As a YES Abroad student, I have been completely welcomed into the most intimate moments of a tight-knit, loving Turkish family. The experience is by turns enlightening and challenging, fun and hard, but mostly it is heartwarming, and an incredible chance to form bonds with people from another culture would rarely come about it any other way.
For the school semester break, I went with my family to visit my host dad’s parents in İzmir. I slept in someone’s old bed, shared one bathroom with the entire extended family and ate some of the most amazing home-cooked food I have ever eaten. Meeting my host family’s grandparents and seeing them love their grandchildren reminded me more than anything of my own grandparents back home, and made me miss my grandma’s home-style Texas ribs and my Grandad’s laugh. The whole YES experience is about learning about a foreign culture, but at the grandparents house there just wasn’t anything to learn – grandparents love their grandchildren to the ends of the earth in all corners of the world. And after 5 months nothing seemed more natural than for them to pray in the evenings, sitting in chairs to ease the strain of the full bowing and prostration in namaz. When only six months ago I had never seen the Muslim prayer before, I was surprised at how normal it seemed. Grandparents, asking for blessings for their loved ones.
On our last evening in Izmir we visited the grandmother’s brother and his wife at their house across the bay, a two and a half hour trip by car involving a ferry and long lines at an unmarked intersection, where the Turkish ‘every-man-for–himself’ style of driving was at its least efficient. We arrived around 4pm for something I thought was going to be tea, but based on the number of full pots in the kitchen was clearly going to include dinner and therefore after dinner tea, coffee, dessert and talking. We stayed until midnight.
Anxious always to be a gracious guest, despite the insurmountable impossibility of offering anything equivalent to the welcome I have received, I am always quick to offer help in the kitchen. In the shuffle of the first food preparation that day (afternoon tea with homemade börek and two kinds of cake) I ended up pouring çay. Making tea for yourself or your parents is a piece of cake, but pouring for 12 is a different story. You’re holding at least two liters of boiling water in one hand and teapot of boiling çay in the other, and have to fill every tulip shaped cup without spilling a drop. How to get to those cups in the back without knocking over the ones in front? Two rows of six? Three of four? And once you fill them to the brim, they have to be carried to the living room on a tray and offered to everyone in order of status: granddad first, then greatuncle, grandma, my host dad, host mom, aunt, other teenagers etc. Also without spilling. Nothing is more quintessentally Turkish than the girl pouring çay for her family, and all the family members kept saying ‘Türk kız oldu! Türk kız oldu!’ (She’s turned into a Turk! She’s a Turkish girl!).
I was incredibly proud of serving all that tea without spilling a drop. The values it embodies – neatness, respect, hosting, family and food – are central to Turkish society, and to me it was a symbol of how deeply I’ve adjusted to my host culture. I could not be more lucky than to be included in such a special, intimate and loving gathering, nothing fancy and everything genuine, down to the massively rhinestone studded couch, hazy bay and cabbage sarma.