Saturday, December 15, 2007

iyi kurban bayramlar

this is my first winter-holiday-season away from my family. even though i'm not especially nostalgic for american-style christmas-time, i hosted a gingerbread-house-making night to get in the spirit of things. recently i've been growing to love (and appreciate) my american friends here - especially laura and michelle - and since we're pretty isolated in a mostly-foreigner dorm-like apartment building in the semi-middle of nowhere (on bilkent university's campus) we spend a lot of time together. it's not ideal in terms of exposure to (let alone immersion in) turkish culture, but it's fun to pretend i'm a fresh(wo)man in college again, wandering around in pajamas & stumbling upon impromptu visits/dance parties/existential crises/discussions & dreams of life-plans. it was nice to gather up some people and realize how much i genuinely like them. makes being away from home a lot easier.

michelle, as always, came over early to help set up. we tried to eat something healthy before the whole thing -

until marion brought real gingerbread, , ,

and everyone dug into a mess of sugar.

we also cut paper snowflakes,

stuck cloves in oranges,

and don't be fooled by laura's grave expression: got goofy + stayed up way too late for a wednesday night with work at 8:50 the next morning.

thanks to this year's kurban bayramı falling in mid-december, after work on tuesday i'll be leaving for a week in berlin with my friends brian and megan. i'm looking forward to great museums, sorely-missed indian food, good beer, confusing turkish immigrants with my turkish, and a fancy christian christmas eve service somewhere before flying back on christmas day. since brie pushed her visit back i'll be staying in ankara over new years to work on my final paper + project for my grad classes. even though i love my new batch of students, juggling work with my classes has been pretty tiring recently & i haven't been able to give enough energy to the latter. these breaks will be nice.

also, after four months in turkey i was just given keys to a mailbox!! if you wanna send mail you can either send it to my work address at BUSEL or. . .my apartment, which is probably better:

Orta Kampus, Lojman 106
Bilkent Üniversitesi
Bilkent, Ankara 06800

more after germany. . .my first time to europe (unless istanbul counts?)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

brick in the wall

While working at the Marlboro Music Festival this summer, I befriended an awesome & inspiring girl named Brie (featured in this older post) who runs the blog Where have all the cowgirls gone? with her friend Huma. Brie asked me back in July or so for a contribution and I finally got around to putting one together this week with the editing help of Michelle and especially Laura. (THANK YOU!!) It should be posted on her blog soon, but I've decided to post a version here too since I haven't written much about my experiences teaching. I'm also posting a picture I didn't take because 1. it vaguely reminds me of brie (since i first saw it this past summer on the BBC's site) and 2. pembe seviyorum!

This August, recently armed with undergraduate degrees in literature and political science, I did what any directionless American liberal arts major lacking financial ambition might do: ship off to teach English abroad. I was lucky to land a year-long Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship at the prestigious Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey – a part of the world I’d always wanted to visit. I could take free graduate classes while teaching “speaking skills” to small classes of would-be Bilkent undergraduates lacking the language skills necessary to meet the English-medium university’s standards. Read: they wanted warm-blooded native speakers to talk for twenty hours a week. Sounded simple enough. Little did I know just how provocative those hours of essentially free-for-all conversation would be.

My original goal was simply to hold the students’ interest, avoid philosophical landmines (i.e. obey the law) and nudge them towards fluency. I start out with a seemingly flawless lesson plan: an analysis of the Beatles’ “When I’m 64,” followed by predictions of what their lives will be like when they reach that age. To my dismay, my chirpy questions are answered with blank stares. The distant future? They’re late teens still trying to pass the upcoming exam, much less deal with answers to existential questions fifty years from now. To top it all off, the questions are coming from a wacky 23-year-old teacher – barely older than them – hiding anarchist sentiments under awkward-fitting “professional” clothes. The fact that I’m ditching my friends and family to teach them the English they need to get a Turkish education is beyond comprehension. What can they say? Will they end up staying in Turkey or go for the “utopian” dream of graduate school – and potentially life – abroad? Will their passports ever double as tickets into the EU? Is Turkey sliding down the same “slippery slope” towards fundamentalist Islamic rule à la Iran as some Turks insist? For those with immediate family in current or potential war zones, the future is even more precarious. “Insh’Allah, teacher,” they say, Arabic for “god-willing,” “we want a good life, but we don’t know what will happen.”

