Patriotism and the expatriate

flags“Ms. Katie, are you PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]?” one of my students asked me last week. I was totally floored and stood speechless in front of my class of 20 third-graders.

What should have been a fun lesson on Halloween had suddenly gone out the window. In the spirit of the holiday, we had been talking about what we were afraid of. I was expecting the usual responses such as “I’m afraid of spiders,” but instead was getting “I’m afraid of the PKK.” Not only that, but I had a poor student wondering if his American English teacher, probably the first foreigner he had ever seen in his life, was working for the terrorists he feared.

I quickly answered “no” and hastily moved on to another topic. The question stuck with me though, and left me pondering and brooding all weekend. First, my anger was directed at the Turkish media, which in my view is stirring up the country more than necessary and is starting to make it dangerous for any non-Turkish person living in Turkey. Then, my anger moved to parents, who are probably watching the news with their children or talking about these volatile issues at the dinner table -- without regard to small ears listening but not fully understanding what’s going on. To them, the PKK could be any foreigner. They see that the PKK are killing Turkish people and are afraid that they and their families are in danger. Why plague an 8-year-old with these worries? Can’t people wait until their children are in bed before turning on the horribly graphic Turkish news? I plead with parents here to please be more careful about what your children are exposed to.

As an American expat living in İstanbul for over four years, I have had many questions asked to me by taxi drivers, neighbors and others about my country and government. While the American media has been quick to note that anti-American sentiment is on the rise in Turkey, I would still be quick to counter that fact. Almost all Turkish people, even the farmer at my local bazaar who only attended school through the eighth grade, have managed to have civil, objective conversations with me when finding out my nationality. Yes, there are questions, but I still don’t feel that I am in any physical danger in Turkey because of my nationality. Still, when I respond to the frequent “nerelisiniz?” (where are you from?) the questions start. What do I think of President Bush? Why doesn’t the US help against the PKK? Do all Americans hate Turks? Do Americans think all Muslims are terrorists? I try as hard as I can with my broken Turkish to explain that although I am American, I neither represent my government nor support many of its decisions. I tell them that all Americans are not like how they are portrayed in films and on television, and that the average American wants the same things the average Turkish person wants. Always, after a few minutes of conversation, I am thanked by the respective person and we part ways, both of us better for our brief exchange. However, on the flipside, I also know when to hide the fact that I am American and to say I am Canadian when asked. I am not proud of this, but sometimes I just am not in the mood to play the role of diplomat or ambassador.

I was born a post-Watergate baby, during a time when patriotism had reached a low point in the US. The disillusionment of the Vietnam conflict and the ultimate betrayal of Watergate were still fresh on everyone’s minds. My parents had been raised by World War II vets, who had that sense of patriotism that Turks now exhibit, and were proud of the country they fought so hard to defend. By the 1970s however, there was a huge gap between my grandparents’ generation and my parents. Although my elementary school days had flag ceremonies and we all faithfully recited the pledge of allegiance every morning, something was missing in our lives that our parents and grandparents had grown up with. The most nationalistic I ever felt was in 1990-1991 during the Gulf crisis. I remember drawing a flag, hanging it in my bedroom window and praying for the soldiers every night. As I grew older, patriotism fell by the wayside as American dominance in the world rose. Why and how I started to lose it, I still am not sure.

When I moved to Turkey four years ago, I liked the privileges that being American here afforded me. Doors in this country closed to many expats with different passports than mine were opened wide for me. As time passed, I stopped relying on my US passport, and now try to dodge questions about where I’m from in general conversation. As Turkish anger grows, so does the danger level. I feel guilty at how easy it is to hide my passport, and how hurt I feel when I am questioned about the decisions my country has made and supported since Sept. 11. Deep down I am a Pollyanna, and I used to believe that even though it seemed like my government’s policy was bad, it actually was for the greater good and would someday make me and my fellow countrymen proud. This has continually been shattered post Sept. 11, to the point that I start crying sometimes when I see the American flag. Not tears of happiness or pride, but tears of grief. I have lost my patriotism, my pride in my country, and my heart is broken. I am jealous of Turkish people and their pride in Turkey and Atatürk. I want to be proud of my flag and our national heroes. I don’t want to be ashamed to be American, and I especially don’t want to be defending my nationality to a classroom of 8-year-olds.

The only person who can understand what I am going through is a Turkish friend of mine living in California. She owned a Turkish restaurant, but after so many threats from Americans after Sept. 11, she, like many other Turkish business owners in the US switched it to a “Greek” restaurant. When asked where she is from, she says “Greece.”

“To Americans, Muslim terrorists blew up the trade center, and since I am Muslim, from a Muslim country, they think I can answer their questions about why those events happened. I am not a representative for Muslims. I got tired of defending myself, and it just became easier and better for business to say I am Greek,” she told me. I know exactly how she feels. In Turkey no one hates Canadians, and my home state of Michigan is close enough to Canada to assuage the guilt slightly.

So I will continue to occasionally say I am Canadian, although I still hope for the day I can proudly say that I am American. Until then, I support my adopted country, and my fiancé and I proudly hang our crescent and star flag from our window. I feel a glow of patriotism when I see that flag, even though it is not the flag of the country I was born in. Maybe Turkish people can teach an expatriate how to feel patriotic once again.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home