I am writing this for other women who are considering moving to Istanbul... this isn't intended for people who are just visiting, site-seeing and remaining a tourist.
A little about me:
I am a 25 year-old woman with fair skin, blue eyes, a round face and brown hair.
I am a mother.
I am married.
I am a belly dancer (“oryantal” dancer).
I am an English teacher.
I am interested in history and politics.
I am a sensitive person.
If you can relate to any of these things, keep reading! I have a summarized (and very generalized) version and a lengthy in-depth version. I hope it’s helpful!
*I’ll put some links at the end for various things (good ESL lesson websites, dance teachers, good music venues, residency permit, etc.)*
If you look foreign, expect a LOT of attention. If you look Eastern-European, expect a lot of hopeful Turkish men asking if you are Russian. Yes they are complimenting your looks… they might also be implying that you could be a prostitute.
If you are a mother, expect to find a personal balance with your boundaries with complete strangers. Also, you will probably experience two different cities, one where you are in public with your child or family and one where you are alone… the treatment you get can vary greatly.
If you are married, expect a lot of question about your husband/partner and emphasize how happy you are.
If you are a professional belly dancer (or are planning to come here to study dance), don’t share your profession with everyone because they may judge you in a negative way and bring LOTS of money for lessons because they are not very affordable.
If you plan to teach English, join the groups on Facebook where people have posted their opinions on the many different language schools. Don’t expect more than 20 LIRA/hour when you start (this doesn’t include actual schools, just language-focused schools. Jobs are incredibly easy to get but don’t pay well and often the books are not good quality. Luckily there are endless online resources for ESL teachers.
My reason for putting that I’m sensitive can’t be summarized… read the final section below.
Beginning with the exterior… I received a lot of attention for my looks. Because of my blue eyes and round face men were constantly asking (sometimes under their breath, other times shouting down the street) if I was Russian. At first, when asked in seemingly honest ways, I answered, “No, but my grandfather was polish.” I was just trying to make them feel like they weren’t so off by guessing that I was Russian. Then I noticed that there was this sly grin and hungry curiosity in their eyes when they would ask and I understood that being Russian is not a casual question. Here, the name “Natasha” is actually synonymous with prostitute. As in, “I’m going to get a Natasha tonight.” So, once I learned about that, the question became quite irritating.
There were times that I was just honestly complimented on my eyes, by old ladies mostly. Or this one young man at the market who is trying to learn English. But, unfortunately, I must say that my different physical appearance mostly got me unwanted sexual attention.
My personal dress-code (which I wore almost every day): jeans, stretchy shirt that is form-fitting but not a low neck-line, boots in winter, converse all-stars or sandals in spring and summer. Very little make-up. The only time I deviated from this and wore a cute dress or high-heel boots was when I knew for certain that I would be accompanied by my husband or a male friend. This wasn’t that different from my regular attire in the United States, in the winter.. but as summer fell upon us it became an issue. I felt so uncomfortable whenever I went out in a dress. I was confused because I would see other young women, especially in the more touristic neighborhoods like Taksim, who were wearing super sexy dresses and tons of women wearing short skirts and high-heels everyday, but then I would look around and see the reactions they were getting. It was far worse than anything I’d experienced. Old women glaring or looking shocked, men staring at their legs or breasts and nudging their friends to look; all of it was incredibly blatant. Some days I would just say screw it and go out in a casual dress anyway, but by the end of my walk I was always grateful to be getting home and away from peoples eyes.
Being a foreign mother in Istanbul was both stressful and fun. I think the stress mostly had to do with the fact that it’s a very busy and dirty city, the streets are all uneven and the drivers are horrifying. Traffic and pedestrian rules do not apply. In the winter, old women would come up and start going off about my daughter not being warm enough (which, of course, she always was) and then in the summer people would stare, offended, if they caught a glimpse of her diaper (as if a babies diaper is the same as a woman’s black lace panties).
Fun aspects of being the mother of a young girl here was that people adored her and would always give her gifts or sweets. I often felt a little better going out with her because then people would give me a little more respect as a mother. Sometimes she would get annoyed when complete strangers would start pinching her cheeks (affectionately) or even try to pick her up or take her hand. Obviously I wouldn't let them unless it was someone I knew and trusted. It all depended on the scenario and person, but my husband told quite a few men to back off because they were making her and us uncomfortable. I understand that this is a cultural difference and have experienced something similar in Asia. I could also see that my daughter would be frustrated or angry about the attention. It was interesting to get her read on people. Usually, she wouldn’t want to connect or talk with people. Then, there would be one special person who she would just start jabbering to in mixed English and Turkish. I loved when people would try to teach her Turkish and show her new words for foods or objects. It always feels cool to have your child learn more than one language.
I definitely feel like attitudes would change once people knew I was married, especially if I talked him up a bit (proving that I’m not just with a guy, but that I am happily married… a friend of mine told me to emphasize this point). Turks seemed very interested in what my husband did for a living and were pleasantly surprised when I told them that he played violin, traditional Turkish style even. Many of my students wanted to hear it and know when his band would be playing. It made me happy that, even in a time of growing conservatism, the people always love their music. And to have a yabanci (foreigner) playing it seemed even cooler! I didn’t go into detail about the various styles that he can play because I preferred to keep it positive and I wasn’t sure if saying he also loves Greek and Bulgarian music would go over as well since I know that Turkey's relationship with those two countries has always been a little rocky and for some the hateful disposition might still exist.
TIP: I’ve heard of many women wearing a wedding ring even if they aren’t married, just to minimize the amount of attention they get.
