Greek/Balkan | Turkish

Photo credit: Selfie

Photo credit: Selfie

I identify firstly as Mediterranean. I am mixed-race half Turkish & half White European of Greek/Balkan descent. I am also straight & atheist with a hybrid culture as I got exposed to French culture in missionary school since I was 14. Later on, I moved to Paris. I have been living in Paris-London & Edinburgh for almost 10 years now. Currently, I am living in the Scottish Highlands where my husband is from. Both my parents are Turkish born but of parents with different nationalities. My Mother’s genetic background is from Greece and Turkey, my Father’s genetic background is from Bulgaria/Albania/Turkey. Their parents and grandparents fled the war while the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. They immigrated to what became modern Turkey and found partners over there. My Father is an architect and Mother is an urban designer and a painter. They met in an architectural fair in Istanbul.

With my appearance, I have encountered the feeling of not fitting into any category. I’m aware I am physically seen as White with my blue eyes, fair skin, and light brown hair going naturally blonder in summer. In summer, I can tan but also experience freckling. This has always made Turkish people treat me like a rarity and a foreigner, which, from very early on incited me to look for belonging elsewhere. My physical features make me passable in Europe, but I don’t like to identify as ‘White passing’, it sounds like denying half of my genetic heritage that is European. In addition, the French missionary high-school that I attended was a microcosm of freedom of expression. I found French ways of reasoning and values compatible with my personality. I lived in Istanbul, Paris, Edinburgh, London. I speak French, English and Turkish. I’ve avidly absorbed the cultures, in which I lived and thus, I think this hybrid culture defines me more than my ethnicity, although it’s over the ethnicity people tend to obsess. Growing up in Istanbul in a secular middle-class environment, I never thought I was anything but White European, as what is most visible amplifies. At a young age, I also noticed a different culture, food, traditions, decoration in my household compared to my friends and neighbours. Yet, I started to develop a consciousness of my mixed-race with clarity only when I moved to Paris. I learned a lot about what my looks combined with my background represent during these past 10 years. Overall, my experience was positive. I don’t know how different my experience would be if my looks confirmed the expectations. However, I cannot deny that I also lived moments of frustration. People tend to think I am European or American until I tell I am Turkish and then, they are surprised and start struggling wanting to put me into a category. They miss the point that mixed-race people are unique and will never fit into one racial box.

Historically, French people are more familiar with Arabic and North African cultures, so I got a lot ‘Oh you don’t like Turkish, I would’ve never guessed! Then does this make you some sort of Arab?’. Many believe Turkish language is Arabic. So, I constantly have to explain different language families, the borrowings, the alphabet, the revolution. I am an art historian by profession, I love sharing and explain with pleasure, but I just remember being surprised and slightly disappointed that people weren’t informed to that point. So much of our Turkish identity is defined relatively to the West, we are more informed about Europe than they are of Turkey. It is a one-sided relationship. As frustrating as it may be, after a while I got used to hearing similar things from different people. In France, there’s this orientalist fetish for the ‘odalisque’, I found myself constantly exoticised and hyper-sexualised in both Turkey and Europe. When I was telling Europeans about my family, some reactions were like ‘Oh so you are not a real Turk!’. It is then I started to grasp what mixed-race really meant with my family immigration story in mind.

I always get asked in Turkey whether I am ‘göçmen’ (meaning immigrant from former Ottoman territories of the West), which is the case for my family. I cannot say my experience of living in Turkish society has been entirely positive: I have always felt like an outsider. From very early on I got adored as a beautiful kid, people would stop my mother on the street to contemplate me. Then, from age 7 to 12, I got bullied by the girls in school for my appearance and the way I talked. I remember resenting my parents for having given me a Western sounding first name, it has always put me on the spot. Whenever I come across Turkish people abroad, I always pass incognito. My family has been very aware of the advantages that we have in a society, where fairness and mixed-race are sought after. People always outspokenly followed my hair colour when it naturally got darker or lighter with changing seasons and complimented my complexion, sometimes super zooming even down to tiny details. To put things in context: in the 20s, keeping up with the international trend of nation-states, modern Turkey promoted a Turkish National identity with a strong emphasis on a supposed Central Asian-ness, in expense of the diversity of former cosmopolitan identities. I have always felt oddly around this ethnicity placing our ancestry solely in the lineage of Turkic tribesmen from Asian steps. I felt this nationalist dogma not only excludes people but also it is not accurate. It is indeed a construct that was politically imposed on us to distinguish modern Turks ideologically from Europeans on one hand and racially from Arabs on the other. So, from early on there was this issue. I’ve recently gotten my genes done. The results confirm that I am 50-50 Turkish & European. It turns out I have a high Italian/Southern European percentage as well from both sides of parents, in addition to Greek/Balkan. I only have less than one percent of East Asian. I also have near zero African & Arabian ratios. I am happy to carry all this diversity in me, it makes me feel very special.

