Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Home Mountain: Musa Dagh

The outskirts of Vakifli, the last remaning ethnic Armenian village in Turkey.
Yesterday we made a quiet but meaningful trip to Musa Dagh, the site of the village of some of my ancestors (it would be disingenuous not to note that I could surely make similar trips to Poland, Switzerland and the UK, but I wouldn't know quite where to go). We have been staying in Antakya (also known as Hatay and best known as the great city of Antioch), which is the closest small city with good accommodation options, amenities and points of interest.

It also happens to be the "town" that my ancestors would go to just as my folks might drive to Poughkeepsie for the day or Brendan's might drive over to Bangor. My great great grandfather was involved in the silk business there. I'll probably post more about Hatay later.


From Hatay, public transportation to Musa Dagh is a bit dodgy, although it does exist. You have to take a dolmus - a small van-like minibus - to the town of Samandag near the Mediterranean coast and then transfer to a rickety bus, van or dolmus (or back of a truck or whatever you can finagle) up the mountain. There is an official dolmus service but it is so infrequent that most people grab rides informally. The view on the way up grows more stunning as you climb, past farms and orange orchards with rocky bluffs and cultivated fields in the difference, all under a crystal blue sky.

This was the first time that I've felt comfortable in Turkey openly stating my reasons for being here, and for being candid about my origins: Vakifli is a small village but there are enough Armenians around that I felt I could openly, well, be who I am.

Bitias (my home village) is long gone, the residents having relocated to Anjar in Lebanon when Hatay returned to Turkey. The land out beyond that golden lump and farmed rows is where one resident of Vakifli told me Bitias was once located.

I didn't really know what I expected to find - I went up more for personal reasons than to see anything in particular or make any specific discoveries. I've wanted to make this trip for years and, being the big traveler in the family (although I have other relatives who have traveled extensively I'm the one who seems to have turned it into a lifestyle) it seemed inevitable that it would eventually happen. As we climbed Musa Dagh, I can say that a calming feeling did come over me - although I think this is less an ancient attachment to the land than a feeling of peace at having finally made the trip to be there (as in, it came from my ego, not my id).

It is a difficult thing to think, but it's true: that side of my family was quite prosperous in Bitias. If the genocide had never occurred, if there had been no Forty Days of Musa Dagh, they would not have left for America. My grandfather would have never met my grandmother while he was at RPI. My mother would have never been born, let alone met my father. 

So I can say that "if things had happened differently I would have grown up around here" but it's not true: I would not exist at all.


Despite the grittiness of the photo above, Vakifli is a prosperous village - they are making a name for themselves in organic farming and earning big bucks for it, and being the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey, they have close ties to some very deep pockets in the Armenian community in Istanbul as well as the diaspora. It is a popular vacation spot for members of the diaspora coming home as well as a summer destination for Istanbul Armenians. I was surprised by how neat, tidy and prosperous it was: new stone buildings, neatly paved roads (mostly), a well-tended cemetery, fecund orange orchards and farms, people dressed neatly and driving nice, new-looking cars. 

The swingset was just about the only broken-down thing in the place. Not really what you expect from a mountain village in Turkey or any country that is not quite First World (although I'd argue that Turkey is not too far from Taiwan in terms of development, mostly), but hey. That's Armenians for you.

The church in Vakifli
For those who don't know - you should. When the mass murders and deportations were occurring across Turkey around 1915, the residents of the eight Armenian villages of Musa Dagh managed to resist and hold off the Turkish forces for forty days, hiding in the mountains and fighting back. My great grandfather was among them along with other distant relatives. They held out and were nearly out of supplies when they were rescued by French ships (note the Mediterranean below, it's not that far away and quite visible from Musa Dagh) and taken to Port Said, Egypt. The episode is known as the Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which is also a novel based on true events. It's the reason why the residents of those villages were not deported or massacred (although many died), and why they were all still there until the 1930s, when Hatay united with Turkey: that's why they were there at all and decided to leave, not wanting to return to the rule of a country whose government had tried to murder them.

My family ended up in the USA, of course, as did other distant relatives.

Plaques in the church wall commemorate this. According to my mother there is also a monument up there to memorialize the resistance - we hiked the roads above Vakifli for awhile and down a few side roads but did not find it.

Musa Dagh with a view of the Mediterranean
 I am extremely proud of the courage and tough survivalism of my ancestors, which is a part of why this visit was so meaningful for me. I grew up with this story - I heard it many times and from many lips, sometimes from people who had lived through it (such as my Nana, although I couldn't understand her entirely - she did learn English but was never fully fluent in it and forgot much of it in her old age). It's not just the food, not just the kilims, not just the other assorted memories of my childhood and cultural upbringing that make me who I am and make my family who they are: this story is also there, hanging behind it all like a dark cloud, a story that is purposely told so as not to be forgotten even as generation upon generation becomes more American in both culture and looks (most of my cousins would never be guessed for Armenians. Very few of them were born with the features one normally associates with people from the Caucasus. I personally look more Polish than anything).


