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?

This entry was posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Gendered moments, Turkish Food!, Visits from the Karagöz puppets and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Mastering çay anxiety: Playing with gender stereotypes through tea service

  1. Jack Scott says:

    Interesting challenge. I tend to take the ‘when in Rome,’ route with such things. When in Turkey, brew and serve tea in the Turkish way. When in England, bung a tea bag in and hope for best 🙂

  2. Sorry about the nausea, think that part should not be happening . . . but the tea memories are tender and well described, and I could see all of you, even M’s brother I have never met. Good to read a post from you –

  3. Alan says:

    . . insufferable arse (that’s ass in US-talk)! In your shoes, and based on earlier experiences, I’d have shot the lot into his lap, called the police and had him ‘Tazered’!!!
    Soldier on, gentle lady.

  4. Rosamond says:

    I am a strong and reasonably confident woman but in situations like yours I too tend to play the part of hubby’s cultural tea habits i.e. tea leaves boiled in milk with sugar and cardamom. He doesn’t mind whichever way I serve it but I always make it for his guests, the traditional way. I think its a way of showing “I am as good, if not better than some of your women at tea making” lol
    I like Alan’s comment but as we are polite women it will never happen 🙂

  5. I absolutely share that feeling about making Turkish tea! Every time, I’m all sweaty palms and no coordination. Like you, I also don’t mind playing the part occasionally, but balk when it’s taken for granted…

  6. L. says:

    I don’t feel nervous serving tea here in the US, but in Turkey I used to worry I’d spill it on someone or on an expensive carpet. I don’t mind bending to the gender roles while in Turkey, I try to chip in and serve to the masses when we are all gathered – I feel bad just sitting back and letting the other women serve me (especially when we are there for a month or more). Most of the time I get a thank you, a smile, or at least a nod of approval from everyone, but there are times when it feels taken for granted…or someone has such specific tea “rules” that I can never pour it right…and then, like you, I put on a plastic smile….

  7. Sometimes we are far too accommodating for our own good – Next time give him a teabag!! Hope you are feeling better x

  8. lizcameron says:

    Your teabag suggestion just created a major LOL in this home, many thanks for that! And for your good wishes, it is a S-L-O-W process. 🙂

  9. lizcameron says:

    L – I can relate – I am sure that you will grow more and more comfortable. Gosh, your description of “the masses” makes me realize how different our Turkish family experiences are! I’d love to see a post on YOUR tea-related experiences on Turklish! Most of all, I really, really relate to the rules and not getting it right – it’s too light, too dark, no pour it again – it’s always the fussy older ladies in the family who seem to have these important rules – as if it is their medicine that has to be prepared in a certain way, and maybe it does!!! 🙂 L

  10. lizcameron says:

    Couldn’t have expressed my feelings better than your concise statement here – I totally relate to this. I’d love to hear your experience on your blog!!! 🙂

  11. lizcameron says:

    Rosamond, you are a woman after my own heart. Loved your comment. 🙂

  12. lizcameron says:

    He is an insufferable arse. Nuff said.

    But I still play the game.

    God knows why, must be all those years of enforced etiquette school – or at least the remaining vestiges of them!

  13. lizcameron says:

    Thanks, N., for the encouragement. Much appreciated. It is a struggle to write these days, still, but I am trying. Love, Liz

  14. lizcameron says:

    Yes, when in Rome! One of my lifelong credos. Let’s see what happens on the tea front in your next expat interlude – perhaps in Bulgaria as you hinted at? 🙂

  15. Chinki says:

    There was some truth. Put it this way, the media was involved in the incdient, and they are the only instrument through which the public can learn anything about what had happened, and they’re in the position to sway public opinion to their favour and hence conflict of interest.I’m not saying the media hve been biased as this is a fact of life if we have any expectation for the media to monitor the government, and hence most regimes are not stupid enough to get themselves into this position

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