My parents have very similar immigration history, which made them connect on a more straightforward level. The mixed-race and heritage overall made our household assume its differences in contrast to the outside world. However, one side of my parents identifies more with European heritage, while the other identifies more with Turkish cultural norms. I cannot say my family always managed to distil different cultures into a synthesis, contradictions simply co-existed, sometimes challenged one another. They oscillated between mixed messages from Turkish society and from our western heritage.

Carrying mixed identity on day-to-day might get exhausting. It’s been challenging to make my Scottish husband understand that most of my ways he cannot attribute to a general Turkishness, as my upbringing is specific to my dual heritage and then, I have the predominant French culture that has been crucial in forming my identity. In contrast, I remember my French ex-boyfriend, who considered me French enough and therefore was not very curious about my Turkish background. Physical appearance-wise, Western people ask me whether I am a White exception in a Brown family or my family too is fair? I don’t know what difference that would make to them. My husband had lots of people asking him whether there are white persons in Turkey at all. I constantly get ‘but you don’t look Turkish!’ anywhere I go, I don’t know how to feel about it. Overall, I get the ‘Russian?’ often, both in Turkey and abroad. As I don’t ‘look Turkish’, at the airports, I sometimes come across attitude changes when air company staff see my Turkish passport. When you don’t visually fit in you get somewhat excluded from both sides. You also become aware of micro-aggressions. It ultimately reflects more of those people’s character. In the UK, l had that puzzling experience of having to fill forms with ethnic information required. I didn’t know what category I am, I ended up putting ‘White-other’. I also realised people in the UK (like in America) have adopted the word ‘Middle-East’ for Turkey, as a way of looking at the world from the lens of US politics. I am aware that it disturbs Turkish people, as it relegates them into connotations embedded in backwardness and decay. In continental Europe, however, Turkey and the surrounding region are referred to as the Near East. When you are mixed-race you are also aware of racism or xenophobia happening around you, even when these are not directly targeted at you. I remember all that my friends from Russia, India, China have been through, as clear as day, these stories weigh on me too somehow. As for religion, I think that’s something better lived in private. It is not easy for believers or spirituals to comprehend absence of belief. An LA-style spirituality is popular among secular Turks: these people believe in god, but also in karma, even reincarnation. As a result, I am used to getting comments like if I am going through a difficult period, I must have deserved it. I don’t find it helpful. Also, here are some examples to unethical practices around birth and death: where I come from religious information appears on your ID. It gets stamped as Muslim if your father’s ID also has Muslim written on it. No one waits for you to grow up before they affiliate you with a community. They also follow up with Muslim post-mortem rituals without taking into account individual will. Circumcision on baby boys is wide-spread and even secular people do not view any wrong in inflicting this to their infant, as part of a hygiene procedure. My mixed culture makes me challenge these practices. To me, these are violations of basic human rights. Yet, I find myself often marginalised and silenced.

When choosing friends and partners, their race or colour, education level or financial status don’t matter to me but their culture definitely does matter. One could have a PhD or have travelled and still remain narrow minded. All in all, I don’t recognise myself in most of the Turkish ways at an interpersonal level anymore. Gradually, I fell out of touch with most of my Turkish friends. My closest friends are from all around the world: France, South America, India. It has been a natural process. I have a curious nature and am always trying to challenge my established ideas, comparing different norms. I am still in touch with few of my Turkish friends, who are not judgmental or demanding. I function based on the principle that life is already complicated and relationships we chose to build are supposed to be supportive and flow smoothly. It took me time and internal work to reconnect with my female identity, unlearn internalised misogynies and finally practice vulnerability with men. In choosing partners, I try to avoid the possessive type. I got marriage proposals and promises of luxury living fired out at me by Turkish men I was barely acquainted with. Yet, I find alpha males off putting, which is probably why, looking back now, among the people from different nations whom I have dated so far, Turkish men are scarce. I tried but I should admit, the Turkish dating scene intimidates me with its violence, its capacity to bring the worst out of people. It remains still a mystery for me how happy Turkish couples manage to bond beyond their shields. I tend to connect with people, who are open minded and respectful. I go off people living for their public image or who are passionate about keeping the upper hand in relationships. It doesn’t leave room for meaningful connections.

Aegean, Italian and French cuisines form my diet. Lots coffee (not instant), olives and olive oil entered my husband’s house with me. Sadly, it is difficult to find good artisanal bread and viennoiseries (like croissants) here in the UK. I enjoy music from all over the world, classical Turkish music, folk music from Anatolia and Balkans, Celtic music, bagpipes, Fado, Latin music, African music, Hindu mantras. I love electronic music, so I enjoy songs that can get experimental with different cultures, an example is Man o To.

Sadly, I don’t speak Greek or Bulgarian. It is unfortunate that the languages within or around the country are not available in the curriculum. I cannot advise Turkish literature enough, it is a treasure. Though, I guess if I wasn’t Turkish I wouldn’t know any of that. I speak English, French and Turkish and believe I can blend into French society easily. I feel each one of these languages externalised different parts of my character. I read mostly in English and listen to podcasts in French. I enjoy creative-writing, yet experience blockages due to having to choose one among all three languages. Also, thanks to my fondness of literature, I have some Ottoman vocabulary. A number of words could be found in Farsi or Hindi, allowing me to connect with Indian and Iranian and Azerbaijani friends on deeper levels.