I also reflected on who I am today and what it meant to come here with Brendan - as much as thoughts, feelings, ideas and other bits and bobs of soul should ideally be shared with a good mate, this piece of my history is something I am ecstatic to have shared with him.  I can say confidently that there is no one else I would have rather shared this journey with than my husband, and that yes, an ideal husband (or wife) is the sort of person you both can and wish to share such things with. We spent quite a bit of time sitting on a warm rock just off the road looking out at this splendid view of the mountains and sea, and though we didn't say much, just sitting there with him was more of a sharing experience than talking could have been (we also ate some Cheezy Stix).

Another mountan view out towards where Bitias once stood


The residents of Vakifli are quite used to members of the diaspora venturing back to discover their roots - I thought I might be met with surprise but no, not at all. I'm just one in a string of foreign-born Armenians who makes the trip up here, not necessarily to see anything but just to be there and to see it with their own eyes. The town has a surprisingly hopping tea garden, and here is where you can see some cultural influence from the Turks: like others across Turkey, sitting outside, drinking tea and playing backgammon seems to be a career path in Vakifli. They may be Armenian but in this way they're just like their Turkish neighbors. A key difference - unlike most small-time tea gardens, women were welcome here and children were running around. I felt no sense of "this is the preserve of men" as I did from many tea gardens in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, and the owner was a woman to boot. Go Armenians!


It was quite clear that we were not from around these parts, so we had the chance to chat with a few locals (although most were so used to people just like us, albeit usually older and more connected to the Armenian community, that they paid us no mind). One older man was disappointed that I don't speak Armenian but was happy to point out where Bitias once stood. At one point I got locked in the tea garden bathroom (the lock broke) and half the town came to rescue me.




All in all it was a quiet trip, a ruminative one, not one given to fresh new discoveries or heaps of things to see. Just walking on Musa Dagh, watching the Queen Anne's Lace and other dry-climate flowers shake in the Mediterranean beaches, smelling the dry earth and orange trees, waving hello to locals on tractors, visiting the church, getting horrific sunburn while peering out at sun-drenched vistas and drinking tea among fellow Armenians was what I came for, and that's what I got. 


I do think that everyone with the means and interest in their origins should make a similar trip - I can't point specifically to how the visit moved me, but it did, I know it did. Wherever you are from, whatever your history, it is worthwhile to go see the place of your origin - even if it's just to lay eyes on the place.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Photos from Gaziantep and Sanliurfa


Tacky rugs with Turkish politicians and Che Guevara in Gaziantep.



Doorway in Gaziantep bazaar


Spices and tobacco for sale


Copper goods for sale


Gaziantep's bazaar


CREEPY TORSOS


Guys hanging out in the cool archway of an old caravanserai



A tea garden filled with men near a domed mosque


The interior of the lovely Tahmis Kahvesi in Gaziantep



Sanliurfa, thought to be the birthplace of Abraham



These carp symbolize the saving of Abraham from King Nimrod - when he tried to burn Abraham alive, the flames turned to water, the coal to fish, and Abraham was cast into a bed of roses. There is a rose garden nearby.


More sacred carp


Sacred carp are quite photogenic you see



Back lanes of Sanliurfa



A doorway in Sanliurfa



Child labor is pretty common here - you get ten year olds as shop attendants, fare collectors and errand boys, including kids who seriously run entire shops while the boss is out.



You see a lot of signs like this, or justcalligraphy, over doorways in Sanliurfa and beyond. Sanliurfa is a very religious Muslim city.



Kids playing in Sanliurfa's bazaar



The "New" Mosque (it's not that new - in Turkey "less than a thousand years old" is basically "new")



We ate dinner at a pretty good restaurant cut into the steps of a cliff behind this mosque, and this was the view from our table.



Gobekli-Tepe - not much to look at, but this is the first known temple to have been built. ANYWHERE. It is 11,000 years old, meaning it is Neolithic...yes, you read that right, Neolithic. Until it was excavated nobody had thought that pre-farming people were capable of creating something like this and to this day nobody is quite sure how they did it.



It's a toy, but still an interesting thing to see out on the street. Even little girls have toy pistols here.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

The New Old Country

I'm not the first person to travel back to my 老家, or ancestral homeland - from any land to any other. "Roots" tourism is a well-established industry (in fact, it's practically its own business model in China). Ever since people have been immigrating, moving or simply forced to leave their homelands, they or their descendants been trying to find ways to return, even if just to poke around the place a bit. That's basically what I'm doing right now.

We arrived in Antioch (Hatay) yesterday after a long and improperly air-conditioned bus ride from Sanliurfa - I am hoping to blog about my experiences earlier in our trip after this one. As I have mentioned numerous times, on my mother's side I am Armenian from Turkey - Musa Dagh in Hatay to be precise. Before 1915, they were living in Bitias, a village on the slopes of Musa Dagh - one of the eight ethnic Armenian villages that once graced its slopes among farms and orange trees.

