I think I have been an expat long before now, even while residing in “my country” of the United States of America. My upbringing was a training to leave and the evolution of my attitude towards my hometown were the stepping stones to my eventual expatriation. As my opinions and beliefs regarding American politics, media and the government developed, I day-dreamed more and more about leaving. It isn’t a strong part of my character that has wanted to “abandon ship” and it doesn’t agree with all the things I feel. I feel a lot about all of those things, I have an opinion, but in actuality I was doing very little about it. Posting my opinion about Palestine on Facebook was not really an action as much as I love to imagine all 1409 of my “friends” reading it and agreeing with me. So to live in a place where many aspects of the country infuriate me and at the same time be in a personal or emotional place where I don’t or can’t prioritize making a difference resulted in a very helpless and pathetic feeling me. This, along with other things I will explain, was one deep underlying reason for me wanting to leave the United States.
I was raised inside the fascination of the worlds cultures, constantly seeking more and indulging in the magic of the Eastern religions, the tastes from roadside kitchens, the masks of ancient art forms. We left as much and spent as long away as we could afford to. My mind held onto the magic, the tastes… the steam of rice dishes and sweet purity of fresh tropical fruits. My heart held onto the sight of poverty and the way it would induce a harsh and sudden appreciation for all that I have. All of me held onto the knowledge that there is so much more than what we are born into and if made a priority, one can experience it and possibly achieve a higher level of awareness and understanding. I had a beautiful illustrated book about Siddhartha and I could always relate to his secret trip to town, where he first witnessed sick people, poverty and death. That is how traveling felt for me… transformative and therefor irreplaceable. Without seeing these things that give perspective it is like living your whole life blind. The way I’ve said it to friends considering a trip: “There is no better education than to travel the world.”
Obviously not everywhere else is some tropical paradise. And so I find myself in a “somewhere else” that looks a lot like home. This city has tall buildings, malls, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, playgrounds, hamburgers and french fries; men drenched in cologne and women wearing high heels in the rain. In many ways this is just like the United States of America, aside from it being an Islamic country, though the governments power via this matter doesn’t seem so different to me as the so-called “Democracy” of the U.S.A.
Yet here I am an “expat.”
I didn’t realize that we were going to be called that, I didn’t think about it. I remember my mom using the term when we were in Thailand. I always associated expats with a grey-haired white men from America, England or Australia who moved to a third-world country and married a native girl who was, usually, quite a bit younger. They would relax for the rest of their lives and live comfortably, if not lavishly, with her cooking all his meals and him inviting his friends to visit, usually convincing at least one of them to stay and join him on a life of remarkably real affordable happiness.
We are expats here, young and brown-haired with our toddler daughter. We do not live lavishly, we do not shop for things we don’t need; we do not live much differently than the average local in our neighborhood. We seek out the cheap markets and while our apartment is spacious and lovely, there were a few cockroaches living with us during the first week of transition from vacant to occupied (by humans). Needless to say, my definition of “expat” has changed dramatically since becoming one.
No one called me one, I only realized my new identity because I was searching for answers about where to find things or do things in Istanbul that were centered on being a resident and I kept on being brought to websites that were “A Guide for Expats in Turkey” and titles like that. And so I realized, “A-hah, I am an expat!” and then, “Wait…where’s my fresh papaya and pad thai?”
Before I left, and since I’ve been here, many people asked me, “Why move to Turkey?” and while I understand that California and The Bay Area in particular are incredibly beautiful places to live, I think it is also a bit of a curse to be born there. Now don’t get mad and let me explain. I only consider it to be a curse because if you’re someone with a soul like mine, someone who longs to see other places and re-root somewhere else in the world. For me it is painful to be from the Bay Area. With it’s beautiful land, incredible art scene that bounds boldly to all ends of the spectrum, the coast, the mountain, the food, the nature and the great schools, the Bay Area is a Utopia. But my soul has longed to leave home and because of all it’s great qualities, I feel unfortunate to call it “home”! I am often jealous of people we were born and raised there and have no desire to leave but to get to know it better and become those awesome experts of their habitat. Those people who test our tons of different Pho restaurants and know which farmer’s market is best and weird shortcuts through the city. Cheers to you! I seriously and very genuinely applaud you.
Of course I am grateful to have been raised there. Childhood in Bolinas was like a dream with it’s wonderful seasons of blackberry pickin’ , puddle stomping, cliff-climbing and hot beach days. It is a truly enchanting place that I was and am proud to be from. I look back fondly on the first 18 years of my life that were primarily spent there, give or take the half-time that occurred once I was in high school (us Bolinas kids usually end up finding at least one surrogate family “over-the-hill” just so we don’t have to take the hour-long bus ride over Mt. Tam every morning and evening of the school week). I think that those years of development within a place that is surrounded by wild nature and a community of eccentrics and artists is healthy because kids there tend to be more open-minded and accepting of things and people that may not be “normal”. At least that’s how I felt until I was 18.
