Sunday, August 24, 2014

Kayseri: The Next Generation 8/24/14

When it comes to this blog, it seems that no news is not necessarily good news. I think I am unintentionally following the Web 2.0 credo by only wanting to broadcast good news or news that portrays me and my setting in a positive light. When these types of news are missing, or when they are overpowered by, say, culture shock, it is difficult for me to find the motivation to write about how awesome my life is.

Yesterday or the day before, I commented to Jena that I wouldn’t even know where to start if I tried to blog right now. We have just moved to Kayseri, where we’ll be for the next year. Our life has therefore shifted from a vacationing lifestyle to a more work-centric and integration-oriented lifestyle. Jena, being supportive and compassionate said, just pick three things to write about. So today, I am going to make an attempt to see clearly through a haze confusion to blog about two things (not three) that have been going through my mind recently: Interpreting One’s Life through Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Relative Travails of Getting a Haircut.

Interpreting One’s Life through Star Trek: The Next Generation

After some convincing, I have finally gotten Jena to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) with me. (This comes after she has been game this summer to watch other favorites of mine including In Therapy and Twin Peaks.) The central premise of TNG, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is concisely explained by the short monologue from Captain Picard in the opening to each episode: "Space... The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It's continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before."

For Jena and me, it has sometimes been helpful to understand our journey here in Turkey under similar pretenses. Viewing ourselves as explorers who are interested in exploring our environment allows us to simultaneously remain distant from the culture, while slowly integrating into it. For instance, when we eat lunch at our university, which we have been invited to do each weekday, although we’re technically not on contract yet, Jena and I are, as far as I can tell, the only Westerners in the faculty dining room. For Jena, this experience must be amplified by the fact that she is often the only woman in the lunchroom line, or the only woman at our lunchroom table. Our only method of survival seems to be to eat our lunch (always Turkish cuisine) with our coworkers while doing our best to follow the TNG Prime Directive, which essentially dictates that members of Starfleet will not unduly disturb or impose upon existing cultures. An added complication comes from the notion that members of Starfleet must simultaneously protect themselves. And so must Jena and I. (Refer to my entry "Don’t Eat the Soup" for details of how adhering to the local customs may become problematic.)

Jena and I are fortunate that Kayseri is relatively unused to—and somehow unphased by—foreigners. When we were previously in Finike, a smaller town with somewhere around 30,000 people, we didn’t have this luxury. Finike is kind of a tourist town, but primarily for Turkish tourists. The local mentality seems to be that international tourists ought best be quarantined to the more popular destinations of Side, Çıralı, or Kaş. I imagined our experience was similar to one that a Chinese couple in a small American town might have. We were conspicuous and not necessarily welcome, presumably due to the otherness we represented.

Here in Kayseri, people may stare at us from time to time, but I don’t get the sense that it is with disdain, or at least I haven’t yet. Additionally, there’s not a culture of tourism, especially not in our suburb of Talas, so people aren’t persistently trying to sell stuff to us to make a living. This makes for more peaceful walks in town. I was amused, for instance, last night when we walked by a restaurant and a waiter said, “Hello.” We looked at him and said, “Hello,” back. He said, “I am here.” We smiled and said, “Okay. Thanks.” This was such a pleasant low pressure interaction compared to what we have been used to in İzmir, İstanbul, and even Finike at times.

So, as Jena and I watch TNG each night to decompress, it fulfills another function, which is to provide an interpretive lens through which to view our transition into life here. Currently, we are most definitely visitors from another land, and our mission is largely intellectual and, we hope, benign. Each day we begin with a sense of disorientation as we remember where we are and why we are here. In my head, I hear another set of words from TNG that begin each new episode, "Captain’s Log, Star Date …." (It makes me wonder if there’s an alarm clock that actually says that; if so, it’s certainly on my wish list.) And then Jena and I begin each new day of exploration to boldy remain stoic and flexible while coping with all that this new world has to offer.