My great grandparents fled Turkey in the wake of the Armenian genocide, but not until after my great grandfather spent time as a freedom fighter for the resistance, escaping death by hiding in an olive barrel, and my great grandmother's family fled only to end up in Izmir (Smyrna) where Turkish forces and the Great Fire of 1922 - almost certainly set on orders of Kemal Ataturk - claimed many fatalities. They fled to Greece, where their three children, including my grandfather, were born. As World War II rolled in they fled once again for the USA and settled near Troy, New York. My grandfather married and had five children, the oldest of which is my mother.

So here I am, not quite 100 years later, back in Antioch - not only a historic city in its own right but also the nearest decent-sized town with accommodation options to Musa Dagh. One hundred years and I made it back to the Old Country. I may not be the first person to return to an ancestral homeland, and I won't be the last, but I'm the first in my generation to go - I don't believe anyone in my mother's generation has returned either, but I could be wrong. It's a pretty big generation, including many distant cousins I've never met.

I have to say this: when one returns to The Old Country, one expects to see, well...an old country. Don't get me wrong - Turkey's quite old, possibly the oldest settled, civilized place there is and boasts approximately one butt-ton of ancient stuff. I mean that one expects this ideal vision of what an "ancestral homeland" should be: whitewashed buildings, donkey carts, women in headscarves, an exotic bazaar.

One certainly does not expect to start rolling into town over a mountain range, as one does to enter Hatay, and see a shiny modern wind farm spread out across the peaks and ridges.

One does not expect, regardless of what the guidebook noted, a cosmopolitan downtown full of smart cafes with HDTV and Turkish techno-pop, WiFi everywhere, upscale restaurants with pleasant outdoor seating, bars that welcome women (a rarity in much of Turkey besides the party towns of the Mediterranean and larger cities), women in skinny jeans and halter tops yakking on cell phones and people generally more smartly dressed than you - you scuzzy traveler, living in rumpled t-shirts from a backpack for weeks on end.

I know I'm not the only one to feel this way: I've had at least one acquaintance in Taiwan tell me that somewhere in the back of his head was lurking this idea that his ancestral home in China was still this stone-house, chickens-in-the-courtyard, ancient-temple and peak-roofed paradise in rural farming country. When he got there and found a mid-sized town of dingy tile and concrete buildings, snarled traffic and paved-over boxiness, he admitted a touch of disappointment.

I've had Indian friends note the same thing: their parents left when their towns were, well, quaint, with goatherders in white lungis and women in saris and vendors that crisscrossed the neighborhood with carts of goods, and toilets that required hand-flushing. A lot of that is still there - the goats certainly haven't gone anywhere - but children return and are shocked to see women in pants (still a rarity in non-urban India but becoming more common), flat-screen TVs, Western toilets and everyone with an iPhone.

As we walked through pleasant evening breezes down the bustling nightlife of downtown Hatay - a thoroughly pleasant city with the exception of the stinky Orontes river - music flowing from cafes, locals on laptops, lights playing off pedestrian walkways, I thought to myself Nana would not recognize this.

Of course, I should have known that the Hatay of 1915 would look nothing like the Hatay of 2011. It was, on an intellectual level, abundantly clear. It's just that the reality - which is exactly what one should have expected (other than, perhaps, the fact that such a small city is so cosmopolitan - usually mid-size towns in countries like Turkey are a bit tatty at the edges. Not Antioch) - was not what my mind associated with "The Old Country".

We still haven't tackled Musa Dagh - we were far too tired today, Brendan has a very angry digestive tract and public transportation out there is unreliable at best. We're planning to go tomorrow and visit Vakifli, the last remaining ethnic Armenian village on Musa Dagh. We don't imagine that there is anything left of Bitias to see, but I personally am hoping to at least do a little rural walking or hiking on the mountain.

Today, we went to the bazaar and the museum (and a few of those smart cafes). I have to say that - hometown pride notwithstanding - Antioch's bazaar is my favorite. Goreme didn't have one (instead it had streets packed up and down with souvenir shops). Gaziantep had a great one full of coppersmiths and huge plastic tubs of fresh paprika and cayenne powder, but an entire chunk of it was given over to a tourist bazaar in one of the restored caravanserais and I never did feel entirely good about buying anything there (for the record I do think the "tourist bazaar" was just as much for the domestic tourists looking for high-end gifts). I will say that Tahmis Kahvesi, a coffeeshop in the heart of Gaziantep's bazaar, was one of my favorite kick-back spots in Turkey. Sanliurfa's is exotic and huge, but I feel in some ways it banks on its reputation as such and is given over to kitschy tourist shopping - although, again, much of that is for domestic tourists. We did buy four silk scarves - two for me, two for gifts.

