Someone recently asked me the hardest thing about adjusting to life in Turkey as an American. I have been living in Istanbul for four years now and though my answer has changed throughout those years, the overarching theme has been navigating my new identity and coping with the identity losses that come with moving to a new culture.
I first came to Istanbul as a college student in 2014, not knowing a soul. In that honeymoon period, the shedding of my old identity and the expectations and pressures that came along with it was exhilarating and liberating. In addition to tasting new foods and learning a new language, I was trying out new hobbies, entering new friend groups and being exposed to new ideas. The only things people knew about me were what I told them or what they picked up from my appearance and actions.
I gained new identities.
Growing up in the U.S., I had never thought of myself as athletic. Amid the stiff competition and expectations that every child participate in at least one sport, I lacked the self-confidence to truly excel at bat or on the football field. My long and somewhat demoralizing years plugging away at various sports had reinforced time and again that I would never be a true athlete.
But, moving to Turkey, the very fact that I knew what role a center midfielder should play or that I could contain an attacking striker made me the "sporty girl." Suddenly I was the most athletic woman around me, and I became known for playing football with the guys, especially considering female athletes in Turkey tended toward volleyball or tennis. My middle school dreams had come true overnight – even despite my being sorely out of shape.
Over time, however, it is the identity losses that start to get to you – and can quickly devolve into expat depression.
If you move to another state in the U.S. and you tell your new neighbors where you are from, they can usually get a rough idea of your lifestyle and maybe even hobbies. But moving to a new country, unless you are from a major city in the U.S. – namely New York, Miami, or Los Angeles – no one who has not visited America the Beautiful will have a clue what to envision when you tell them the name of your suburb or small town. Hollywood has not helped us out in that regard.
I used to tell people in Turkey I was from New York state, but I quickly abandoned this practice upon hearing the responses. "You seem like a city girl to me," one man replied, to my great surprise. My New York is a small town of 3,000, where I worked as a farmhand every summer through middle school and high school. The closest shopping mall – which only had a dozen stores – was a 30-minute drive away.
At first, these comments amused me, but as months passed, I started to long for people to know the "real" me, the T-shirt-wearing, woods-loving, intelligent girl I had been back home. Language and gender barriers kept me out of interesting conversations about politics and science, confining me to small talk that revolved around subjects I cared little about, like shopping and relationships.
The dimension of being a woman added another layer to my identity loss, as I realized American women are quite different than Turkish women – in everything from their physical activeness to their aspirations in life to their ideas of friendship. I found myself somewhere between a man and a woman in Turkey, sharing interests and life experiences of both genders.
I found it easier to be friends with men, but I was, for a while, marginalized from some of their activities simply because they had never seen a grown woman show interest or ability in those fields – such as swimming in the lake, putting together furniture or playing basketball.
Even once I did begin to join in on their "masculine" pursuits, there has always been a tinge of an identity crisis about being the only woman in their circle. Particularly outside of Turkey's big cities, the separation between male and female social circles becomes more pronounced. I am, no doubt, a spectacle at times for my presence among the men, but nevertheless, it’s still where I feel closest to myself.
While every expat’s identity gains and losses are different, they are sure to occur, especially the more your social life is rooted in the culture of your new country rather than the local expat community.
In these four years in Turkey, I have learned that there are certain practices that help one to navigate the disorienting, and at times, discouraging, experience of identity change in a foreign culture.
Find friends who will listen to your experiences and validate them
Wherever you settle on the globe, healthy friendships are important. Even more so in a foreign country, it’s critical to find friends who are good listeners and will accept the real you.
When first moving to a new country, most of us feel desperate for any lifeline of friendship and end up spending time with whoever will reach out to us. But over time, it’s important to take stock of your friendships. Focus on healthy friendships that lift you up and minimize the unhealthy ones that make you feel inadequate, even if those friends are the ones reaching out to you most persistently for friendship.
Find friends with whom you feel most yourself. If gossip sucks the life out of you, lay down boundaries to minimize the time you spend with the gossip girls and prioritize friends who talk about other subjects of interest.
Find friends who will listen to you, who will truly try to understand your experiences and connect with you, who ask questions. These can be hard to find, but if you stay open to meeting new people, you may be surprised who will cross your path. If you feel a spark of connection with a new acquaintance, don’t miss the opportunity to get their contact information and meet up again.
Find friends who share your hobbies and make time for those activities
One key to getting out of an identity rut is spending time doing the things you love – whether skiing or standup comedy – and it helps if you have friends who can join you in these hobbies. These friends might not be your go-to best friends, but they can help you keep alive things you liked about yourself and the skills you enjoyed doing in your home country. You might find these friends through clubs on Facebook, such as the Istanbul trekking groups that organize outings in the woods around the city, or even the free municipal classes where you can hone your skills in pastry making, sewing and a host of other art forms.
While it is fun to do these activities with expats, I have found it gives me an extra boost of happiness finding locals who enjoy the same things I do. It makes me feel more rooted in the community and gives me hope there are others like me living on the same streets. Doing these activities with Turks also provides valuable opportunities to improve your language skills in areas of your own interest.
Stay in touch with friends back home
While it comes fairly naturally for most to stay in contact with family members while abroad, friendships can easily fade without intentionality and regular maintenance. In the first months of life in a new country, friendships back home may not seem important or relevant to your life abroad. You may even struggle to connect with friends who have not gone through a cultural transition themselves.
But these "old friends" play a vital role in reminding you of your previous identity and keeping you grounded, especially once the days of homesickness start to set in. These friends serve as the rocks that can anchor you during the storms of identity that you are bound to face in a new country.
While it’s impossible to hold onto all of your friends from back home, do not lightly let go of your friendships. Set aside times to talk on the phone, video chat, or text to maintain those ties. When you visit your home country, arrange times to meet up. The effort will be well worth it when you find yourself in need of a listening ear from your own language and culture, or if you ever find yourself moving back to your home country.
Embrace your new identities
Not all the new labels people throw at you will stick, but if you like them, embrace them! If people tell you you’re funny, or adventurous, or read a lot of books, or are tech-savvy, and those identities are new to you, pick the ones you like and roll with them. Step into the shoes of the jokester or fashionista and enjoy the chance to break out of your own identity box. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself by trying out a new side of yourself. Stepping into a new culture provides a wealth of opportunities to grow and broaden your horizons. Don’t miss those opportunities!
Please click to read our informative text prepared pursuant to the Law on the Protection of Personal Data No. 6698 and to get information about the cookies used on our website in accordance with the relevant legislation.
6698 sayılı Kişisel Verilerin Korunması Kanunu uyarınca hazırlanmış aydınlatma metnimizi okumak ve sitemizde ilgili mevzuata uygun olarak kullanılan çerezlerle ilgili bilgi almak için lütfen tıklayınız.