Interview: Studying in Turkey

miles_davis_int_1Could you tell us about yourself? Who is Miles ? Where is he from ? What does he do?

My name is Miles Patrick Davis, I am a double major in both philosophy and history, though only recognized as a history major at Boğaziçi Üniversitesi. I was born in Pueblo, Colorado, USA, though being born into a military family, I have lived throughout the United States, stretching from St. Louis (the last place I lived, as where as my home university is most near to), to Honolulu, Hawai'i, and have seen most of the United States. I speak English and Spanish, and have had a diverse background, given my constant moving as a child from one state to another, including Hawai'i, a former British colony near to Japan, and have experienced the United States in its full richness of culture.

How did you decide to come to Turkey?

I study both history and philosophy, both with a specialization in the Middle East and Islamic studies, though prior to coming to  İstanbul, these focuses have been both on Arabic history, and mostly Persian Sufi philosophy. My mentor, Dr. Lucian Stone, whom I affectionately call benim muallimim (given the different connotations between hoca, öğretmen, and muallim) was hosted at Yeditepe Üniversitesi and I attended his courses there on Modernism and Islam, as well as Islamic Aesthetics.

What are the differences between the education system in USA and the education system in Turkey?

The largest difference between the education system in Turkey and the United States, as far as the university is concerned, and given that it is my only education in Turkey, it is the only one that I feel comfortable commenting on, aside from a major distinction which I will address after writing about the university, is that in the university, one need not attend their classes and may take as many credit hours as they desire, whereas in the United States, the maximum credit hours one may take is 20, without special permission, and one need attend their classes for a passing grade.

This puts more emphasis on readings in Turkey, than in US, which focuses more on class participation, as well as lecturing. As for the other topic, in Turkey, as I'm told, as well as have seen, children, up until high school, if I am not mistaken, must say something along the lines of the English equivalent of "How happy one is to call themself a Turk." In the US, there is nothing such as this, even the Pledge of Alledgiance is not at all required, though highly suggested to say. This creates problem for the ethnic minorities in Turkey, ranging from Greeks, Armenians, Laz, and Kurds (in the Kurdish category, I include both Kurmanci as well as Zaza), who are not ethnically Turks, and may even not know Turkish adequately to express themselves in a way in which they feel comfortable, thus suggesting a sort of Turkic supremity, despite the fact that much of the population of Anatolia is not Turkic aside from the language, but rather of a mixed descent; a melting pot, if you will, much like the United States is - there is no "True" Turkic identity, just as there is no "True" American identity, with the main differnce being that it seems that in Turkey, this fact is attempted to be hidden.

Granted, Atatürk may have intended "Turkish" to denote a region of rich cultural difference, it seems to me that "Turkish" these days is to denote a specific population of those with Muslim and non-Kurdish speaking background (even some revisionists claim that Lazca is a variation of the Turkish language, despite it being linguistically a Caucasian language - Indo-European - and not an Ural-Altaic language, like Turkish is, that is a language coming from Central Asia, despite its vast variety of Arabic and Persian loan words). There is not such a phenomenon in the United States, even with its vast variety of native languages, ranging from Spanish to Urdu, and every thing in between. The United States, as biggoted or racist as it may be at times, if not all the time, at least accepts its multi-cultural heritage and embraces it to varying degrees. In defense, however, of the modern republic of Turkey, times were different when each respective state was formed, however that does not mean that one state should remain static as we see that nationalism is an outdated idea - perhaps it was necessary during the time of the Ottoman Empire, but I myself, as well as many others, will argue that it is no longer necessary as the world becomes more and more globalized, whether it be an overall good thing or not.


Did you adapt to the life of Istanbul? What were the difficulties you experienced?