Antioch's bazaar is distinctly non-touristy. We wandered it for hours, got a little lost, and found alley upon alley of things that actual locals who live their lives and need stuff would want: household goods, decorative items, clothing, spices, jewelry, food. I saw exactly one shop selling souvenir-type goods which seemed popular with Turkish schoolgirls. It was very much an Everyman's Bazaar and I love it for that.

I bought some amazing smelling olive oil soap and a set for Turkish coffee (which the Turks do drink, just not to the great extent that they drink tea) - the kind a local might buy if they had a desire for coffee.

What I love generally about the bazaars in Turkey, and especially about Antioch, is that the snaking alleys and backways of shops are set around ornate - or sometimes half-hidden - entrances to mosques you would never guess were there, ancient bathhouses and crumbling caravanserais. You get the sense that these shopping streets have had the same function for millenia, or at least as long as it takes to build a caravanserai, have it be used and have it crumble. As you walk through, much of it is shaded, which is the only way you can possibly shop during the heat of the day. You round a turn and - here's what I really love - you see an old caravanserai entrance, so you poke your head in and more often than not you come upon a courtyard of locals relaxing or even a tea garden. We found one today shaded by trees rustling nicely in the breeze, set among a water station where people were washing their feet and hands, and a cage full of exotic birds. Needing a break from the packed bazaar alleys - it's "Ramazan Bayrami shopping season" (people seem to do a lot of shopping as Ramadan ends, not too unlike Christmas shopping in terms of the sheer crowds and sales volume) - we breathed a collective sigh of relief as we found this little paradise tucked away right in the middle of the bazaar, and downed several glasses of tea while I wrote postcards and Brendan worked his way through a book. Sure beats a food court at the mall.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Still Think Women Have It Good in Taiwan

So about a week ago (or so – hard to keep track of time on vacation) I wrote a post describing how good women have it in Taiwan – whether they’re expats or locals (although I think expat women have it a little better than Taiwanese women). Kaminoge pointed out an article stating that Taiwan’s birthrate is so low because of the issues women in Taiwan face due to the traditional society. There are other posts out there of late, as well.

And that’s an interesting point to delve into a little bit.

I still think women have it really great in Taiwan compared to most other countries, especially non-Western countries. I’d go so far as to say they have it better than women in just about any other non-Western country. I would much rather be a Taiwanese woman than, say, a Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, African (of any country including North African countries) or Middle Eastern woman. Hispanic women also face some particularly tough challenges due to the machismo present in many Latin cultures.

Taiwanese women do have far more freedom, earn far more respect, have many more options and are treated far more equally than women in any of those cultures.

So if I’m right and the article is also right – and I do believe they are – the issue is that unlike the cultural areas listed above  (which I realize is just about all of them except for the West), Taiwan is in an advanced state of flux. A culture shift is taking place in Taiwan that is only just beginning in urban India and China and still doesn’t seem to have reached other developed, or developing, Asian countries.  So the women have more choices and more freedom, and yet there are still some vestiges of traditional society that heap expectations on their shoulders. It’s a tough middle spot to be in, especially for Taiwanese women of marriage and childbearing age.

Women in those other countries, by and large, don’t face those issues in the same way. Or rather, some do, but the vast majority don’t…because they still function in traditional ways in their traditional society. They still marry and have the kids that they are expected to have. They don’t fight back. They don’t have as many options or as much freedom to do anything other than comply. Taiwanese women now have the option not to comply, and the direct result is that they’re fighting back by not having children, not marrying and by establishing themselves as independent women. They may not consciously realize that they’re doing this, but they are.

I realize the past two paragraphs are chock full o’ vast generalizations, so I do want to point out that I am aware they are generalizations, that they do not apply on an individual level to everyone, and for every generalization I make there are countless exceptions.  There are Taiwanese women who still follow “the system” and Indian women who fight back. I know this.

I’d still say that Taiwanese women have it good. Let me give some examples of places I’ve visited:

India, where my friend Kannagarengam went through with an arranged marriage to a man she had never been alone with for more than a half hour at a time, and only a few times at that. This suited her fine within her cultural paradigm, but I wouldn’t want that and neither, I’d bet, would most Taiwanese women.

Nepal, with a similar marriage culture.

Central America and the Philippines, where it is accepted that a husband is likely to have a querida (but of course a woman isn’t allowed any extramarital activity). I realize that not all men in those countries are this way, but it is a cultural norm.

Turkey, where men gather in tea houses but very few are welcoming to women. Women sit in doorways or stoops to their homes to socialize while men have games (backgammon is popular), tea and trees or umbrellas for shade. Where inexpensive hotels are downright hostile to women traveling alone.

Bangladesh, where gender is so deeply segregated that for the men I met – and I did talk to a lot of men in Bangladesh because the women generally leave home far less frequently so you just don’t meet them – talking to me, an actual woman who was not a family member or wife, was an extreme aberration. Where you can look down entire streetscapes and see only men, to the point where a woman alone might feel uncomfortable.