I could describe my style as a mixed of effortless Parisian & Scandi. I tend to opt for organic or recycled garments, artisanal finish and timeless design. As a teenager, I noticed that fast fashion is targeted to svelte and androgynous body type, that is rare where I come from. So, most items fit my 1.65cm ill, everything is longer. Maybe body positivity movement will bring shorter models on catwalk someday? I cannot deny that I constantly get criticism in Turkey for my style, as I discard bras most of the time and wear mini-shorts in summer.

My natural hair is wavy, light brown and turns blonder when exposed to the sun. Turkish men usually ask whether my hair is natural, they need to confirm that I am ‘authentic’. Growing up in Istanbul, I was used to being referred to as ‘the blondie’. At times, I coloured it darker or ginger to escape that. I was surprised when in Europe, my natural hair was referred to as ‘brunette’. Similarly, my Scottish husband is also considered blond in Turkey, but brunette here in the UK. In the recent years, I started highlighting my hair and since then I got few strange comments. Some people asked me whether by going blonder, I am intending to reject my origins. I never lie about what is natural and what is not. Would a woman of same complexion but with no Turkish identity attached be asked the same question? I also got comments from Turkish men on my highlights. These are significant of a dichotomy inherent to Turkish society: my original hair represents the pure natural beauty of an innocent woman, while the more I bleach it, I shouldn’t be surprised if I get associated with the ‘temptress’ stereotype or superficiality. My nose: My most Mediterranean feature, I think is my Roman nose. I keep it natural although I can’t breathe properly. I am still figuring out my personal stand on wanting to feel confident while not giving in to the pressures of perfection. I know that it is rare for Turkish women to keep a nose natural if their profile looks remotely unusual — the pressure of plastic surgery is imposing.

I enjoy that I could be from anywhere, especially while traveling. In social gatherings, the effect of surprise is a fun way to start conversation, people find my genetic cocktail badass. At home, we are a very dancing/singing family, full of creative individuals, poets, painters. My Turkish side allows me to explore emotional and artistic qualities. My European side to me is my physical appearance and the way I cope with life. I identify European in mindset and social interactions with regard to my personal space. My Turkish identity also gave me a first hand experience of otherness, and allowed me to develop greater empathy for those, who face discrimination. I feel this double-experience made my life more conscious. Undeniably, the most complicated part of my identity has been living as a Turkish woman and the exacerbated masculinities I had to deal with. Certainly, Turkish women are privileged with modern rights compared to other Muslim-majority countries. Yet, as I evolved to emancipate in Europe whenever I visited home, I found the culture in Turkey increasingly complex. Being conscious of my mixed heritage, in this sense has helped me navigate through Turkish culture, while trying to become assertive about my personal boundaries, and limits. Abroad, I’ve always received compliments on my adaptation skills. Embracing my mixed race has helped me a lot in feeling better in my skin and my uniqueness. I am a firm believer in globalism and mixed race/heritage is the future. The ongoing process of discovery and self-acceptance made me travel a lot and I am grateful for the incredible life that I had so far.

I can say mixed race affects how I am treated at work. It starts with my name, in Turkey, my first name is not very common and Western sounding, so has always put me on the spot, while in Europe people would rather not pronounce it. This in turn leaves me with feeling avoided. In the UK, the issue that frustrated me the most is the fact that I feel reduced to my Turkish culture / language. At the sight of my CV, clients are sceptical of my French proficiency even though it is backed up with certification. They tend to discard my experience in France but see no problem in offering me projects in Farsi or Arabic. I sadly don’t automatically understand these languages because I come from Turkey. I have worked with British, French, Swedish, Turkish and Romanian people. For women, work place power dynamics are already complex, I am not entirely sure how much of the negative experiences I can attribute to mixed race only. When there is a bias it is generally directed at my Turkishness, I clearly remember that Romanian people I worked with needed to constantly make either sexist jokes or assert superiority over Turks. As for Turkish workplaces, I don’t think Turkish people treat each other very well. These were mainly ruled by loud and rude male executives, who do not respect women, treat blue collar people like dirt and did not recognize boundaries between professional and private realms. As a mixed-race woman, at times I found myself infantilized or precarious. Often, I need to double my speed and performance in tackling tasks to be considered an equal. I would love to be taken more seriously, even if my voice tone and appearance are imbued with softness and fragility.

Most of the time I feel lost in my identity. Whenever I am in Turkey, I am ‘à l’Ouest’ as French would call. In the UK, however, I feel more continental. Overall, I feel I am lagged. I am glad to have a lovely support group from all around the world. The identities are in the minds of people regardless of location. There are places where I feel absurd asymmetries of race, culture/ideology and borders weigh less. I feel like an earthling immersed in the eternal beauty of nature. If I had the chance to be born again, I think I’d opt for a rather simpler choice, I would come back as a spoiled fluffy cat in a rich house. That way I wouldn’t have the consciousness of tragedy, death or climate change.