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.

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

  1. Alan says:

    . . be truthful to yourself and ask ‘Why bother?’ Here’s a tip from a ‘Boffer’ who hasn’t done Xmas for more than 30 years and hasn’t missed it at all – next year stay calm and do and say nothing – see what M does/says and go along with whatever he says/suggests or doesn’t say/suggest with a good and gentle heart and neary a bad/questioning word. Oh! and count your non-religious blessings!

  2. joyce colman says:

    As a child, I begged and begged for a Christmas Tree. As an adult, I am so appreciative of how light and easy a Menorah is. But frankly, this year we did nothing; and that has been the best of all. j

  3. E. says:

    Hi Joyce, thank you so much for your comment. Did you ever get that Christmas tree? Or was it only as an adult. I’ll have to ask you what the Christmas tree means for you. You can come see our beautiful one with all my antique ornaments, if you want to. I think the way that you and Deb went this year – that’s probably what We’ll do next year. I don’t know why it’s so important to me. But this writing is helping me figure it out. So grateful to have you in my audience.

  4. E. says:

    Dear favorite boss for Alan, thank you for your comment. Yes, I think it is important to ask oneself the question of why bother, about the Christmas tree. I am a pretty Old-fashioned girl at heart in some small ways, and that tradition for some reason is dear to Maybe. Maybe next year we can Avoid it all and enjoy That time of the year in Turkey with you guys. By the way your horny Caterpillar post clearly got my computer shutdown by the pornography police. It gave me a good laugh thinking of the person finding that the really horny title actually referred to a grub worm!

  5. Pingback: Eggs and Ottoman music: On cultural responsivity gone wrong in one Turkish American marital moment | Slowly-by-Slowly

  6. gercek says:

    What makes your husband “more American than Turkish”? By the way, I still wonder what you think about the muslim genocide you christians carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. When will your christian country stop killing muslims and recognize the muslim genocide they are responsible for? Or are you just a typical christian who is in the muslim genocide denial camp?

  7. E. says:

    Welcome back, Gercek,

    Thank you for your comment, although I wish we could engage in more civil dialogue, I am glad you’re back. Let me address your questions with the most respect I can, which is heartfelt.

    On the question of my Turkish husband and his American-ness. This is how he identifies, he loves Turkey and much about Turkish people, yet as I see it, he is also pained by some of what goes on there since he left 20 years ago re: shift in culture. He now identifies himself as more American than Turkish, that is *his *designation not mine – But I can also see what he means which led to my comment. I am sure he will likely respond to you on that.

    As for what you referred to as the genocide in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have addressed this in previous responses to you, Earlier this year. Once again, I am absolutely horrified and mortified at much of what my country has done. I have protested this, I have wept over this. All over the Muslim world and other parts of the world as well. We have much to be ashamed of. Please go back and look at our previous conversation in which I address this. I’m not sure what more you want from me other than just to keep coming at me with vitriolic comments to be perfectly honest. But if that’s what you need to do in order to talk about this, I’ll keep telling you the same response – I hear you I see the awful things that we have done and it horrifies me. Not all Americans support this. Many of us speak out about this.

    As for America being a Christian nation, I really don’t see it this way. I believe this is a very diverse country on religious basis. Yes the founders of the nation were Christian and yes we have many people who are Christian in this country now in power. However please look at any listing of demographics and note that we are actually quite diverse. There’s also quite a diversity among Christians with a relationship to how they conceptualize Islam in the Muslim world. There is a vast array of political persuasions among Christians, Of which I do not count myself as a member. I think lumping us altogether in the negative is absolutely not fair. I know that you lived here for some time and seem to have a bad experience here, which pains me, because I think nobody would want someone to come to their country and have a negative experience or an overwhelmingly negative experience. But please try not to look at things in such a black-and-white manner. There is a gray area with respect to how people view the world – meaning Americans. Where do you expect to get with this vitriolic commentary? What is your real goal here?

    I hope that we can continue to dialogue, although I really wish that you could be a bit more civil and respectful in your comments. I do not want to take away what is valid anger or intense feelings on your part, but how are we going to get anywhere if you keep on writing things of this tone.

    I wish you and your family all the best – and may we all find some Peace And Understanding for one another in the new year.

    Best, Liz

  8. jolly joker says:

    bu blogu yapan kisinin esi olarak gercek adli kisiye bu mesaji yazdigimi belirtmek isterim.
    kimseye herhangi bir aciklama mecburiyetim yok, niye turk niye amerikali niye cinli veya su bu olarak hissettigim yanlizcana beni ilgilendirir.
    aslinda bu aciklamayida yapmak gibi bir niyetimde yoktu, saece esimin rica dolayisiyla yaptigimida ozellikle belirteyim.
    diger konulara ise hic girmeyecegim ve cevap vermek luzumunda hissetmiyorum kendimi, yukarida ise esimin cevabi duruyor ki bu cevabi daha oncede tekrarlamisti; ama gorunen oki yazilanlari okumadigin anlasiliyor, cunku daha oncede sordugu soruya karsilik aldigin cevabi okusaydin, bu soruyu tekrardan sormazdin.
    kendisine yazilani okumayip inatla ayni seyleri soran kisilerle isim olmaz onuda ayricana belirtmek istiyorum.
    kolay gelsin…

  9. gercek says:

    I now understand why your husband feels more American than Turkish, as I see his not so bright (to say the least) command of Turkish. I assume his English is, at least, immaculate though considering he is more of an American. Anyway, I don’t care about how people define themselves as your husband said. I asked that question because I thought your considering him more American than Turkish had something to do with the orientalist and christianofascist stereotypes you have put forth on this blog, and I still think so.
    Back to your response, I don’t think you addressed anything on the last post. I simply asked you whether you recognize the muslim genocide you christians carried out or not, and apparently, your answer to that is a no as you can’t even use the words “muslim” and “genocide” in the same sentence whereas you are very comfortable with using the “Armenian genocide” phrase. Doesn’t that make you a genocide denialist as you christian crusaders call Turks? What do you think about the Turkish genocide your christian Armenian brothers carried out? Or do you just don’t think anything about it as your christian media and leaders have never told you about how your angelic christian Armenian brothers genocided hundreds of thousands of Turks in the WW1 and in 1992 when they invaded Karabag? Or maybe you don’t think it’s a genocide because who cares if some muslims got killed? They were not christians afterall, unlike your Armenian brothers, right?

  10. Pingback: Keşmekeş: The Karagöz puppets wreak (helpful) havoc | Slowly-by-Slowly

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