Here I am again — sitting in front of a blank screen with dozens of ideas and stories running through my head with no idea how to illustrate how wonderful my life is in Istanbul.
I often force myself to do an “awareness check.” Observe your surroundings. Listen to the sounds of the world. Recognize the mix of emotions coursing through your body. Be thankful for the people and experiences that brought you to where you currently stand. Ask yourself, “Why would you want to be anywhere else in the world?” Being present in this way forces me to appreciate how wonderful life is in that very moment.
Sometimes I try to imagine how different life would be if I had followed a different route post graduation. My alternative options would have landed me at a nine-to-five job with the predictability that most people need to find comfort in their lives. Instead, I opted for an adventure that provides little stability and requires me to be ever-adaptable. Although exhausting at times, I much prefer my current situation to the alternative. In the words of wanna be gangsters: YOLO (“you only live once”). That being said, I know that I will eventually desire the stability that comes with sinking my roots and starting a career. It will be an important and exciting point in my life, but until then, I’m content with my fast-paced and unpredictable life.
I recently passed the six-month mark on my Turkey adventure and undoubtedly these have been six of the most life-changing months of my life. Being in a foreign country is an indescribable experience. Traveling to new places is wonderful for opening your mind to new cultures but it doesn’t test your endurance in the same way that living in new places does. When traveling, everything is temporary: You meet people for a brief moment in time, knowing that your paths aren’t likely to cross again in the future; You navigate cities and routes paying little attention to exact directions because you’ll likely never follow those routes again; You don’t need to know the native tongue because the vocabulary you need to know can be displayed through basic sign language; And finally, you can force yourself to deal with less-than-ideal situations because in the back of your mind you know that it’s all temporary and that you have the comfort of home, friends and family waiting when your trip comes to an end.
So living abroad has been an entirely different experience than any other adventure in my life. I have to constantly remind myself that while my current situation isn’t permanent, it’s also not temporary. I’ve had to abandon my “tourist” mindset and shift into “local” mode. I form relationships with people knowing they may be in my life for a good amount of time; I pay attention to my surroundings because I’ll likely wander to the same area again in the future; I do my best to use what little Turkish I know rather than using universal hand gestures; Most importantly, I’ve developed the independence necessary to flourish on my own because at the end of the day, I’m flying solo on this journey.
As I mentioned before, I knew very little about Turkey before booking my one-way flight, so learning about the history and culture of this country has also been one of the most valuable parts of my experience. I’ve enjoyed learning about the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the country’s ongoing attempt to Westernize itself, the Islamic influence in modern society, as well as the current political situation that warrants world-wide attention. I feel incredibly fortunate to be here at this moment witnessing history in the making. But I never could have learned all that I know simply by reading a history book or doing research online. It takes daily exposure, talking with local people, doing my own research and observing my surroundings to fully understand this culture-rich country.
I often find myself comparing and contrasting Turkey with the US only to realize just how different the two places are — in both good and bad ways. I appreciate our democratic process more now after seeing Turkey’s hollow “democracy.” I also have more respect for the strict rule and order in America, which I once despised. On the other hand, I’m more aware of America’s blatant imperialism and the lack of education about other cultures. I never fully understood the world’s distaste for Americans until I was an outsider looking in. Now I see my American identity in a new light and there are aspects I’m proud of but others I’ll have to work to change.
I can say with conviction that my six months abroad has been more beneficial to me than any other experience in my life to date. My four-year education taught me many lessons about being independent, resourceful and forever-curious, but living in a foreign country has been an education unlike any other. So thank you to everyone who encouraged me to take that crazy leap of faith back in February. Let the learning process continue…