My identity as a professional bellydance artist was not like my husbands as a musician. I have never had peoples respect for me be so quickly thrown out the window in a matter of seconds after saying, “I dance Oryantal.” I learned quickly to never tell my male students this, since they would never look at me the same. I learned quickly to expect disgusting emails and text messages when I would post on craigslist that I was available to teach lessons (though it did also get me some great dance students, so it was worth it!). I once woke up to a text saying that I was so hot, they wanted to sop me up with a biscuit. Yes, from a complete stranger. The longer I lived here, the less I even desired to try and dance at a public venue. I am not naive… I know that in the United States there were plenty of men who would see me dance and have a few dirty thoughts cross their minds. But here, the sexual tension is so high, there is so much confusion about what is “right” and “wrong” and what it “attainable” and “desirable”… I didn’t even want to step into the light of desire since I felt like I already experienced too much just walking down the street!
As for taking lessons, I couldn’t afford it! If that is your reason for coming here than bring lots of money set aside for just that. I was given prices around 60 EURO per hour… that’s pretty even with dollars these days, but a LOT of Lira (essentially, triple it). Since we didn’t come with a lot of money saved up and I was instantly working and getting paid in LIRA, that price was just too high for me. But there are lot’s of incredible teachers of different styles, so it’s just up to you and what you can spend.
Before coming to Istanbul I got my TEFL certification online. No one who hired me ever asked to see proof of it (damn, that was a waste of money!) but it’s still good to have. They all just asked if I had a degree and had taught before. Whether or not that is true for you, just say “Yes” and “Yes.” They are usually just so glad to have a native speaker because it makes their business much more appealing to potential students. Some schools offer books for your class and those books are usually not for American English, but rather British English, so their may come times when you’re asking yourself, “How can I not answer this question?!” and it’s usually because they used some weird British word we’ve never heard. Try your best, but also really push for classes that are right for you… if you don’t speak any Turkish yet, don’t try to teach a bunch of children who only know how to stay “Hello, how are you.” They need someone who can translate for them. The best are the more advanced students who want to work on conversational English.
Try to get as many private lessons as possible! Just post on craigslist like everyone else and check out what the going rate is from other teachers. I would say don’t take less than 50 LIRA per hour and try for more. For privates, always meet them in a public place first for a little get-to-know-your-level meeting and you will hopefully be able to see if they are a creep or not. I had one student who I met with and we even had our lessons at my house with my husband in the other room, but he made a few flirtatious jokes and it got uncomfortable. So, I think that the initial meeting is very important and will hopefully weed out the weirdos. If they are really a creep they probably just wont show up, so that’s good!
Once I started teaching regular classes, many different topics of conversation would come up. It just so happened that I was in Istanbul during an election and politics were on everyone’s mind and therefor on the table to talk about. I was very cautious about what I would say to different students. My advise is, in a teacher-student situation at least, to let them give their opinion first because they may surprise you with some strange views. If they have views you don’t agree with, it may be something you two don’t talk about because there are old and deeply-rooted issues between Turks and… we’ll just say “non-Turks.” There are many prejudices about Kurds, Armenians and, now more than before, Syrians. There were other times when I was pleasantly surprised to hear a student openly say that they thought what happened to the Armenian’s was a genocide (most wont say it) or that they feel sorry for the Syrians (many would instead express disgust or frustration). I learned that the old issues are very difficult to discuss because they idolize Ataturk so much that they wont say that anything he did was wrong. They wont even talk about him in the past tense, they use the present tense for him because they say it’s like he can’t die. I am from California, where people walk around topless and hug trees to make a point. Obviously I wasn’t expecting that here, but I was still shocked by the normalcy of a somewhat closed mind about topics that in my opinion deserve some reflection or to be re-understood by Turks in general, since racism seems perfectly acceptable here. For example: I had a student who told me flat out that she didn't like black people. I asked, "ALL black people?" and she said yes. When I asked why she smiled and said, "I just dont!"
I had a hard time with comments and attitudes like that.
The reason I identified myself as a sensitive person is because the differences in Turkish culture really effected me emotionally. I was often frustrated or annoyed, mostly feeling stifled by the reality that going out alone was an unpleasant and definitely not relaxing experience. It didn’t feel like going outside to get some air, instead it felt suffocating to be out of my apartment. I know I’m not alone because I’ve seen other women write the same thing… feeling like they became hermits or closed off. Always putting on sunglasses and earbuds when they went out to block out everyone. My yearning to do the same thing made me sad because while there are a lot of annoying occurrences, there can also be really sweet interactions with wonderful people. And you miss those when you’re all closed off. The truth is that many foreign women feel like they cannot be themselves here in Istanbul… like they have to take away their genuine friendly disposition because it might come off as “too friendly” or make men think that they are available or want to be flirted with. This just isn’t fair and it isn’t fun. Some women seem to be able to handle it and just approach it in a less emotional way, a more practical “I should respect this other culture and adapt” way and that is fine! Great even! But if you are sensitive the way that I am, this degradation or giving up of self will take it’s toll. Overall my experience wasn’t the greatest, but it was incredibly educational. I made a few wonderful Turkish friends and a few from other lands as well! I hope that this will answer some questions for those who are interested in moving to Istanbul.
LINKS FOR EXPATS
Foreign Women of Istanbul
Istanbul Expat Center
Foreigners Living in Istanbul
Istanbul Instructors Network
Arsen Lupen https://www.facebook.com/arsenlupenteras?fref=ts
Leyla Teras https://www.facebook.com/pages/Leyla-Teras-Bar/105140482913984?fref=ts
ESL Lessons and Worksheets:
History and Interesting Articles:
Turkish News Sites: