes, canım (chah-num, dear) sweetheart, I am very black and white. I will never be in the grey with you – for very long that is!”

Later as I sat down to grade some papers, I reflected back on what it is I know about the idea of black and white thinking. As I googled around – a great way to avoid the horror of grading – I found a description of black and white thinking that perfectly sums it up from my own cultural standpoint. The website said the following:

“Always” and “never,” polar opposite words, tend to characterize the vocabulary of black and white thinkers. Black and white thinking means seeing the world only in terms of extremes. If things aren’t “perfect,” then they must be “horrible.” If your child isn’t “brilliant” then he must be “stupid.” If you’re not “fascinating” then you must be “boring.” Yikes! What a tough way to live! In real-life, situations are almost always shades of gray, not black or white. Falling victim to black and white thinking tends to exacerbate depression, marital conflict, anxiety, and a host of other everyday problems. Give yourself and the ones you love a break and discover the beauty of shades of gray. When small children are learning to use words and organize their thoughts, it is normal and expected for them to see and express their world in very black and white terms. When a young child feels they are not loved, they feel they must be hated. When a child feels his or her parents don’t pay enough attention to them, that child will say, “You never pay attention to me.” Developmental psychologists call this primitive thinking. Unfortunately, under duress, adults often regress to primitive thinking. Adults are most prone to regressing to primitive thinking when they are having a hard time and feel overwhelmed by their own emotions. A regression, in psychoanalytic parlance, is a backsliding from mature functioning and thinking to immature ways of functioning and thinking. For that one moment, when the adult starts relying on the words “always” or “never,” and seeing the world in black and white terms, they are slipping back to the way they saw the world as a child.”

Reading phrases such as “primitive thinking” and “Unfortunately, under duress, adults often regress to primitive thinking,” I began to despair. “Maybe,” I thought to myself as I bit my lip, “American views on Turks would have them all be ‘primitive thinkers.'” Sighing, I shifted in my seat, looking at the other dreaded words. “Even worse,” I thought, “does this mean that M. feels under duress – does the very existence of our cross-cultural marriage CAUSE this cross-cultural thinking, perhaps? Or is this Turkish? Can you really say that about a whole culture? I should think not, but???” The ruminations went on and on. How much is personality and how much is culture is akin to the old debate about who came first, the Chicken or the Egg…we’ll never know.

So, Turkish-American couples out there, do you experience the black and white – and grey? How does it manifest for you? Or is this a nationality-free gendered reality of some sort? Or just a personality one, if I may remove myself from potential heterosexist bias. Let me know your thoughts!

This entry was posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Gendered moments and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Moros y cristianos, siyah ve beyaz and being “black and white”

  1. Jack Scott says:

    I get the point completely. I think there is a cultural thread that weaves through the West which perhaps does reflect our shared Christian traditions regardless of our personal religious beliefs. Doesn’t mean we’re all the same but it does mean we often hold similar values.

  2. Alan says:

    . . nature or nurture? During those infant ‘blotting paper’ years we soak up whatever we are immersed in – ‘Give me the boy and I’ll give you the man!’ Christian, Muslim or Sikh – Turkish, American or English.

  3. This is all so fascinating, I don’t know where to start. First, as a journalist. The clarity of black and white was something we saw constantly in President George W. Bush. You were either “with us or against us” – “good guys are bad guys” — every international issue seemed to be crystal clear in his mind. He was not capable of seeing grey and we saw the result.

    However, on certain issues perhaps a crystal clear clarity is beautiful. You quote M. saying “I will never be grey with you.” As you sister, I interpret that as true love. His love for you is total, inflexible, and not a vague shade of grey. That is special.

    As a wife — you’re damn lucky that M. does the dishes. A few Sunday’s ago after cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for my family I insisted my husband clean the dinner dishes, something he never does. I came home from work the next day to find Maria, our baby-sitter, hovering over an over-flowing kitchen sink. My husband had dumped all the remains on the plates straight down the drain — there are no garbage disposals in Italy– so the drain was blocked and I had to call a plumber to come fix it. Forget black and white — I was seeing red — or “sorci verdi” as they say in Italy.

    As a woman living in Italy, I have noticed that the Italian attitude towards many political, legal, social issues (in contrast with the Americans, Germans and Brits) is flexible. They are much more willing to see the grey. A red light is not a black or white issue for them, it depends on a lot of factors– are you late? is there a car coming the other way? is there a traffic cop? what time of day is it?
    But I am getting carried away on this comment. It would be fun to discuss all this over a glass of wine.
    Big hugs,

  4. Thank you so much, Trisha, for this very thoughtful comment which I agree would be MUCH better over a glass of wine together – we need a blogger’s retreat this summer (even if it is just an evening!!!!)

    Man, W was the epitome of black and white.

    I really appreciate your interpretation, and it brought tears to M.’s eyes when he read it. It is true love, no question. Never woulda thunk it, and wish I hadn’t questioned it so much in the early years!!!

    I am LOLing and crying at the Gustavo dishes story – I think it deserves a FULL blog post. It makes me think of that image in the Italian magazine again!

    Thanks again for the thoughts!



  5. Never heard of infant blotting paper before – but LOVE the metaphor, it is perfect. If only I had a window into M as a boy – the photos only tell me so much!

  6. Very true re: holding similar values…these slippery aspects of culture are difficult to traverse in the effort to understand them – and reading others’ comments helps the process, thanks!

  7. Pingback: Mozzarella Mamma Rolls into Istanbul « Slowly-by-Slowly

  8. Pingback: Approaching death in a Turkish-American relationship: Is it time to stir the irmik helvası? « Slowly-by-Slowly

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