From the very first introduction to becoming part of the family, being a foreigner in a Turkish coupling is both an esteemed position as well as one that comes with certain challenges. Luckily, like me, there are expats before you who can help you navigate through the sensitive territory of blending in with your adopted Turkish family.
Turkish families are a close-knit bunch and tend to have a long list of extended relations. This means that from the moment you meet, you may very well be treated like family by a lot of people. Don’t get overwhelmed or feel under any pressure as they are just trying to make you feel welcome as a gesture that can be amplified if you are a foreigner. No matter what transpires, it is always wise to be on your best behavior, because rest assured most anything you say and do will be shared as exciting news in the familial network.
For many a foreigner, the first time they meet their prospective in-laws may very well be at the “kız isteme” ceremony, a custom in which the groom’s family pays a visit to the bride’s household to ask for her hand in marriage. Like many important milestones in Turkey, the engagement for marriage also begins with a cup of Turkish coffee. It is the potential bride’s task to painstakingly prepare the perfect cup of Turkish coffee, individually brewed according to each guest’s particular inclination for sugar. On this occasion, no automatic Turkish coffee brewers will do. This process is a steeped tradition in which the bride is tested by the groom’s family to see if she can properly prepare a Turkish coffee in a “cezve,” which is a small ornate long-handled pot with a pouring lip customarily made from copper or brass.
What many a foreigner may not know is that there is also a prank that is played by the bride-to-be on the groom, for whose coffee she prepares with salt in lieu of sugar. The groom in turn is supposed to be so in love that he will drink his salty coffee without making a peep so as not to negatively influence the coffee test the potential bride is tasked with passing.
After the honeymoon phase, there may come a time when discussion of what to call one’s mother-in-law may surface. While there are specific names for in-laws in Turkish, such as “kaynana” and “kayınvalide” for mother-in-law and “kayınpeder” for father-in-law, many Turkish in-laws will welcome being called “anne”’ for mom and “baba” for dad. I have heard many foreigners refer to their in-laws with extended terms of endearment, such as “annecığım” and “babacığım,” respectively. The best advice for forging new titles is simply to ask straight out what your in-laws would like to be called.
If you are a bride or groom, whether you are foreign or not, you will inevitably be referred to as “gelin” for the bride and “damat” for the groom. Not only may this forever become your title to the in-laws, in lieu of your name, but extended family and community members may also refer to you as a “bride” or “groom,” well after the wedding is over.
The familial unit is close in Turkey and in-laws will appreciate you visiting or inviting them over often. It is customary for the new family member, whether a bride or groom, to make regular telephone calls to in-laws on their own behalf irrespective and separate from their spouse who is their actual child. Full disclosure: They will also most likely be making regular telephone calls and visiting themselves as the doting child of Turkish parents.
Turkish in-laws also like to pay occasional visits, which in many cases can be overnight stays. According to Turkish customs, the in-laws are never asked how long they plan to stay and the same can be true for close friends visiting on open-ended tickets. Spontaneous visits or at best those planned last minute are a regular occurrence here in Turkey and you may find yourself suddenly having to drop everything to accommodate your spouse’s visiting guests.
It’s honestly best to not bother your Turkish spouse about said occasions as the social and familial connection is an integral part of life in Turkey and a wonderful characteristic of the Turks. Should you try to dissuade the situation you are literally interfering with your Turkish spouse’s values and authentic way of life. Furthermore, due to deeply ingrained customs involving hospitality, they may not be able to ask themselves when their guest will be leaving. Chances are the situation has already unfolded before you know it and I say just chalk up the open-ended visitors to being one of the awkward areas of intimate relationships with Turks.
Try to enjoy the moment and be curious, when in doubt just bury your in-laws in questions. Ask them about their homeland and ancestors, their childhood and upbringing and most likely all sorts of wonderful stories will unfold, plus they will be orally passing on their legacy that you may end up sharing to later generations. You, on the other hand, may not be asked your opinion or otherwise, as in all honesty, your role is to sort of blend in with the environment and to happily and graciously help facilitate any family gathering.
You may never hear the words, “please,” “thank you” and “sorry” ever again uttered by a Turkish in-law as once you are part of the family in Turkey the relationship is considered so close that it doesn’t warrant such distancing and performative terms.
Authenticity, grace and silent service, literally, are important attributes to have in Turkey. If your mother-in-law is in the kitchen washing dishes, it is customary to jump to her aid and if necessary literally wriggle the dish out of her hand. It is the unspoken rule for the young ladies in the house to wash the dishes here in Turkey, and whether you agree with the concept or not or are even female or male, it is just good sense to jump to the aid of an elder in Turkey in any and all circumstances bar none. As a groom, you will get bonus points for showing you can transcend stereotypical gender roles and are willing to help out in the kitchen and beyond.
Many an expat mother with a Turkish spouse will lament about all of the opinions and advice they receive when they have a child. Your mother-in-law may think she knows best when it comes to your baby and choice of their clothing. To swaddle or not to swaddle is the question on many a mother’s minds and can be one of those topics you may have to beg to differ on with an in-law. Turks are famous for wrapping up their newborns like burritos and it can admittedly be challenging to contend with the many mothers in Turkey who are strong adherents to the practice.
The number one rule of thumb though when it comes to upholding strong relations with your in-laws is to make sure that under no circumstances should you ever insult an in-law in Turkey. Insults and degradation of the in-laws are just not acceptable in Turkey and could have you shunned from the family and community. In-laws are older and thus already warrant the utmost respect and according to Turkish customs, they are considered to be part of the nuclear family, which no one would ever want to implode.
The bottom line is: Be kind, keep your cool and go with the flow and try to make the most of any situation involving Turkish in-laws and show that you are grateful to have them and you will be sure to share and enjoy a lifelong romantic partnership with a Turk!