Another Cup of Tea

What’s it like to go from a college student in Austin, Texas, to an English teacher in Amasya, Turkey? Marianne Shea takes us inside her new life in this bustling, old-world city.

When Marianne Shea ’11 finishes her yearlong Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Amasya, Turkey, she’ll know how to brew a superb pot of tea. Black, with a hint of jasmine. Not too strong. And served in dainty, tulip-shaped cups.

It’s a common drink and a culturally significant one. To refuse it when offered is rude. To invite guests over and not serve it is equally rude.

These unspoken rules are just the beginning of the cultural maze Shea is weaving her way through as a young American female in a conservative Middle Eastern society. She arrived in Amasya — a city of 100,000 nestled between Anatolia and the country’s Black Sea region — in September 2011. Soon after, she began teaching English to first-year natural science students at Amasya Üniversitesi.

Shea, an English Writing and Rhetoric graduate with an interest in Middle Eastern cultures inspired in part by contemporary authors Orhan Pamuk and Azar Nefisi, applied for the Fulbright to Turkey to explore her love of literature and language. Little did she realize she’d also be delving into issues of social inequality, gender expectations and cultural close-mindedness.

Here, in her own words, she describes what it’s like to live each day 7,000 miles from all that’s familiar. —As told to Stacia Hernstrom


Head of the Class
Shea with her students

My first week of teaching is over. It was nerve-wracking. But with a little help from Peter Piper and Mother Goose, I made it through.

I teach two classes of 26 students, who range in age from 19 to their early 30s, each in a small yellow room. I have a white board and a computer that works. Sometimes.

I started out reviewing stuff I thought the class would already know, like simple introductions. But that turned out to not be true. A few of my students didn’t even know how to say, “Hello, my name is...” And making mistakes is unacceptable in Turkish society, so the students are not okay with learning by error.

The textbook was no help. No one has a copy because it is prohibitively expensive. Aside from the price, it’s too advanced. Instead, I ended each class with a tongue-twister like “Peter Piper” or a nursery rhyme like “Three Blind Mice.” And I gave the students helpful translations — how to say phrases like “I don’t understand” and “Please repeat.”

I immediately hit it off with the class, even though we couldn’t understand each other very well. I relied a lot on the patience I honed tutoring international students and working as a TA during my undergrad days at St. Edward’s. Working with ESL students is hard. It was hard then, and it’s hard now. But I really like it.

And I like my students here in Amasya. They like me. That’s something we can always fall back on. Well, that … and “One, two, buckle my shoe.”


Culture Shock: The “Root” Cause
Shea and the pickels

Turkey is difficult to handle culturally because there are so many things that are similar to life in the United States. It’s the subtle differences that get you because you don’t see them coming.

Like the celery.

Amasya has three farmers’ markets every week — on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. We get a shockingly wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and they are cheap. We get a lot of root vegetables, lots of leafy greens and tons of citrus fruits. Even in winter, we get fresh stuff. It’s incredible.

We get cheese that melts; we get milk, cream and yogurt. We get white beans that are great-northern-ish, kidneys, chickpeas, lentils and a bean that is like a pinto but not quite. There are also black-eyed peas on occasion. It took me a while to locate oregano, but I finally tracked some down. Dried mint and red pepper flakes are everywhere because both are popular in Turkish cooking.

Amasya also has special foods. Yogurt soup with chickpeas. A tomato-and-egg dish called menemen. Lentil soup. Cucumber and tomato salad. Pastries with poppy seed paste. And bread. Lots and lots of bread.

Then there’s the celery. Farmers grow it so that it has a large root and very measly stalks. It also tastes really salty. (Of course, they think it’s crazy that Americans cook primarily with the stalks.)

It’s funny that such a bland-tasting, bland-colored vegetable is the source of such cultural difference. But it’s true. Celery? Is a fitting metaphor for my Turkish experience.


Littler Women
Shea drinking turkish tea

I am sitting at a bus stop in the middle of Anatolia somewhere. I’m on my way to Amasya to begin my year of teaching. And I see this old Turkish guy driving a mule-drawn cart with bells. It’s loaded down with flour.

That is the moment it hit me — this is the country I would be living in for the next 10 months.

But the horse-drawn carts I got over pretty fast. It’s living in a society with such different values that is most difficult.

If I get on a bus, I can’t sit down next to a man. If I am with a man in a restaurant, the waiters assume that he will speak for me. And there are places that women, expat or Turkish, just don’t go — like the tea houses, where men play cards, smoke and talk with friends. Women are just not allowed.

Even in a place like Amasya with 100,000 people, there are very few public spaces for women.

About 75 percent of my students are women. Their families expect them to get college degrees, but many say their ideal career is “housewife” — and that their hobbies include “window washing.” Culturally, they are conditioned to care about finding a boyfriend who will become a husband who can support them and their future children.

They don’t plan on having their own careers and most don’t plan on ever leaving Turkey. If they do work? It’s always with the understanding that their careers are second-best to their husband’s.

It’s a harsh reality that doesn’t sit well with me. But, here, it’s the truth.


Great Expectations

I knew that completing a Fulbright scholarship in Turkey would not be like doing it in a Western country. I knew that. I had traveled to Italy, India and Israel before coming to Turkey. And I am interested in Middle Eastern cultures, particularly non-Arabic Middle Eastern cultures.

But I must say — I didn’t expect the level of difficulty that I’ve encountered.

I came into this program thinking that I would be working with really earnest students who were going to find a love for English and use it to see the world in a different way. That is not the case.

Generally, they don’t care.

I have not found a way to make them care. And at this point, after five months of talking with teachers in almost identical situations, I don’t know if there is a way to reach many of them.

But let me end that pity party with this.

There are a few — a few — really good students who make it completely worth it. They are interested in English. They are interested in bettering themselves. And they work hard at both. I teach 55 students, and I have about 10 who are really dedicated.

They keep me motivated. I talk to them about my own university experiences. I praise them in front of other teachers. I tell them about the world outside Turkey. I encourage them to follow their ambitions.

If there is anything I can do for them, I do it. Those 10 prop me up, day after day. I want to do the same for them.


Talk to Me
Shea practicing her English skills

Why did I choose Turkey for my Fulbright? On the practical side, my writing major fit. Plus, they didn’t have a stringent language requirement. (Perfect for me. I didn’t know Turkish when I applied.)

But precious few people speak English in Amasya. I’ve had to learn enough to get by on a daily basis. And quickly.

At one point, I had three different tutors who would all cancel about every third class. Between the three of them, I managed a class a week. It became too ridiculous when they found out about each other. They got jealous, and I felt like a soap opera heroine.

So I decided to go it alone. I have lots of people around willing to answer questions. I have a few Turkish books. But mostly? It’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants language acquisition.

What’s funny to me is that Turks have so many ways of asking how you are. Nasılsın? (How are you?)  Nasıl gidiyor? (How’s it going?) Ne haber? (What’s new?) Ne yapıyorsun? (What are you up to?)

Often, they will run through two or three of those at the start of a conversation. It translates like this: How are you? [Pause.] Hey, how are you!? [Pause.] How’s life treating you? [Real conversation begins.]

There’s also the expression Öyle mi? (Really?) It’s a favorite of mine. And İyi günler — good day — is both a greeting and a goodbye. Then there are the two phrases I use most: bilmiyorum and anlamadim. I don’t know and I don’t understand.

It’s true. I don’t know. I don’t understand. But every day? I’m learning.