Actually, each time I walk into a classroom, neither do I. I consistently find myself in a crossfire of social issues I only vaguely understand. A macho student in a pink playboy-bunny shirt fiddles with his brand-new BMW keys in one hand and seductively swings his prayer beads in the other, bragging about the girls he’d met at a bar the night before; next to him, a girl pats her hairpins to make sure the hat she’s wearing covers all her hair (since by law she can’t wear a headscarf to school) as she complains about society’s expectations of women’s physical appearances; next to her a heavily made-up girl in a skin-tight miniskirt and knee-high boots furrows her brows at the mention of alcohol (technically prohibited in Islam) and promises to bring me a copy of the Koran next class. An Iraqi exchange student describes her recent trip home as “peaceful” while an adrenaline-charged boy fresh from his military service demands an explanation of the US’s presence there. A previously quiet girl offhandedly suggests the army destroy Kurdish villages out east; an invisibly-Kurdish boy from the far east is silent. The Bulgarians and Azerbaijanians need special translations of new vocabulary. Those on scholarship need help circumventing the all-too-prevalent topic of “shopping.” Most students are happy discussing their hometowns and Turkish food, but for a small yet vocal minority, the topic of Greeks and Armenians (not to mention Jews, Asians, and blacks) offers endless material for cruel jokes. One boy says he wants to “holocaust gay people.” And I am to say…what? “Holocaust” is not a verb?

The problem is, I’m trying to juggle a little too much: teach English with laughable training, wind my way through a labyrinth of cultural nuances, and figure out what to do with my life. Let’s be frank: for most young graduates, “teaching English” is less a passion for grammar than it is a “gap year” between school and “real life.” Meanwhile, the luxury of my indecision feels increasingly unfair. Bilkent University is one of the top universities in Turkey, and the Turkish-born English teachers I work with are some of the best in their field. Their jobs are competitive and they work hard towards advanced teaching degrees. Me? I didn’t take a single education course in college – yet I have the option of teaching virtually anywhere until I decide to dabble in the myriad of choices available to me. Japan or Spain? Journalism career or graduate school? I’m the face of the cultural imperialist force neither side can escape: no matter how hard my coworkers study English, I’ll always have a leg up just because my native language happens to be the current international one. No matter how much I struggle with the assigned English translations of Foucault and Deleuze in my graduate courses, my Turkish peers are facing an exponentially more difficult battle. And yet no matter how American foreign policy taints my students’ gut reaction to my nationality, they’re always up for talking about Justin Timberlake’s new song. Not necessarily because it’s good. Just infectious. Because it’s everywhere.

These students don’t particularly care about the Beatles. Like most of the industrialized world they know Lost and Angelina Jolie, but they’re also growing up in an especially conflicted and diverse country currently facing issues with enough conversation material to last a lifetime. They deserve teachers who will encourage critical thinking relevant to their lives. I’ve adjusted my lesson plans to discuss topics like gender roles, global warming, and international standards of beauty – even the wildly popular (and arguably anti-American) Turkish television show Valley of the Wolves Iraq. We have debates. Heated debates. And I learn far more about Turkish culture from my students than I ever could fumbling through Turkey on my own.

The cliché rings true: I learn just as much as – if not more than – my students. What was originally a vehicle for getting abroad has become the most stimulating aspect of my life in Turkey. I can’t always give them my all; teaching, studying, translating, and missing home is exhausting. However, I give them more than I expected. Like them, my future life-path is fuzzy. We’re figuring it out together.