A sad, violent and shocking event occurred in Bolinas that changed my view of it for quite a while and was a large reason for why I was so keen to move away. Without going into to detail, a group of my peers attacked and actually attempted to kill a man who was not a local, but had been staying in Bolinas for a few months. I could not understand why. Even after town-meetings and hearing their many reasons or excuses… I couldn’t see it from their side. And it was on this note that many long, some life-long, friendships I had were cut off and I moved to Berkeley, disconnecting myself from my hometown but still residing in my “home” of the Bay Area. This was the first time I expatriated myself. I barely visit much and when I did return for one summer I spent most of my time over-the-hill or with a different group of friends in town, mostly adults whose ages sat strangely perfectly between my mom and I so we just shared them.
Between the years of 2008 and 2011 I lived in two different apartments in Berkeley and then with my boyfriend at the time, Andy, who was also my best friend. We lived in a few different places within the East Bay and during one summer we lived at our parents houses (though like I said before, I really spent most of my time at his house… I even had a drawer for my clothes). Eventually we got a place in Emeryville with a roommate and had our own house. It was all good fun until someone broke in and stole a bunch of our stuff. I know that I may sound like a wuss, especially to all you who have lived in Oakland, but we packed up all our stuff that night and left. If the set up of the house and property have been better then I may have reacted differently, but it wasn’t like most blocks in the East Bay. This house stood alone with a lot of space between it and the other houses and a weirdly huge and open backyard that made it very visible from all angles. It was like a perfect little target for any one to check out and break into. After that we got a very safe studio apartment in the heart of Downtown Berkeley and we lived there until 2011 when we broke up and parted ways.
It wasn’t long before the love of my life, and now father of my child, moved up to the Bay and we officially became something, not just summer loves. Now, I must warn you that from this point onward my housing luck (or rather, our housing luck) just kept getting worse and worse. The only gem of positivity I can find in it is that our shitty experiences together only made our togetherness stronger and our ability to behave and think like a team was sharpened. I won’t go into detail on all the places we lived at, of which there were many, but the experiences included a vanilla extract addict, a swinger party-throwing and prostitute-hiring landlord, a prostitute neighbor tenant (suprisingly, the last two were in different cities… maybe they know each other though), a psychotically angry roommate and his hysterical girlfriend, a renting through family disaster, an over-controlling roommate and a live-work situation with people who didn’t trust us. It has been quite a ride. Of course within all of that there were good bits, staying with our good friends in Berkeley for the most part and there were really great times at some of those places even if the roommates sucked or the landlords we jerks. But in the end, when something wasn’t right, we would eventually move on. At one point we built our own little wagon and left Northern California for warmer weather; it felt like we were escaping in that sweet mini-home. I can barely find the words to describe how much of a sanctuary that wagon was; a hand built and necessary, even if only momentary, protective shell for our little family.
I also want to point out that I understand there is more to the United States than California, but not many other states attract me as places to live. Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas have caught my interest before for school and dance reasons, and I would love to visit New York City… my family has land in Wyoming that I would love to see, but where else in the United States would I want to actually live? It’s not just about whether the land is pretty or if I’m close to the ocean, whether there is a nice city or a job waiting for me. It’s also whether or not there are incredible dancers for me to see and study with, whether or not there are musicians for my husband to learn from or perform with, if there are places to perform, and I think most of all: is there a culture we are interested in.
I’ve taken part in the “American Culture” discussion many times and I used to say that there isn’t one. That is not true, there is definitely an American Culture. It’s just very new and very spread out and different from many cultures across the globe, it is infinitely multi-faceted. The United States is a huge place and within it there are cultures and countercultures and endless types of people and ways of being. But to say “I’m American” and have that mean more than just where you were born is a bit of a stretch. Because of the multi-faceted nature of American Culture one person walking down the street could be a African-American Wiccan Woman who works at a thrift store and another person walking down the street could be an Irish descent man from the countryside who recently converted to Islam. There are certain places was there is more of a norm, but if you’re in the Bay, for instance, there’s really no telling who anyone is!
So when asked, “Why move to Turkey?” this is what I wish to say:
Aside from us both having the types of souls that seek something fresh and untried, we also both seem to marvel at the existence of a primary culture: it is mentally arousing, personally challenging and a stimulation and education for the soul.
The culture that exists here is old, even if there are gleaming new aspects to it; even if there are awesome and appropriate new countercultures. It is a place that has always made sense: a crossroads for trade, for knowledge. A bridge between two continents. A land of treasure and battles; history has been made here before. People have combined here. Empires built and lost here.
The fact that the culture is old and seems so set in stone makes it feel like there is some structure to how things are here. It isn’t an American free-for-all. While I don’t doubt that many walls need to be broken down or updated (this is both literal and metaphorical), I think that the existence of this structure is a good thing, it is the skeleton of this ancient place.
As for my soul… the hunger to be somewhere new and untried has been fed for now. But hey, there’s still the whole world out there. That is said with a smile and was my go-to short answer for the frequently asked question, “Why move to Turkey?” and then I’d like to turn it around and ask, “Why stay in the United States?”
"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." -Saint Augustine