I have not been to Morocco, but a friend of mine who lived there complained that she never got to try the delicious coffee or smoke nargileh, and rarely got to drink tea, because the places where one could do that catered solely to men. Women were not expressly barred but also not welcome.

Several countries where people have addressed my husband and completely ignored me, as though I don’t exist, and refused to accept that I’m really the person to talk to when it comes to travel arrangements.

India again, where as a woman alone I suffered sexual harassment several times – at one point a man actually got thrown off a train (a MOVING TRAIN, but it wasn’t moving that fast) for harassing me.

China, where my students, including the female ones, got very upset at the idea that a woman could and even should be as smart as her husband or boyfriend – they’d endlessly defend the idea that a woman shouldn’t be too clever or too successful or it would make her partner lose face. Where someone I knew was threatened by her boyfriend – he said he’d kill her if she wouldn’t marry him – and her father told her to marry him (she did, he was abusive – surprise surprise – and they got divorced. The town gossip mill blamed her).

Japan, where I’ve never lived but have visited. A friend has told me about how men not only won’t give a pregnant woman a seat on a bus, but might even expect the women to stand so that they can sit, as “they’ve been working hard all day”. (I find this hard to swallow but my friend stands by it being an actual thing that happens). Also, it's still extremely difficult for Japanese women to move up into management or executive roles at work - there is still a gender bias in Taiwan but it is far less prevalent, especially in finance.


Korea, where it is still commonplace for newspaper ads to advertise jobs specifically for women or men. The salary for the same job, right there in the ad, is lower for women than it is for men (Taiwan also faces this problem of lower salaries for women, but it’s not so blatant).


Would you want to be a woman from any of those countries who had little choice but to play by the cultural rules? I suppose it’s not an issue for women who are happy to do so and even want to do so (I would prefer a world of women’s rights and equality for all, but it’s hard to forcefully argue for that around women who themselves embrace the old ways. I don’t agree, but at some point it’s not my decision). But for any woman with feminist leanings (especially bolstered by a good education, if she’s lucky enough to get one), how does that sound like anything less than pure torture?

Contrast that to my student who is trying for a baby now. She married recently at the age of 35 and wants one child. She prayed to Zhusheng Niangniang for a boy, because “my mother in law wants a son. I don’t care, but she does. If I have a girl she’ll expect us to have another and I don’t want to listen to her nagging, so I hope I have a boy. But when my child marries, I won’t care if my grandchild is a son or daughter.” I see hope in that statement – a change for the next generation, as well as a difficult transition period for the current generation of women. That’s where the problem lies, if you ask me.

So sure, Taiwanese women are still facing the pressures of traditional society, and we’re seeing the pushback for that in the low birthrate, but it’s still a lot better than what they could be facing, and I do think the worst of it will be gone in a few generations.  The birthrate is not low because things are so bad – it’s low because things have gotten better.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Culture Notes: Turkey

On Shopping

It's hotter but less humid here than in Taiwan. The sun beats down more fiercely but you don't sweat nearly as much. You'd expect, with the harsh sun pummeling the streets that they'd have a shopping culture more akin to Taiwan's, where everyone does their browsing in night markets: where old ladies get up at dawn to buy vegetables (and demand free green onions), where you might shop in a department store by day but street shopping culture really doesn't happen until the sun sets.

But it's not - we walked to the bazaar area of Gaziantep at about 8pm yesterday, just as the outside weather was becoming bearable, if not pleasant, and the whole thing was shut down...just as prime shopping time would be starting in Taiwan. We returned today in the blaze of the post-breakfast sun and it was buzzing.

On Restaurant Culture

It's fairly common in Taiwan to get a menu and be asked within thirty seconds what you want (or some similarly short period of time), and then the food comes quickly. It's not taken away until you are very clearly done and your plate is preferably clean, and the restaurant will offer to pack up as small an amount as two dumplings or five forkfuls of fried rice. Restaurants close at around 2pm and re-open for dinner - if you don't eat at normal mealtimes this can be very irritating indeed (and we don't eat at normal mealtimes, so we eat more 7-11 food than we'd like because everything's closed when we do eat). You pay a small amount for extra xiaochi - little plates not unlike tapas or appetizers, often vegetable or tofu based.

In Turkey, you might not even get a menu - the waiter will appear and ask what you want and only when you look at him questioningly might a menu appear (read: might). The food comes quickly, usually, but sometimes it has to be prepared: we once waited 15 minutes for a kunefe (white cheese covered in vermicelli, cooked and doused in sugar syrup). You  get a bunch of free stuff with the meal, usually salad and bread, possibly tea depending on the restaurant or if the owner likes you. We've also gotten free bulgur patties with tomato paste and a chicken stock flavor, free melon, free bottled water...if it appears and you did not ask for it, you can assume it's included. You are not expected to finish your meal: it's perfectly normal to push your plate away and have the waiter take it with plenty of bread and salad still there. With drinks, your glass might be taken away even if you have a centimeter of liquid left to drink.

