29 January, 2010

The subtle differences

A fellow student remarked that it seemed the cultural outlook displayed by each exchange student is remarkably similar. And it is true; we meet in the common space, the shared social role of being international students. In that role-space our differences dissolve along with the roles and spaces of our lives back home. Through conversations, it becomes apparent that the meaningful things in cross-cultural encounters are not the big, granite monuments and national flags. They are the way people wait in line at a mall; the small clear glasses in which tea is served.

bardak çay

Bilkent is one of the wealthier, more liberal schools in Turkiye. But aside from the architecture, and the marble everywhere - there is marble in the library, marble in the business and science faculty buildings, marble in the gym - one of the largest difference between this campus and home is the distribution of eating spaces. There are small, apparently privately-owned cantinas serving a variety of foods - döner, hamburgers, çay, cola, and the traditional yogurt drink ayran - all over campus, in the dorms either side of the street from mine. Near the library lies Marmara, a cafeteria-style eatery where lunch with either of two entree options is 5.50 Lira at most.

Hamburgers are a perfect example of the subtler differences. At the cantina nextdoor, the patties are thin, and burgers are served with tomato slices and something resembling coleslaw in a bun grilled panini-style. The first bite was both surprising and surprisingly good, as i discovered peas in the mysterious condiment.

A short walk away from Yurt 72 lies the "Oğrençi Yurtlar Spor Salonu", or student dormitories fitness center. Here again, the contrast of familiar and foreign was a jarring one. The fitness machines are the same make as in the Student Rec Center back home, save a generation or two older. I could use them in my sleep. But on my first visit, i was informed that muscle shirts or tank tops - anything less than a full tişört - are prohibited, and nearly asked to leave.