Yes, I can say I did adapt to İstanbul and all of its abnormalities, ranging from traffic to unpredictable weather, and every thing in between. The bizarre thing about İstanbul is something that has been long noted before me - that being that it is a mix of Balkan and Middle Eastern culture, as well as traces of Western Europe (so I am told, I have never been farther west in Europe than Chisinau, - Kişinev in Turkish - Moldova).

The biggest difficulty that I have experienced in this country is the feeling of isolation. It seems that modern Turkish society wishes to, at all costs, exoticise me. To be frank, I feel that I have had the entire İstanbul experience and am worthy of being called an "İstanbul'lu," given that I have learned Turkish and have had experiences similar to that of Orhan Veli, a poet who I love dearly and have only read in Turkish, ranging from hüzün, to efkâr, to poverty, living without water for two months, electricity for one week, and without heating for four months during the harsh winter time because of being poor, eating only poğaça during the summer to survive, an experience that most students, be they Turk or foreign, will never have to experience.

Though those who know me personally do not look at me and think of me as a "typical" American, society still forces itself upon me with my image of being "yabancı," mostly due to having been born with blonde hair and blue eyes, despite my ability to adequately express myself in the Turkish language, even teachers, implicitly assume that the blonde cannot (or generally do not) learn Turkish, as was exemplified by my sociology teacher during this semester, who looked at a German student with dark hair and said "Türk müsünüz?" only to be polietly answered "Değilim, ama Türkçe öğrendim," and when it came to me, he said nothing about the knowledge of the Turkish language, to which I said, "Hocam, aslında ben de Türkçe öğrendim," to which he said nothing, once again, as if in disbelief, despite the fact that Atatürk himself had a brighter blonde hair than I myself possess.

This problem, this alienation, is not something that stands alone with the population who consider themselves Turkish, regardless of being Turkomen or just claiming the identity, similar to Atatürk, who is obviously not of Central Asian descent, the Kurdish population also tend to "Occidentalize" me given my situation of being the "poorest American in İstanbul," by claiming that I am, "more like a Kurd than an American," because of my general poverty (I pay for my education via student loans, with which I have had tremendous bureaucratic problems this semester), and the fact that I can be polite in the Kurdish language - Çawa yî? Ez baş im, le tu? Demek ki nasılsın? İyiyim, sen? Something as simple as, "Hello, how are you? I'm fine, yourself?" can apparently warrant one as Kurdish, despite the lack of cultural ties. Another aspect of alienazation that I have experienced is that of religion - being raised a non-Muslim. Given the generally more accepting culture that comes with Islam, I haven't had too many problems, only once have I been called  a "kaffir," something that hurt me, not because I'm not religious, but beause it was an act of outright biggotry.

Did your dreams come true?

Did my dreams come true? No, I realized the rest of the world has as many problems as America, and people rarely care for others than themselves, regardless of whether or not one calls themself as a "solcu," or not.

What can you say about Turkish people?

What can I say about Turkish people? They are humans, some are terrible, some are great human beings.

What are your hobbies in Turkey? Is there anything that you miss doing?

My hobbies in Turkey are the same as every where else. I enjoy reading, drinking tea or coffee, smoking cigarettes, and reading.

Have you learned Turkish?  Is it difficult to learn Turkish for foreign students?

I have learned Turkish to at least an intermediate degree, although I presume higher. I can express myself accurately in most situations. One thing should be noted, however, accurately does not mean efficiently. Yes, of course, I still make mistakes when I speak, but to be fair, I have started learning Turkish only a year ago, roughly. Is it hard? It depends on one's perspective. 

Turkish is just another language, it is not special in this context, and Spanish grammar is much more difficult than Turkish for a native  English speaker, as the grammar is much more systematic and logical, despite the loan words coming from Latin or French, of which English is full. However, it is difficult to practice, because 1) teachers at Boğaziçi are generally apologetic and instead of teaching the language, talk about how "hard," it is and 2) many Turkish students are eager to practice English, but when it all comes down to it, it is only as hard as learning a new language can be - it takes time, patience, and practice.

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