The best part? Restaurants tend to stay open all day, and are even busy. You can eat when you want, even if that time is 2 or 3pm. We wandered into Imam Cagdas, a pretty famous joint, at 1:30pm expecting to hit the tail end of lunch, but instead business picked up straight through 3pm when we left and was hopping when we paid the check.

Women do not dine out as often though - other than in large, famous restaurants I find I am often the only woman in the restaurant (but they're still happy to cater to me). Not in Istanbul of course, but definitely in Gaziantep.

On Food

Oh, how I have missed baklava, pistachios, cheese, olives, yoghurt, good kebab and good bread! I love Taiwanese food and the various cuisines of East Asia in general, but really sometimes I need a good infusion of olives and yoghurt.

I have to say, though, the food. It is so good. It's like Singapore, or a particularly good night market like Keelung: it doesn't matter where you eat - everything is good. You have to try really hard to get a bad meal in Turkey. Even the oily bain-marie porsyon dishes we had in a bus station were good. I am not normally into chicken - I prefer lamb, pork or duck - but I just ate the most amazing chicken shish kebab, I can't even tell you how good it was. Earlier today I had ezme - a spicy finely-chopped salad of hot red peppers, cucumber, tomato and parsley topped with pomegranate molasses and olive oil, and I practically creamed myself it was so good.

On Nostalgia

Being Armenian from Turkey, or rather being of an ancestry that is Armenian from Turkey, it surprises me how many cultural "things" here remind me of that side of my family: expressions on women's faces that bring flashbacks to my Nana (great grandmother, who died in the early '90s) who had similar mannerisms and facial tics, bits and pieces of language that call to mind the Armenian polyglot that my older relatives used to speak to each other (it was Armenian, and this is Turkish, but the particular strain of Hatay Armenian they spoke was heavily influenced by Turkish). The hand-crocheted white doilies, the lahmacun and plates full of lemon, onion, tomato, cucumber and parsley, food serving vessels for sale in markets that look like the decorative serving dishes my family owns, the carpets that remind me of our carpets, the Turkish coffee cups that look like my mom's heirloom Turkish coffee cups, and so many other things that remind me of home and, although I can't explain it, make me feel like "yeah, I KNOW that".

As a kid it didn't occur to me that all the idiosyncracies and weirdnesses of my family, mostly food-related ("why do we have eight types of olives? All my friends just eat two - the black kind from a can and the green kind from a jar. Why are our olives all wrinkly, or too big, or purple?" Why do we eat hummus on Thanksgiving? Nobody else does that." "Why does my family eat pilaf when everyone else just makes pasta or rice? My friends don't even know what pilaf is") were actually cultural tidbits that survived the diaspora and generations that followed.

On Women's Freedom

In Taiwan I feel basically free to go just about anywhere, barring a few local gangster bars in which foreigners, let alone women, are not welcome. Here, we pass several tea salons per day full of men: I know that if we sat there and asked for tea that we'd be served, but I also know that I'd get Looked At Disapprovingly because women just don't drink tea in tea gardens. They socialize at home or just outside in doorways whereas men get chairs, tea and backgammon. I feel welcome in all restaurants but am often the only woman. So far going without a headscarf and wearing short sleeves has been fine, but tomorrow we head to Sanliurfa and I've been warned that I should really cover my arms and hair. I do feel it's restrictive - in terms of clothing more so than Bangladesh. In terms of going out, it's about the same (not in Istanbul or Goreme, but definitely in Gaziantep and, so I hear, Sanliurfa).

I do feel that I get more respect as a part of an obviously married couple, but at the same time I feel more invisible for it.

On Religion

It's odd, trying to compare secularized Islam in Turkey with the sort of "it's all good" approach to folk religion in Taiwan, but I do feel there are similarities. The religious practices are there, such as observing Ramazan (Ramadan) or headscarves and modest clothing for women, or not drinking, or praying when necessary...but plenty of people don't follow them. We've seen a lot of women even in Gaziantep in shirt sleeves with their hair uncovered, have eaten during the day around locals who were also eating despite the fact that it is Ramazan, and heard calls to prayer that nobody around us heeded. At the same time, the restaurants do fill up when it's time for iftar (breaking the daily fast), the news broadcasts the rolling westward of cities in which it is now time for iftar, and business hours do reflect it in some ways.

I feel similarly in Taiwan - the temples, fortune blocks, rituals and other assorted religious hoopla is there if you want it, but there is no great pressure to avail yourself of any of it (except possibly from your mother-in-law) unless you want to.

On Linguistic Incompetence and Being Mistaken for a Local

These two are related. In Taiwan, I am very obviously a foreigner, and yet high-functioning in the language. I still run into language snafus, but generally speaking I'm day-to-day fluent in Chinese now, and can slip into it without thinking (even if I make mistakes). This surprises people, because I don't look local and don't look as though I should speak Chinese so readily.

In Turkey, I've been mistaken several times for a local (usually when I have a headscarf on). This is odd to me, because I don't look even remotely Turkish or Armenian: I got the Polish genes from my dad's side. I was not surprised when nobody looked twice at me in Prague, but here I don't feel like I could pass for a local, but hey, apparently I can.

And yet I don't speak Turkish. The same surprise that crosses the faces of many Taiwanese when they realize I can speak Chinese crosses the Turks when they realize I don't speak Turkish at all, aside from a few basic words I've been learning as we travel. Here I look like I should be able to converse, but I can't - and it's frustrating and a bit of a shock, albeit an expected one.

It's been awhile since I've been in a country where I could pass for a local but don't speak the language - the last time was really Prague, but enough people in Prague speak English that it wasn't really an issue.

I'm also so used to being able to be in a foreign country (if I could still call Taiwan foreign - I'm not sure I can) and communicate easily that it's frustrating that now, I can't. We stuck to touristy places in Egypt due to time constraints, Indonesian was easy enough to deal with (super simple grammar) that it wasn't a problem, English is widely spoken in India and the Philippines, and in Japan we always spend time with our friends who speak Japanese. In Central America we could get by with our high school Spanish.



I have more to write about but will save that for a second post...





Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reason #24 to love Taiwan


The lack of "backpacker ghettoes".

Although I’d like to see more tourists discover Taiwan, I have to say after traveling for a week in a tourism-heavy country that being relatively non-touristy has its advantages. Of course, those huge Korean, Japanese and Chinese tour groups muck up Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101 but otherwise you can often enjoy the best of Taiwan relatively peacefully.

It also means that when you are enjoying what Taiwan has to offer, you’re enjoying the same things that the locals (or domestic tourists) are. You have more chances to interact with and possibly even befriend locals.

In both India and Turkey, it has seemed very much like the backpackers have their “downtown” and stuff to do, the upmarket tourists have their little private getaways and tour buses, and the locals have their own completely separate lives. I do feel that I’ve had more friendly interactions in Turkey than in India with locals not trying to sell me something, but generally speaking I feel like everything is split between “tourist ghetto” and “local area”. It’s very hard to cross between the two unless you’ve lived in that country for awhile. I did cross that line in India because I studied there and lived with a family, but in my travels around the country I did feel quite segregated.

Take the town of Puri in Orissa, India. It has, for all intents and purposes, two downtowns. One has a relatively clean beach, isn’t all that attractive but has upmarket hotels and a few temples. It caters to locals and domestic tourists on weekend trips from Calcutta. Down the road is the backpacker downtown, where there are hostels, pensions, Internet cafes, restaurants serving cheap food and bhang lassi and a disgusting beach. One traveler I met came across a dead cat on that beach. Almost all would talk about how every local walking the sands either wanted to scam you, sell you marijuana, or take you home for a “traditional family dinner”, at the end of which you’d be presented with a massive bill.

And ne’er the twain shall meet.

Hampi is similar – there seems to be an area where locals live, and an area where all the backpacker stuff is. There are a few local places in the backpacker area, and you never see foreigners in them (we went to one for breakfast every day because the food in the backpacker cafes was so lackluster. Give me good idli and dosa anyday over some flabby banana pancake). Cochin is just about the same.

In Goreme, there is more local life – I’m writing this in Word from a tea garden full of old local guys who hang out all day chatting and, seeing as it’s Ramadan (Ramazan), will start drinking and eating as soon as the sun goes down. That said, I do feel segregated from locals: the things I’m here to see aren’t the things they bother with, and the best you can hope for is a random friendly encounter or some domestic holidaymakers enjoying what their own country has to offer.

I don’t think I even need to start in on Bangkok, which has its “real” downtown and then it has Khao San Road, or Luang Prabang, where the entire main strip is hotels, souvenir stands and restaurants for tourists.

In Taiwan it’s really not an issue. I live there, but one could easily be a tourist in Taiwan, visiting Tainan, Taroko Gorge, parts of Taipei, Lugang or other points of interest and have plenty of chances to meet and mingle with locals. The downtown you visit is the same downtown they visit. Dihua Street is actually a market that locals patronize. Locals from Taipei County and beyond visit the same Old Streets and shop in the same places (including the artists’ market near Red House – nothing like a strip of souvenir stands in Turkey, Nepal or India. Not even close). Most of the people you meet in Jiufen are domestic tourists, and the temples are of course full of locals, not tourists looking to ogle (which is how I felt in some of the larger shrines in Tokyo – very few local visitors).

Yes, I do want to see more tourists, especially independent travelers, coming to Taiwan to see what the country has to offer. At the same time, as a long-term expat, I rather enjoy the fact that it doesn’t have backpacker ghettoes.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Photos from Cappadocia


I don't have time to write any captions, because we're about to catch a bus, but enjoy this photo post from Cappadocia, Turkey!













