Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tale of an Expat

Yesterday I read Alan Maley’s wonderful article in ETPThe article called ‘Over the Wall...’ was about four novels discussing the issue of immigration to the UK.

Contrary to thousands of Poles, I didn’t choose England to settle in. Yet the stories and plights of immigrants in the article sounded very familiar.

Most of my close friends know that I came to Turkey in 2007 with a credit waiting to be paid. I guess you might say I sort of escaped from Poland leaving the credit behind. But I had to do it – the money was necessary for my first months in Istanbul.

And then all the problems began.
  • During my first week while eating lahmacun, my tooth broke and I had to visit a dentist (80YTL with the help of my Turkish friend whose uncle was a dentist).
  • The Euro rate at that time was very low and I ended up having a lot less money than I expected. Having paid the deposit and rent for the apartment (plus an extra 500 YTL for the furniture) I was left with around 300 TL for a month and a half.
  • As my turist visa was valid for month only I had to get myself a residence permit for which my school refused to pay. We ended up spending the whole day in the Aksaray Yabanci Şubesi in exactly one hundered queues not knowing how the whole process was going to end. Mind you, I didn’t have the 570 YTL to pay for my Ikamet or the 3000$ in my account which was required. To cut a long story short, the school was taking the 570 YTL from my salary in installments. How generous.
  •  I had to save as I wanted to pay off the credit by Christmas so I was eating lots during lunch at school so as not to spend money on food later. The result was even worse – I probably gained around 10 kg that year.
  • Somehow, I expected Istanbul to be warm so I had taken mostly summer clothes from home. Obviously it wasn’t so I had to wear layers of T-shirts and tops in winter as it was, actually, pretty cold that year.
  • The food sold in stores was a lot different from home. It took me a few months and a lot of experimenting to find Turkish equivalents of what I was used to eat. After 2 years I can find bread similar to the one we have in Poland but a) some other things are not sold here at all, b) the ones you manage to find are usually outrageously expensive.
  • In the area where I lived hardly anyone spoke English – my Turkish friend had to accompany me to the hairdresser’s every time and, what a surprise, I always had a different haircut and hair colour that I wanted. Apparently Turkish hairdressers do it to everyone lol J
  • I met some people during CELTA and ended up working with one but most of the time I felt extremely lonely. I didn’t have a laptop, there were no English books around and I did my share of sightseeing before. During a Christmas party my South African friend told me how to switch the language to original on the Digiturk remote control. That was awesome! I became a fan of Crime&Investigation Network as finally, there was something on TV that I could understand!
  • So many times I got into the wrong bus in the morning and had to catch a taxi to be at school on time. If you have ever used Istanbul’s public transport in the morning, you know what I mean. Traffic, dolmuşes, minibuses, service buses, green buses and blues buses, taxis and people. LOOOts of people running to get on something that will take them to work.
  • I had the unfortunate chance of learning the word fortçuluk and that was not nice especially that the fortçuluk took place more than once. I guess it happens in many countries but it has never happened to me back home.
Yeah, immigration is tough and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Despite all my hardships here in Istanbul I haven never regretted my decision to work there. I’ve learned a lot about Turkey, Turks and myself. Although I had to start everything from scratch again, it was worth all what I’d been through.

How about you expat teachers? 

What was the most difficult thing for you to accept or deal with in your new countries? 

Would love to hear your stories!


  1. It's never easy for anyone who becomes an expat.

    What I usually read is blog posts or forum rants of how English or American etc teachers are sooo miserable working in Turkey, Korea, Greece, Italy, Sri Lanka, etc because the people there are so not like the people like home, hence soooo inferior... nay...inferior is mild...subhuman describes it better.

    Making a decision to work overseas - for whatever reason - should come hand in hand with a feeling of adventure and being open to other cultures, other viewpoints, other ideas of the world.

    It was interesting to read about your trials and tribulations of the early days, but it would also be nice to know why you STAYED and whether you are now more connected with the people and culture in Turkey.

    In my particular locale, there are still many people who come in thinking they own this place, simply because they are native speakers.

    They stay huddled in their small expat clutches and think of you with any respect only if you speak their language to an acceptable to them level - meaning they can converse with you without bursting into rude giggles at your mistakes.

    Where are you now by way of intergation?

  2. I love the challenge of living in a different country. At first it can be disorientating and lonely, certainly, although wherever I've been there has been a staff room of people to hang out with. As Marisa says it's easy to stick with 'the gang' but I've often found that being in a group can make it easier to meet local people on a night out.

    Actually, I was an expat in your home country! I taught for a year in Bydgoszcz and had a great time, but found various things difficult to deal with. The main thing was the weather! It was tough to get through so many months of snow and ice. Also, I found that most people were not used to speaking to foreigners and so shop assistants and restaurant staff were often confused (and amused) by our pointing and gesticulation!

  3. HI Anita,

    Really interesting to read through all your experiences. Never had any problems at hairdresser’s and sometimes used to bring packets of “Scott’s Porage Oats “ from England until you could get rolled oats in Budapest!

    I remember living in East Germany in the eighties when, if there were 5 people eating in a restaurant and the tables were for four, you could hardly ever pull up another chair to the table as it disturbed the “offizielle Ordnung”.

    And in Hungary I’ve never really come to terms, as a pedestrian, with amber being a traffic light which in reality means speed up and not slow down and stop and zebra crossings as places where you often take your life into your own hands.

    Never saw myself as an ex-pat though, although I’ve spent half of my life out of Britain. Wherever I’ve been,it’s usually used to describe people working for Western companies on higher salaries who tend to spend most of their time with other native speakers of English. I don’t fit into any of those categories!

