“Can you speak Turkish?” This is the typical question I am asked when someone finds out I am Turkish. The positive response I give always shocks the person asking and prompts them to beg me to say a few words. To be able to speak two languages fluently is some of the most valuable knowledge I have. I wasn’t truly aware of its importance in defining me as an individual until fairly recently.
The hospitable nation of Turkey welcomed me into its borders in the summer of 2007 when I went to visit my relatives. I had not seen them in person for two years and had barely heard their voices on the telephone. However, my excitement to see their faces was somewhat shadowed by my fear of conversing with them. I had spoken only Turkish until I was two years old, but as I grew up in an English-speaking country where I was constantly surrounded by friends who spoke English and by books that were written in English, my Turkish-speaking abilities had begun to wane. I became more self-conscious about the way I spoke. Communicating with this foreign language no longer came as second nature to me. My relatives, on the other hand, spoke only Turkish. It made me tremble to think that I would have to carry on conversations in a language I could understand completely, but was not comfortable speaking with people whom I barely spoke to in the first place.
I stuttered through the first few days at my grandmother’s house. By helping around the house with chores such as setting and clearing the table and sweeping the floors, I hoped to compensate for my lack of words. One day, I looked up from the plate I had just placed on the table and noticed my aunt come in. She didn’t even look up at me because she knew that no words of her native language would escape my mouth. I was failing at my attempt to strengthen my relationships with my relatives; my simple acts of kindness had nowhere near the same personal value as words do. As much as I tried to convince myself that it was okay to stay silent because it was too difficult for me to form sentences complex enough for conversation, the worse I felt about the entire situation.
My relatives were beginning to get disappointed. They continually asked me questions in an attempt to start conversations with me, trying to break me out of my habit of silence. I responded with short sentences. I wanted to speak, but I was not willing to work to form the awkward Turkish syllables in my mouth. I felt as though I was trapped in a glass box; I wanted to communicate, but I was only able to gaze silently across an invisible barrier. When guests came over, they would look at me inquisitively and say things like, “She’s a quiet one.”
This situation embarrassed me greatly. Not only was I not able to speak the language of my own culture with ease, but my silence was also cold and unwelcome. I felt narrow-minded. Numerous opportunities regarding speaking and practicing the language had been thrust at me, but I had not taken them and therefore did not embrace my culture. My parents spoke only Turkish to me at home, constantly urging me to practice the skill of the language. I felt guilty that my loud silence was a disappointment to the family members who I only got a chance to see every so often. If I was able to communicate so well with my American friends, why was I not able to embrace the diversity of being Turkish and prove to my own relatives that I cared?
When I left Turkey for my home back in America, I felt a sense of urgency to learn the language of my family. I realized that I was scorning my culture by refusing to speak Turkish and throwing off a part of me that made me unique. I did not want to be disrespectful to my family, either, who expected me to treat both lifestyles equally and therefore embrace this diversity as an opportunity to know more about the world and to experience two different lifestyles in two different countries.
The magnitude of possessing this unique trait truly hit me. My mouth began allowing me to pronounce Turkish words and soon, after more practice, formed sentences and carried conversations. It paid off.
My grandmother called to talk to my mother one day, and at the end of the conversation, I took a hold of the telephone. Thankfulness flowed through each word as my grandmother expressed her appreciation of my efforts and as I burst with joy at being able to convey all that I wished to her. The glass box I had found myself trapped in had now lifted, and I could express myself rather than finding a barrier separating me from conversation.
The ability to speak Turkish is a gift to me. It is what makes me unique. It is what makes me culturally aware. It is what allows me to be one with the most important people in my life. Embracing my own culture has taught me that all things, no matter how awkward they may seem at first, deserve a chance. I am now willing to open my mind up to anything new that may cross my path as I expand my horizons on my journey through life.
Not many people can say they exist in two different places at once, but I feel that I’ve taken root in two countries that have come to teach me the significance of embracing the differences that define that one girl who can speak a language other than English. I have learned that it is of utmost importance to take every opportunity I am given, especially one as rare and as exceptional as speaking another language. I am proud of this distinction. Or, as I would say in Turkish, “gurur duyuyorum.”
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