The New Taiwanese Traveler


The other day we had the pleasure of meeting some Taiwanese travelers here in Cappadocia. We chatted for a bit – they were sitting right outside our room (which was off the swimming pool and terrace lounge) and I asked if they were Korean – don’t jump all over me for that – come to Goreme first and see how many Korean tourists there are. I would say at least 1/3 of the tourists passing through are just that…so it stands to reason that most Asian tourists here would be Korean (and most are – these two just happened not to be).

When we learned they were Taiwanese, I got all excited and broke out my Taiwanese. We found out that they live about ten minutes away from us, in Gongguan (we live in Jingmei), and they were completely shocked that I speak some Taiwanese, that we’ve lived there for five years, and that I also speak Chinese with a Taiwanese accent. The woman’s mouth was practically hanging open.

They had just arrived and were recovering from the flight, but were planning to go hiking the next day – I told them about our long day hike under the fiery Turkish sun through the Rose Valley and Red Valley, and recommended it as well as the local sunset viewing point. I don’t know if they were planning to hike alone or hire a guide – I do hope they decided to try it on their own. We did and we survived!

We also learned that they are quite young: the woman was either about to graduate or had just graduated – she wasn’t quite clear on that point, perhaps between undergrad and graduate school – and the man had graduated and spent a year in Japan working in Logistics. Neither is working currently, which is why they decided to take this trip. Both were well aware that once they started their careers that they’d be working the grueling hours expected of most Taiwanese and didn’t seem too keen to start on that back-breaking path before they had to. I praised them for this: Taiwan needs more people who opt out, albeit temporarily. The only way the work culture will change will be if a majority of workers refuse to take it.

(I know. Good luck with that).

What lightened my heart was learning that they were traveling independently. “A tour group is relaxing,” the man said, to which I replied “Too relaxing! But most Asians seem to prefer taking tours. There’s no adventure!” He laughed…because it’s true. I don’t mean to judge too hard: it’s fine for people who like tours to take tours. I don’t want to prod them off the bus. It’s just not my preference and yes, I do find such tours interminable and lacking in local interaction, adventure and, well, fun. I do realize that my idea of fun isn’t everybody’s though, and your average Taiwanese tourist (or average tourist, period) doesn’t find language snafus, getting lost on a mountain, trying to figure out an insane bus station or taking an endless string of wrong turns that dump one in some crazy part of town that may or may not be awesome to be “fun”.

What this tells me is that maybe, just maybe, there’s another type of Taiwanese traveler emerging in the younger generation. Maybe, just maybe, while their parents sign up for all-Taiwanese bus tours of exotic locations, seeing everything as they sit under glass and listen to a bullhorn, or perhaps follow a little flag and wear hideous caps and t-shirts, that their children will set off on their own. They’ll buy plane tickets, read a guidebook (maybe even post on Thorn Tree?), plan an itinerary, and just go. They won’t freak out about how to communicate. They’ll learn the universal language of charades and maybe improve their English. Maybe they’ll even learn phrases in other local languages. I don’t mean to insult the current crop of thirty and fortysomething Taiwanese travelers here, but it has been my observation through talking to students – who always sign up for tours rather than going independently – that they really are nervous about speaking English abroad and even more nervous about learning phrases in, say, Spanish, Turkish, French or what-have-you.

I would really welcome this – a new generation of Taiwanese travelers who are not afraid of a few risks and a little adventure. Who just go, meet new people who are not Taiwanese and not souvenir shop owners or waiters, who try food at restaurants they are interested in rather than where the tour bus dumps them for a pre-fab meal, and who prefer to watch a sunrise or sunset without the endless nattering of some guide through a megaphone.

A more approachable Asian tourist: the kind locals and other travelers alike can get to know at the local coffee or tea haunt, downmarket restaurant, point of interest or hotel lounge rather than seeing them from a distance in a little color-coordinated group, herded to and from a bus. A tourist who might try hitchhiking, who you can see trying to bargain with a vendor using a phrasebook (or better yet, without one), or who sets off on a whim to see what’s around.

We have noticed this as well among Koreans in Cappadocia – there are a lot of them here, and yes, many of them are in groups, but the younger ones do seem to be traveling independently or in small cliques of two or three rather than this massive horde on a bus. We’ve seen them carting backpacks around Goreme and entering tourist sites on their own. They’re all younger – if this is a trend, it is a generational one.

Maybe that newfound sense of travel adventure will spill into other areas of their lives and we’ll see a new generation of intelligent, risk-taking Taiwanese who aren’t content with working 25 hours a day in an office. Who strike off to do their own thing and tell their IT companies and accounting firms where to stick it.

I realize this is a lot to extrapolate from a single pair of young, independent Taiwanese travelers in Cappadocia. Perhaps I hope too hard.  Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if this was the sign of a trend rather than a one-off meeting with a pair of unusual young kids?