    And of course it’s not used to describe manual workers who are usually called immigrants, spongers on the welfare state (if there is one, bloody foreigners or Slovaks when they are actually Slovene!

    For all the problems we're confronted with, it's worth it though,innit Anita?

  4. Marisa!

    Thanks a lot for the comment :)

    What you wrote about expats is unfortunately very true and Iconsider myself lucky to have observed it from different perspectives.

    Back in Poland, I was a 'local' teacher, one looked down on by the foreigners who made no attempt to socialize.
    In Turkey, my American flatmate was exactly the same kind. He never had any Turkish friends and always hanged out with his own folks (excluding me as I was an Eastern European ;)

    The problem is a complex one though – some foreigners seem aloof and unfriendly because they frequently feel lost and lonely. As a result they stick to their own people not because they feel superior but because the locals make little attempt to socialize. It's a vicious circle.

    As I have said before, I came to Turkey with nothing but my education, the credit and a backpack. Most of my friends were Turks I met during CELTA and they gave me the taste of what Turkey is like.
    I have always been into anthropology so finding out about their customs, traditions and language made my stay interesting.

    Why I decided to stay?
    a) I got a better job and wanted to try again
    b) I wanted to learn more about the country
    c) I can see more possibilities for development here than where I come from
    d) I met this one guy and... ;)

    The longer I stay, the more impossible it seems. Don't get me wrong, I have a very comfy life here now but you either live exactly like the people here or you're out. And I cannot accept absolutely everything I experience here. Some thing that bother me are details but others are significant.
    Last but not least, I'm an only child - my parents want me back and I'll have to do it one day


    It's great to meet one more NEST that taught in Poland :) You liked Bydgoszcz? Heard it's a pretty boring place to live...
    I agree the weather is a huuuge minus of living in PL - it was also one of the minor reasons I decided to leave.
    Can't complain about weather in Turkey - ok, sometimes it gets toooo hot :)

    Thanks for the comment :)


    I enjoyed your stories as well - the German one is hilarious :)))

    I'd say it's great you don't see ourself as an expat. It's a lot more interesting to live among the 'locals', learn their language and traditions. My first year in TR was like that - now, having moved houses and schools, I spend most of my time with other foreigners.

    On a final note - I hate the feeling of superiority some foreigners express. It's simply disgusting.

    Thanks for the comment :)

  5. There are a couple of anti-native speaker comments here so as a native speaker living broad (a Brit in Poland)I feel I should try to balance the discussion a bit. ;)
    I think the opinion that native speakers "look down on" local teachers or "burst into rude giggles at your mistakes" isn't true.
    Most Brits or Americans who live abroad are doing it because they are interested in other cultures and want to experience life in another country (unlike most of their compatriots).
    Native English speakers don't actually often laugh at 'foreign' English, simply because we hear English spoken by foreigners very often. It's not funny for us, if anything it's attractively exotic.
    On the other hand, I could tell you a lot of stories at how Polish people think it's hilarious when I try to speak Polish! That's because they rarely hear Polish spoken as a foreign language. The same will be true of a lot of other languages.
    In fact, here in Poland, I think native speaker teachers are at the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to jobs. We are rarely given permanent jobs, get no sick or holiday pay and are often regarded as having little knowledge of grammar or methodology.
    Living abroad is difficult. But it's rewarding if we can manage to get past the first ..erm ...2 or 3 years or so.

  6. Hi Julian!

    I was wondering when you were going to step in :)

    I guess nobody meant to criticize NESTs - it was all about some foreigners in general, not necessarily Brits/ Americans etc. I know a few myself and they are not all NESTs.

    I agree that NESTs might have a hard time looking for a job in Poland but it's similar in many countries from what I've heard :(
    People somehow assume that you are in XXX temporarily so you don't deserve insurance, holiday pay and so on. The 'little knowledge' is an interesting problem as well but, as I'm sure you'll admit, there are still people who think they can teach English just because it's their mother tongue.

    Living abroad rewarding after 2-3 years? Wonder what makes you think so :)

  7. Hi Anita.
    In reply to your comment; "...there are still people who think they can teach English just because it's their mother tongue."
    That's true but I don't think it's as common as people think it is. I'm worried by the stereotyping of NESTS. There are a lot of native speakers who know how to teach. And I'm sure there are a lot of non-native speaker teachers who don't :)
    As for the 2-3 years comment. At first we tend to notice the negative things about being in another country and the differences. It took me longer than that to adjust to living abroad actually; about 5 years to start feeling comfortable.
    But maybe that's just me.

  8. Julian - you're absolutely right!
    There are good/bad teachers among NESTs and nonNESTS. Let's say it's equal :)
    And it does become easier after 2-3 years :) Whether it becomes comfortable after 5, I don't know yet ;)

  9. Well, I'm not an expat and have never been one. Except for the time when as a child (14-16 year-old) I was with my parents in Kuwait. The cultural difference between Poland and Kuwait is enormous. I was going to school there (Czech and English) and had a wonderful life, far from "normal" for a common Pole. I remember that the first year was quite difficult in social terms. And probably that's what's most important for an adolescent. The second year, when I went to an English school and had a few friends (Polish friends) was much better. Otherwise it was perfect for me. I had all the wonderful, colourful stuff that I hadn't had in Poland, it was hot and sunny, every Friday we would go to the beach and I loved it. I missed my friends back home but not the country as such. It was different for my parents. They missed the beautiful Polish landscape, Polish food (bread and cottage cheese as most of Polish expats), Polish customs and ways. Now from time to time I get sentimental and take out the pictures from the desert and I think that I'd like to get back there. Last year I went for a holiday to Egypt and I felt sort of at home. I know mine is a bit different story but I had to share.

  10. While reading this I was definitely laughing with you and not at you. Happy you were able to stick it out.