Friday, January 29, 2010

Mother Bear

Yesterday, my motherly instinct was awakened and I regressed in my quest for patience and understanding amid the sometimes frustrating sense of community in Turkey.

My son is now one month old, and I've gotten used to the constant comments regarding my negligence in the heating department -- by local standards, I don't dress him warmly enough.

I heard it from the nurses as we were getting ready to leave the hospital; I hear it from the nurses at the local sağlık ocağı, where we go for our free immunizations; I've heard it from in-laws; and perhaps most surprisingly, I've heard it from strangers on the street.

Some background before I continue:
  • I dress him according to the rule of thumb whatever I'm wearing, plus one. I first read this in my What to Expect: The First Year book, but have come across it elsewhere as well.
  • Turkish people, especially in the Mediterranean region, conspicuously overdress their children -- layers of clothing topped by a sweater or two and wrapped in a blanket
But this week, while walking at a local mall with Baby in my arms (he'd been crying so I took him out of his pram to comfort him), a woman not only stopped me to tell me he wasn't dressed warmly enough, but did so by putting her hands on him! My choices at that moment were to either use Baby as a weapon of sorts and push her hands off by ploughing into her with his body, or to harshly tell her to mind her own business.

Oh, how I wish I'd done the latter! However, my body was faster than my brain, and I charged into her, forcing her to side-step. The incident left me fuming for hours (days, actually, if you consider that I'm now writing this two days after the fact), and I'm afraid that instead of learning to just ignore the well-meaning ignorance, the mother bear in me has been awakened instead: will I now attack, presumably verbally, such meddlers in the future?

The Things We Know For Sure

The American Declaration of Independence refers to certain truths as ''self-evident,'' and with that statement endeavoured to indeed make them so. It is my personal theory, though, that humans are hard-wired to hold some things to be self-evident without even realizing it, which is why I love the term so much.

I'm embarrassed to say it's taken me far too long to get past my self-righteousness and stop judging the local ways of doing things -- or at least to realize that people are only doing what they truly, deeply believe to be correct. Since the instant I arrived in Turkey, for example, one sweltering August day three-and-a-half years ago, women have been telling me to wear some kind of undershirt or badi (body suit that snaps shut under the crotch, much like a baby's onesie) under my t-shirt, so that if I bend over and my bare lower back is exposed, I won't catch cold.

Likewise, I'd always noticed that Turkish children seem to be over-dressed, to the point that they must surely be sweating under all those layers. Now with a baby of my own, I have been criticized more times than I can count for under-dressing him and putting my son in danger of catching a cold. I've discussed this with Turkish friends and doctors, and they agree this belief is a problem -- over-heating is far more dangerous for a baby than being a little cold.

Yet no doctor can seem to convince these women otherwise; one doctor even told me that some mothers prevent him from undressing their babies for a proper physical examination, so afraid are they that the baby will freeze. And I must add here -- we are on the Mediterranean, where even in the depths of winter, it doesn't get below zero degrees Celsius!

The list goes on: my cleaning lady actually prefaced her erroneous advice by saying in a hushed tone that she knew the doctors would disagree, but I should ignore them and listen to her: giving my 3-day-old son sugar water would prevent jaundice. One woman told me onion produces breast milk, another bulgur. Another told me to bind my baby's legs tightly to ensure they'll turn out straight.

My response over the years to these Turkish people has ranged from snooty aren't-they-ignorant trash talking behind their backs, to exasperatedly trying to explain the error of their ways. Neither of which I'm proud of. I eventually got to the point where I am now, which is simply politely nodding. Most of the time.

But what I've only recently come to realize is that these people are simply passing on what they truly believe to be self-evident; they cannot fathom that their knowledge may be incorrect.

And to make matters worse, it's dawned on me that I too may be wrong about some things! I went into my delivery convinced I wanted an epidural. A few days later, though, I watched Ricki Lake's documentary The Business of Being Born, and realized that I'd based that decision on a one-sided presentation of how births should be done, namely the North American medical industry's point-of-view.

One's culture clearly has the ability to instill deep beliefs that one holds as self-evident and doesn't question. Which leads me to ask, what else may I be wrong about?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Expat Entertainment

I'm happy to say that most of my expat life here in Turkey is very Turkish. My in-laws, my colleagues (most of them, at least), and many of my friends are all Turkish; my conversations with the grocer and my kuaför take place in Turkish; I eat homemade yogurt and don't worry about death by mystery bacteria.

And every so often when the foreigness of it all gets to be just too much, I have my circle of expat friends that saves me.

Lately, though, I've been feeling perfectly at peace in my adopted home -- new baby and the best winter weather ever (except for several rainy days lately, it's been 18 degrees Celsius during the day, with cloudless turquoise sky and snow capped mountains in the distance).

So I was surprised by how deeply affected I was by last weekend's murder mystery dinner. My husband and I joined five of our foreign friends for ''A Taste of Wine and Murder.'' I'd never been to a murder mystery party before, and was excited for days beforehand. My husband thought I was a little crazy each time I mentioned it, wondering why my friends and I would want to play a childish game, but went along with it. We dressed up, donned foreign accents, and played up our characters' types. I was a money-loving maneater on my fourth husband, the previous three having all died or disappeared!

The evening was thoroughly good-for-my-soul and otherwise restorative; it was also without a doubt thoroughly non-Turkish. Which made me realize that nothing can replace one's own culture and one's deep need for it every so often.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Expat vs. Immigrant

I have long been aware of the benefits of being an expat; the numerous ways my life here is easier than back in Canada; the countless advantages I have over locals. And I admit I enjoy my expatriate life.

