Our current Swiss Couchsurfers asked us one evening if we (E & I) felt there were great cultural differences in our relationship.
Yes and no of course. Our habits can be very different: the way we pay, our expectations of guests, the way we prepare food (E has gotten over his fear of unpeeled potatoes). Externally these things – the manifestations of our beliefs – appear quite different. But once we dig a little deeper, it’s clear that they spring from the same foundation, and are but nurtured in different environments. I don’t peel potatoes or carrots and other vegetables because my mother always told me that most of the nutrients were in the skin; Turkish cuisine demands peeled potatoes because the skin is believed to be dirty and possibly not very healthy. We can get hung up on the little differences, or we can see that we have the same core intentions and find a compromising solution. I don’t peel potatoes when we eat alone; we do when we have Turkish guest for dinner.
I grew up in a fairly open-minded and innovative family in the US. E’s family adheres to a set of beliefs that is to the Muslim world what the Unitarian Church is to the Christian; they believe not in rules, but in empathy and respect. Women in my family are all (and are all expected to be) professionals; women in E’s family might be found cooking in the kitchen or serving tea to guests, but they all have careers and act as equals with their husbands. Education, and a sense of striving to better oneself is equally important. Concern for children’s futures mixed with personal affection and a restraint from indulgence – equally present, if also manifest in different forms. Our families travel, are curious about the outside world, and are willing to fold others into our flock (me, in the case of E’s family; our extended adopted ‘rainbow’ family in the case of mine). We were both raised in clean houses which could yet spill over with guests or the afternoon clutter of kids toys, even if I grew up half outside the city with llamas ranging in the back yard and E in a cosy city apartment. The greatest difference between our upbringings is his importance on family – whereas mine is scattered throughout the states, I haven’t seen many of my relatives for a dozen years, and we mostly ‘adopted’ close friends as family instead, most of his family is concentrated on one hill in Ankara all living within a five minute drive of each other, and are much more fully integrated into each other’s daily lives. The greatest difference in habits – our approach to time. Erdem is far more casual; I’m usually rushing to meet the exact designated hour. But then again, my stress on punctuality may have developed in overcompensation for my own mother’s habitual lateness. Overall, we might have different habits, but our foundation expectations are quite similar. It’s far easier for us to relate to each other than it would be for either of us to find common ground with more locally-minded or conservative individuals in our home communities, though our external reception of guests or celebration of holidays might appear to have more similarities to the latter. I think living in a country and community where the culture and habits are so different from our own has also stressed the similarity between us.
This was quite the inverse of what I once asked a young Turkish student – if he felt that Kyrgyz and Turkish cultures and traditions were in fact quite similar. He said no – he’d actually felt more comfortable when living in Canada. Long-time Turkey Journalist Hugh Pope wrote a whole book exploring common traits among Turkic peoples and Turkic governments: Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World (Amazon). While to our western eyes the patterns apparent may be quite resemblant, the underlying design is not. There may be many of the same cultural habits, the same foods and holidays that weave themselves through the two cultures, but the intention, the path of execution, can be based on entirely different foundations.
Ironically (or not so) the couple who asked us this question embodies the same dichotomy as E & I: both from Switzerland with enough common ground, mutual respect, aspirations and ambitions to keep them traveling together in apparent harmony for eight months; and yet they look very different – the girl petite with flaxen hair and a light complexion straight out of Heidi, the guy quite tall and with a distinct mop of crinkly dark hair and non-Swiss or mixed ancestry. What looks similar is not always so; what appears different might actually be quite alike.