The Refraction of Memories

Kevin Harber  / Creative Commons

Kevin Harber / Creative Commons

It's been five minutes. The person you’ve just met will ask you what your name is, what you do, and where you’re from. Not where you went to school, or where the apartment you’ll end up tonight is, but where you’re from. 

Your answer needs to be snappy, and you’ll get bonus points if it’s something like New York City—no, not Greenwich and not Hoboken, you pretenders—but also if it’s something totally weird. (Wyoming? How cool, I’ve never met anyone from Wyoming!) 

In my case, the answer is always jumbled and complicated. My Turkish parents moved to Arizona to pursue graduate degrees a few years before I was born. They chased the best public education systems for me go through, and we moved from college town to college town—Cambridge to Princeton. The result was four years at Wellesley, at the end of which I walked across a stage and received a very expensive piece of cardstock with a lot of Latin inscriptions. Roughly twenty-four hours after, my parents moved back to Istanbul. 

It’s always uncomfortable to answer questions about where my family is, why they aren’t here anymore, and what it feels like to live so far away from them. I crave the simplicity of one place to go home to, an answer to quench all questions about holiday plans and the like, but the conversation always takes a somber and slightly uncomfortable turn. I'm a third-culture kid, a breed of my own with little company. I'm stuck between roasted lamb on a spit and a pair of UGGs. I feel out-of-place and uncomfortable and isolated inside all of my different lives.

In grade school, I faced off against my parents’ cultural norms and the ones I was growing up around in the US. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to go to parties where there might be boys, and why we had to spend every single summer in Istanbul. I wanted, very much, to just be normal—at this stage of adolescence, my fantasy of normal was a cross between Lizzie McGuire and Rory Gilmore. When my friends were going to the same summer camps and sleepovers, I was across the ocean, feeling just as much the odd one out there as I did back in the States when I had to turn down invitations and skip out on dates. To my extended family, I was the American cousin who somehow spoke excellent, totally accent-free Turkish. I guess I looked American, too, because I was—and am—always heckled at the Grand Bazaar by men who wanted to sell me “just one very good carpet, yes, please?” And when I was still young enough to play outside, kids would call me the American girl, and marvel at all the toys I’d brought over from the States for us to play with. It was a flattering, bizarre attention, because I’d never asked for it. And it’s the same bizarre feeling I feel every time I have to make a decision on which home I’ll use: do I speak broken Turkish mixed with English at the new bar in Karakoy so we get a better table on the waterfront? Or, do I speak perfect Turkish at the cash-only lunch spot in the neighborhood my father grew up in so I feel welcome and comfortable?

As I got older, I found that I was often just waiting out my summers in Turkey so I could go home and my real life could resume. What I was less aware of until more recently, was that my parents were often doing the same, except the other way around. They were waiting to go back to the city they loved more than any place in the world, the city they’d made so much effort for me to know like my own. 

As a teenager, I was watching Gossip Girl at the same time as Aski-Memnu, a wildly popular Turkish soap opera. I was writing Turkish poetry that I translated into English for a creative supplement on my college applications. I was effectively living an incredibly authentic life as Turkish teenager in the suburbs of New Jersey. And it wasn’t at the cost of being totally unassimilated or cast out, either. I had friends, hobbies, pink checkered Vans, and a love of angsty punk rock. I hung out with a lot kids who were also first-generation, and I realized that the critical difference between me and them was that none of their parents seemed to have plans to move back to where they’d immigrated from. And none of their parents had put nearly as much effort as mine did into sharing their culture—my friends spoke their “mother” tongues broken, at best. Sure, they hung out with other Indian or Chinese families, but it wasn’t to talk about how much better the place they had left was. It wasn’t to constantly reminisce. 

Defining what home meant to me had always been difficult, because I don’t think my parents had yet defined it for themselves. Were my parents Turks, or Americans? Turkish-Americans? Immigrants? Guests, academics, travelers? And what did that make me? 

The experiences and the places my parents were thrilled to return to weren’t ones that I felt the same way about. Their excitement about riding the ferry from Europe to Asia or picking up fresh Simit pastries for breakfast was excitement that I at best empathized with, but didn’t really share—and how could I, when I looked back on going to Bagel Barn with my friends? Or when what I really wanted was pancakes in our living room back in Princeton? It was impossible to feel the absence of the same things, because those weren’t experiences I had grown up around. As time progressed, I began to realize those shared memories generated significant tensions; I had arguments with my father about why I loved little Cambridge more than Istanbul, and why I couldn’t bear the city’s sensory overload. We traded passive-aggressive asides as I defended the odd parts of New England that I felt close to, and I listened to my parents’ disbelief about why I didn’t feel those things for a city that had never truly been mine. We struggled some to terms with the reality that the idea of home is made up of people who have shared experiences. Who can embarrass each other with anecdotes, and who have watched one another travel through phases, relationships, and challenges. For me, home is the bond I share with my mother and father, the memories we’ve made together, and those memories take place in the United States. The efforts my family made take me to Istanbul every summer and teach me Turkish customs and culture were very clearly an effort to share that home with me, but ultimately, they were always just refracted memories. 

Their decision to move back, has, however, given me room for a good deal of mental clarity. I believe that the hardest part of being a third-culture kid is fending off the desire to cherry pick different aspects of who you are at different times. I find myself wanting to have that interesting background to talk about at parties and in interviews, but then, I really just want to blend in sometimes. I want people to get my name right in the first three tries, sometimes. Other times, I’m happy to have its uniqueness be a conversation starter. 

Unfortunately, I never, ever get to choose. 

I have a wall in my bedroom—and have made such a wall in every bedroom I’ve had through high school—of receipts, ticket stubs, cards, and other clippings that make up home for me; a tube ticket from a semester in London, a cocktail menu from a daring night out in Boston before I turned twenty-one, a birthday card from my first birthday I had to spend away from my parents, the year I turned 18.  I associate playlists, perfumes, and pairs of sandals with the memories that make up my version of home. It’s materialistic and a little silly, but it’s also the most concrete way for me to create a blend of the places and points in time that feel like home to me. It certainly doesn’t make for easier conversation, but then again, maybe easier conversation was never in the cards.

Home has never been a simple thing, so I've set about pasting together ticket stubs and other odd-ends to create a patched up, refracted, remembered version of it for myself.