However, every so often I am reminded of the flip side, immigration, and feel guilty. It's not fair that I should so easily be able to change countries and adapt to a new life, while the reality of millions of immigrants, many of them likewise well-educated and having had good jobs in their home countries, is a constant struggle. Whereas I am considerably advantaged as a Canadian in Turkey, especially since I've learned the language, Turks in Canada, for nexample, are more often than not disadvantaged.

Does the difference lie in the person, or in the destination country? My brother and fellow expat just got his Leave to Remain in Great Britain. A Canadian citizen like me, well-educated and well-employed, he doesn't 'need' to stay in the UK, he just wants to. However, the application process he went through was slow and cumbersome; it was the same process immigrants to Britain go through.

Canada is, like Britain, a first world country, and Turkish immigration applicants don't have an easy time of it. However, more often than not, even once they've become citizens, their new life is difficult. Their degrees may not be recognized, and where they may have had a whitecollar job back home, they often find only labourer positions in Canada. It is their children who will benefit from the move to Canada, not the migrating generation.

This is all horribly simplified, I realize. If I had time, I'd turn this into a thesis or a book! But for now, just a few musings. Of course all this becomes irrelevant every time I reenter Turkey and spend two hours sweating in line waiting to go through customs at Ataturk Airport. The area is badly ventilated, under-lit, and under-staffed -- in glaring contrast to the area for Turkish citizens.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Birth in Turkey

I won't post my entire birth story here, but I do want to write a little about my experience giving birth in a Turkish hospital -- although I must qualify the following by saying that I'm sure a dozen different women at a dozen different hospitals throughout Turkey would have a dozen different experiences; I can't claim my experience was typical.

I can say that I had moments during labour and in the days after the birth where I thought, next time I'm going back to Canada to have my baby! But before I get into the things I didn't like about my birth experience, I'll just say that I'm so proud of myself for having given birth naturally; I'm so in love with my son; and the whole experience was pretty incredible!

Now on to the negatives:
  • THEY WOULDN'T GIVE ME AN EPIDURAL! This is no small complaint. It had been on my birth plan; my doctor hadn't said anything about it being a problem; yet the doctor on duty (of course I went into labour in the middle of the night!) said they ''don't do'' epidurals with vaginal births. What??!! I think what he meant to say, was that the anesthesiologist only works from 9-5. Lesson learned: make sure your hospital is big enough to meet your needs. I was fooled by my hospital's shiny newness and modernity (each doctor had his own Doppler ultrasound machine in his office!)**

  • The nurses didn't seem to have consistent procedures in place. A few hours after giving birth, I fainted and threw up after getting out of bed for the first time to go to the bathroom. The nurse's first comment was, ''Haven't you eaten anything since the delivery?'' No one told me to!

  • No one came to systematically teach me anything about breastfeeding or otherwise caring for my baby; no one checked in to see whether breastfeeding was happening at all. (It wasn't.) At one point, a nurse peered into the bassinet and casually remarked that I should be putting my baby to sleep on his side, not on his back. I was overcome with horror that I'd been doing something wrong! Again, why didn't anyone tell me that from the start?

In summary, my husband and I were left to flounder as newbie parents for the first few days, until we figured things out on our own. I relied heavily on my What to Expect books, emails and phone calls to friends back in Canada, and my in-laws. But more often than not, their advice conflicted with something someone else had said, and we just had to figure things out on our own. The ''customer service'' aspect of my delivery was awful, and my theory is that local women rely so much on the support of the women in their family, that the nurses and midwives don't even bother saying anything; they just assume you're getting enough help and advice from other sources.

My advice to other expat women: speak to other expats who've delivered babies in your area so you can learn from their 'mistakes.' Better yet, if at all possible, find a doctor who's delivered other foreign women!

**A few days after giving birth I watched the documentary The Business of Being Born, which made me, in retrospect, glad I didn't have an epidural. Still, I think a woman who requests one, should be able to have one; I was extremely stressed out about going all natural during labour!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Happy Birthday!

A few months ago I discovered, and my only regret is that I didn't know about the site sooner. This week the site is celebrating its third anniversary; I've been in Turkey three-and-a-half years, and definitely would have benefited from from the site during my first few years, as I struggled to adapt to my new expat life! But better late than never; I especially love the links to other women's blogs!

Anyway, Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Big Fat Turkish Family

My ''What to Expect'' book had been telling me for weeks to stock up on groceries and fill the freezer with ready-to-cook meals in anticipation of baby's arrival and the upheaval to our lives it would bring. Although I never found the energy to actually follow the book's advice, I did spend lots of time musing on the North American cultural bias that advice implied.

I suppose North American couples spend more time alone, away from their extended families; indeed, the books I read all encouraged me to speak up and tell well-meaning visitors to back off. But I have been more than happy to embrace new motherhood ''Turkish style.''

My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and her daughter were all at the hospital within an hour of my husband calling to tell them, and witnessed my noisy labour (more on the Turkish hospital birthing experience soon). They were just outside the delivery room when I gave birth. They spent the night with us in our hospital room. They spent the following day with us at home. And I will be eternally grateful to them for that.

They changed Baby's first diapers; they stayed awake and kept watch so I could sleep, otherwise too afraid to take my eyes off Baby, lest he should stop breathing; they helped me learn how to breastfeed and burp him; they cooked meals for us. They comforted Baby when he cried.

Any first-time mother who doesn't need that kind of support, either from a professional or from family, must be super-human.