The Relative Travails of Getting a Haircut

For the past week, I have been sporting my shaggy, unkempt hair in Kayseri, and normally I wouldn’t care since I rather appreciate hair styles of this sort. However, during the past week I have also been making my first impressions on my new boss, and I don’t want to give the sense that I’m completely disregarding the dress code: smart casual. While I interpret this as, My clothes are smart; my hair is casual, I can see that no one else at our university takes the same approach. In fact, the kempt-ness of one’s hair may even be prioritized here in Turkey, although I’m honestly not sure.

After a month of putting it off, on Thursday I finally went out for a haircut. I laboriously found pictures of a good haircut that I once had, and Jena graciously took pictures of them with her iPad. Armed with these and our combined knowledge of about 100 words of Turkish, we set off for the Erkek Kuaförü (male hair stylist).

Our apartment is not in a hopping area by any means, so finding an Erkek Kuaförü over the past few days had been somewhat of a challenge. A coworker suggested we look in downtown Kayseri at the mall, which we did but to no avail. Our only other lead was that there might be one or two in our suburb of Talas, but I had been warned that the quality of a haircut here might not be as good (though I pretty much ignored that comment since any haircut would probably be better than none at all).

While out on a run, one evening, I had finally spotted an Erkek Kuaförü, so that’s where Jena and I went. Fortunately, it was open, and the hair stylist, a guy in his young twenties, was incredibly friendly and enthusiastic, though he only spoke two words of English throughout the haircutting process: “Yes?" and “Finished?” During the haircut, Jena and I put our Turkish to the test by saying things like, “I would like to cut.” And, “This short.” In my regular life, I’m a nervous haircut client regardless, and this haircut, which tested language and cultural skills, had me sweating like a madman under my smock. At times things seemed relatively normal, and we tried to chat about our ages, where we were from, and whether we were married or not. At other times, however, the hair stylist did disconcerting things such as blow drying my hair so that it all stood on end. At this moment, he took a step back and asked something I didn’t quite understand. I thought he was saying he was finished, and I imagined walking back to the apartment looking like a strawberry blonde David Bowie from the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars/Aladidn Sane phase. While I would have liked that style at one time of my life, I wasn’t sure I was ready to be sporting it around in the notoriously conservative city of Kayseri, Turkey.

Fortunately, with enough body language and butchered Turkish phrases, I made it through such high pressure moments. The stylist seemed to be quite understanding, and he eventually made it look almost exactly how I wanted. The cost, in case anyone is wondering, was five dollars! And he wouldn’t accept a tip. After most haircuts (again, in regular life), I like to return home before I go out in public again in order to spend some time getting my hair to look presentable, but after this one I felt good enough that I had the energy to agree with Jena’s suggestion that we explore a new grocery store across the street from the stylist’s shop. (Finding grocery stores is a common activity for Jena and me because we want to know what’s available and where. It’s like charting where you can get more health, ups, or hearts in video game.) At the store we bought certain sought after items such as mushrooms and tiny adhesive felt pads to stop our doors from rattling so much. And then, with the breeze grazing the tops of my ears, we strolled back home.


The haircut experience, I realize, is another one of those look-how-awesome-my-life-is stories. It’s one of resilience and fortuity. As I noted in the beginning, I wish I could say that these have defined my experience in Kayseri so far, but they haven’t. Life is progressing at a slower pace, and we are already facing those moments of uncertainty about where we are and what the hell we are doing. We wake up wondering, for example, whether or not our university’s bureaucracy will spoil us as much as we’d like. This is sort of a familiar feeling, but whereas we once wondered whether our university in Arizona would give us free printing as graduate teaching assistants, we now wonder whether the university will do anything about the weird and almost insufferable smell emanating from open pipe in our apartment's bathroom. But, because there are enough things that are pretty decent about our apartment, this may be a condition we’ll have to endure. And possibly further investigation of this new world will reveal that most apartments have this condition, and we are simply following the Prime Directive and being polite by tolerating this phenomenon in this new society in which we now live.

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