Note: This story also appears in the May issue of the Sho'men Club Newsletter. To become a member of the Sho'men Club, click here.
Junior volleyball player Emily Hoyle spent the spring semester in Turkey and writes about her experience from the Crossroads of Europe and Asia. Here is her experience.
That was the number one response I received when mentioning that I would be studying abroad in Turkey. At first, I was surprised, with my immediate internal response being, "why not?" Once I got my past my knee jerk reaction, however, it was impossible not to acknowledge it as a legitimate question. I knew absolutely no Turkish and very little about Islam; I have no family lineage here; and I have never shown, or had, any great interesting in the uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East. To top it off, I made my choice to studying abroad in Istanbul right when major U.S. media coverage of the escalating tension between Turkey and Syria began taking off.
Perhaps in all honesty, my biggest aversion to the question "why?" was that I didn't know the answer, or at least, know how to articulate it. One of the reasons for going that was easiest to explain was that I just wanted to try something different. Istanbul has a population of over 13 million, making it one of the five most populous cities in the world, while Boğaziçi University itself has over 12,000 students. As far as size goes, that's about as big of difference you can get from Chestertown and Washington College. Of course, the size of the city is just a minor player in what makes living in Istanbul so different; the culture, religion and language all stood in stark contrast to everything I had grown accustomed to in the United States.
Formerly Byzantium and Constantinople, Istanbul was founded around 660 BC, and served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empire. Mosques, churches and palaces that have been built hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, are spread through the city, juxtaposed with the more modern architecture, which appears bland and crude compared to the intricacy and grace of that of past. One of the most beautiful sights is viewing the historic peninsula from the other side of the Bosporus, where the Hagia Sophia, a church turned mosque turned museum built in 300 AD and the Blue Mosque tower over the sprawling metropolis that surrounds it.
Although Turkish is the official language of Turkey, and English is not very common, many of Turkey's foremost universities, including mine, are taught in English. What is interesting is that students aren't required to learn English in order to be accepted; instead, after they are accepted their first year is dedicated solely to learning English. Then, after they pass the test proving they are competent at the end of the year, they attend regular university classes in which all lectures, notes, readings, and assignments are in English. This unique system is a blessing for exchange students, as it allows us to befriend local students with minimal communication problems. In fact, because they learned English in an academic environment and through reading scholarly works, my Turkish friends will use an English word I have to ask the definition of more often than I would like to admit to. Conversely, I do my best to explain the countless colloquialisms and slang terms that I wasn't previously aware so liberally peppered my speech.
I was instructed by the study abroad director at WAC that I should learn something about Turkish pop-culture before arriving, but what I wasn't aware of is that I also needed to brush up on my American pop-culture as well. The amount of times I have been asked "are you even an American?" because of my failure to have knowledge of a certain American song, band, actress or movie that 'everyone knows about' was astonishing. This being said, despite Turkey's appreciation for many American artists and actresses, they do a pretty great job of producing their own. Some of the Turkish pop songs are so catchy that I find myself singing along, despite having no idea what words, or sounds, should be coming out of my mouth.
Sharing a common tongue with the locals, along with opting to live with some Turkish girls in a flat near campus, rather than in the university housing option for exchange students, allowed me an inimitably immersive experience. I am so thankful for the endlessly hospitable and welcoming nature of most the people I've met here, making my experience here more than a prolonged vacation. Leaving will be odd, and it's hard to know what I'll miss the most, but I can almost guarantee it will be a culmination of all the little things, be it the lush mustaches that so prominently graced the faces of so many Turkish men, the Call to Prayer reverberating through the massive city five times daily, or just knowing that the only thing that separated me from anywhere in the city is a bus ride and single lira.