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5 Perks of Becoming a Turkophile

A Singaporean shares his journey of becoming a Turkophile and the perks of being a Turkish-speaking foreigner in Turkey (and beyond).

Most people visiting Turkey will agree that it is a wonderful travel destination. Istanbul has no equal as a city anywhere else in the world, while the rest of the country is likewise filled with exquisite sights and hospitable people.

Not surprisingly, when I went to Turkey on a semester-long study programme two years ago, I promptly fell in love with the country. There and then, I resolved to become more than just another transient traveller in the country. I had to familiarise myself with Turkey’s culture, understand its history and learn its language intimately.

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As a result, over the past two years, I found myself poring over numerous books and articles on Turkey, spent hours wrestling with the complex suffixes in the Turkish language and exploited all available opportunities to practise the language with Turks—both online and offline, in and outside of Turkey at all sorts of random places, including a kebab stall at a pasar malam here in Singapore!

Indeed, this journey of becoming a Turkophile has been immensely exciting and fulfilling, one filled with many perks that I wish to share with all of you here:

1. Turkey becomes your second home

As you engage deeply with all things Turkish, the country itself will start to feel familiar, like a home you didn’t know you have.

The language barrier will fade away or become less frustrating. People start to be friendlier and you begin to feel comfortable everywhere. When you step into a Turkish restaurant, for instance, the initially mind-boggling array of Turkish dishes on the menu may then seem just like the usual culinary diversity of any Singaporean hawker centre.

In fact, during my last trip to Turkey, I felt so at ease in the country that a week after the attempted coup on 15 July, I went hiking alone for two days in the outskirts of Istanbul, spending the night in a sleeping bag beside a field of sunflowers. Along the way, I encountered nothing but kindness from the many Turks I met, who often enthusiastically invited me over for tea.

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On the whole, my experience with Turkey has taught me that the more effort you put into engaging a place and its people, the richer your experience will be. After all, travel is more than just the act of going somewhere. It is also the delightful process of making that somewhere a part of yourself, which can only happen when you put in the effort to do so.

2. Feel like a celebrity while in Turkey

Speaking from personal experience, being a foreigner itself is enough to make you the centre of attention in Turkey, especially in the regions that do not receive many tourists. Can you then imagine the attention you will get if you are a Turkey-loving and Turkish-speaking foreigner?

People will want to talk to you, take Instagram selfies with you and add you as friends on Facebook. Best of all, you may even appear on TV, like I did for a documentary on organic farming.

explore, travel, 5 perks of becoming a turkophile

The backstory to this was that I went to work on a farm in a small town in Turkey during one of my summer holidays. Little did I know then that my host mother was part of a women’s cooperative which was the subject of a documentary series on TV. The head of the cooperative soon found out that I speak Turkish and that was how I found myself in front of the camera one fine day, being interviewed in Turkish.

Being a Turkophile thus has its perks. It is not often that most of us will even obtain a minute of fame in our own countries, much less in another country. However, by engaging deeply with another country and its people, you may get the opportunity to become the centre of attention and feel how it is to be a celebrity, even if it is only just for a moment.

3. Gain the appreciation of the Turks you meet

With attention also comes appreciation. Turks are a proud people and they love it when foreigners show awareness for their country’s rich heritage. Throw in some Turkish and they will probably go crazy!

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Thanks to my sheer enthusiasm for Turkey, as well as my grammatically-correct Turkish, I have many stories of impressing—often with much surprise—the Turks I have met. Of them, my personal favourite comes from the one time in Washington, DC when my Uber driver was Turkish. After conversing with him for some time in Turkish, he suddenly reached out for his phone and turned off the Uber app.

“I’m giving you the rest of this ride for free,” he said.

Never did I expect that my love for Turkey would one day lead me to what amounted to a half-priced Uber ride in the U.S. But I guess this is just part of the perks of becoming a Turkophile and gaining the appreciation of the Turks I meet—an appreciation that can manifest itself in sometimes unexpected ways.

Indeed, I believe that there is something precious in the endeavour to bridge cultural differences. When the locals of any place see you putting in the effort to do so, I am definitely certain that they will be extremely appreciative. More than any number of minutes of attention or fame, it is this realisation of making someone else’s day that is so beautiful about the process of engaging deeply with a place and its people.

4. Become worth two persons

In Turkish, there is a proverb that states: “Bir dil bir insan, iki dil iki insan.” What it means simply is that you are one person if you speak one language, but worth two if you can speak two languages.

Indeed, learning Turkish and becoming a Turkophile have given me not only another “tongue” with which to interact with the world, but also another pair of “eyes” with which to observe it. In other words, I can now effectively perceive the world from the perspective of two persons.

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This has many benefits. For one, the broader pool of cultural and historical knowledge that you can now draw on will enrich your understanding of your place in the world. You will have more possibilities in terms of how you can define your own identity and more resources in terms of how you can define your own meaning in life.

Moreover, in our increasingly interconnected world today, having deep expertise about any place outside of your home country is immensely helpful. When you have the cultural toolkit of two persons rather than one, you can better identify potential connections, as well as feel more comfortable amid differences. Diversity therefore becomes less threatening and more inviting, making you better-placed to reap all its rewards.

5. Be empowered to flourish anywhere

Ultimately, the entire process of engaging deeply with a place, of acquiring another perspective to see the world, should make you feel empowered. As my experience becoming a Turkophile has shown me, I now know that I have what it takes to become a local anywhere. I have done it before and I can certainly do it again.

Even if you throw me to a place as far away from Singapore as possible, I know that I will do just fine. My engagement with Turkey has taught me that everyone is capable of flourishing anywhere. I myself first went to Turkey knowing virtually nothing about the country, but I left it saying “kalbim Türk” (my heart is Turkish).

explore, travel, 5 perks of becoming a turkophile

Hence, I strongly urge all of you to go forth and venture somewhere culturally-distant from your home. As you engage with that place, you will unearth within yourself the sense of curiosity that is intrinsic in every human being. With that curiosity—and a healthy dose of sincerity and hard work—everything will naturally fall into place. You will earn a new home, gain the attention and appreciation of the locals, as well as develop more cross-cultural competencies.

Best of all, at some point in the midst of your engagement with the place, you will feel deep in your bones a magical, transcendental feeling like I did—that the world can really be your oyster.

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