I am waiting on a few more submissions for “A Fish Out of Water” and thought this would be a good time for Jim to tell one of his travel stories. He has been all over the world and has many stories to tell. This may become a regular series! Without further introduction, here is my husband Jim, contributing his story about being a fish out of water.
The train ride from Taipei to Taiwan was only a few hours, but I was a little tired as I arrived. As I exited the station I saw a sign that said, “Glory English School” under Chinese characters. I thought, “Maybe I should go work there.”
The owner of the school met me at the door, “You have English degree?” he said. I showed him my B.A. from California State-Chico, but he wasn’t impressed. “No, degree from Harvard or Yale?”
“That okay – I pay you $20 an hour.”
I glanced over to a classroom to see a middle-aged American, with a scruffy beard, wearing jeans come out. He looked sort of homeless.
“He has a degree from Harvard?” I asked.
I found out after working there for a few weeks that no one had real degrees at all. You can go to Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Manilla and get any degree you want on the street for five or six U.S. dollars. Bangkok is especially popular for this.
My students absolutely hated the “Yale” teacher.
They asked me, “Sha way yi (My Chinese name “Hawaii”) can you teach us tonight? That guy is crazy. He talks about the KGB chasing him and always hears explosions.”
It turns out the “Yale Guy” was actually a deserter from the Vietnam War who had been in Bangkok for years before he came to Taiwan. He told me that he had done so much LSD that he had flashbacks a lot when he was teaching. He hated Taiwan – he said if Bangkok paid teachers better he never would have left.
I had an awesome time in Taiwan; I never worked more than 20 to 25 hours per week, but managed to save $1500 before I left. I was there about seven months. My schedule was great; 6 or 6:30 pm to 12 or 1 am four days a week. I worked for five or six different schools while I was there; but there always seemed to be a delicious noodle shop near by to have a late night, post-work meal for a dollar or two.
Did I ever get culture shock while I was there? Of course, but I never screamed, “I hate this place!” with my fist in the air, in the middle of the street, like an American teacher/friend of mine did. That was a little embarrassing. Trying to learn Chinese helped, because if people at your school were talking badly about you, you could at least defend yourself.
Jim is a Speech and Language Pathologist living in a dome in New Mexico with his wife, daughter, three dogs, two cats, and two chickens. He can speak in English, Spanish, German and a little Chinese. He’s been on every continent except Antarctica. He makes pottery in his spare time.
Today I am excited to share the fourth installment of my “A Fish Out Of Water” guest post series: Women from around the world telling their stories about living in new cultures. I am hoping it inspires some of you to travel and if you can’t travel right now (like me) to at least dream about it. Today published author and artist Sezin Koehler writes about going from global citizen to living in the Florida Everglades.
Mermaid Out of Water by Sezin Koehler
The drive out to the Florida Everglades is populated with people who don’t seem to know a thing about road rules. The freeway is under construction, so there’s no shoulder. Debris litters the expanse — not harmless trash like plastic bags or bottles, but roadwork remnants of bridge wire and cinderblocks. It has to be one of the most stressful highways in the world.
Being on a freeway at all is a strange feeling after enjoying public transportation in countries all over Europe during my ten years there (Switzerland, France, Spain, Turkey, Czech Republic, Germany). Looking out of tram or bus windows at historical relics in the form of apartment buildings, castles, ancient churches, never a dull moment nor lack of beauty to captivate the eye. A harsh contrast to the wide expanses of nothing, strip malls, and more roads, Florida’s great contribution to the world.
At Sawgrass Recreational Park my mom and husband’s goal was to see an alligator in the wild. My goal was to not have a heart attack, especially when I saw how close to the water we’d be in the airboat ride.
Riding through the swampland landscape, reminiscent of the Dead Marshes in Tolkien’s epic, I was ever-reminded of the vast nothing that this place has to offer compared to almost every other place I’ve lived; my mother worked for UNICEF while I was growing up, so add Sri Lanka, Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India to the roster of places I’ve called home.
My Everglades terror reached its apex when my husband spotted an alligator swimming ahead of us. I was shaking so hard it’s a wonder the video I made isn’t vibrating. My fear was so intense I even dropped the camera at one point, convinced I was about to have a heart attack.
The nine-foot gator glided through the water and came right up to our side of the airboat. It opened its mouth and hissed, letting us know we are guests in his territory. The creature was relatively young, about eight years old based on his size. Gators grow about a foot a year for their entire lives. He swam around some more, eying all the tasty morsels just a leap away. I quaked in my shoes, begging my mum and husband to not stand and get too close. I have seen way too many horror movies.
I would find out later that alligators can actually launch themselves from the water. Never in my life have I been so glad to not know a piece of information.
My life here in Lighthouse Point is very much like how I felt out in the middle of GatorLand: isolated, frightening, surrounded by monstrous creatures.
In this area of southern Florida the standard of beauty is capped or bleached teeth, plastic surgery, fake tans in spite of the abundant sunshine, and either stick skinny or hugely muscled. Even when I wear a gorgeous outfit, I don’t get compliments from locals because my long flowing skirts, Tibetan resin jewelry, Frida Kahlo-inspired hair pieces, curvy and natural busty figure do not conform to what is considered attractive in these parts.
On a road trip down to Key West in search of Ernest Hemingway’s spirit I was shocked that female strangers would come up to me in the street, museums, bars, to tell me I’m beautiful, they love my outfit, my hair, my jewelry, I look like a vintage pin-up girl. After a year living around individuals who can’t wrap their brain around me, it brought tears to my eyes that just a few hours south of my unfortunate home are people who get me without even a conversation.
At Papa Hemingway’s house I learned that he wrote the majority of his novels in the four years he spent in Key West. With nothing else to do but go for a drink at Sloppy Joe’s, I can totally see how he managed it. In my first year in Florida I’ve indeed managed to finish my second American Monsters novel, and suspect that I could knock out my third and fourth here, too. However, the isolation and fact I’m essentially living in a retirement community is exhausting my creativity. I find that the lack of a view of something beautiful and historic is sapping inspiration.
Anaïs Nin wrote, “I must be a mermaid. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.” In spite of the time I spend swimming, I am this kind of mermaid out of water, surrounded by people with lives whose only focus are the most superficial aspects of living, keeping up with the Joneses. Meaningful conversations are now a luxury, these are people who only put their toe in the waters of sharing and find it distasteful.
I hope soon I’ll be back in more suitable waters. Until then, I’m following Papa’s lead and writing a whole bunch of books and drinking a whole lotta rum, I mean vodka. If it worked for Papa Hemingway all those years, maybe it will work for me, too.
Sezin Koehler, author of American Monsters, is a woman either on the verge of a breakdown or breakthrough writing from Lighthouse Point, Florida. Culture shock aside, she’s working on four follow-up novels to her first, progress of which you can follow on her Pinterest boards. Her other online haunts are Zuzu’s Petals, Twitter, and Facebook — all of which feature eclectic bon mots, rants and raves.
This week for my A Fish Out Of Water series I am interviewing Catherine Bayar about her business, weddings and life in Turkey. She is an incredibly talented and accomplished woman. I have to warn you, this post will make you want to move to Turkey!
Weaving together a handmade life
Where are you from originally? What brought you to Turkey?
I grew up in sleepy beach town Santa Barbara, California, whitewashed Moorish architecture and Old Spanish Mission surrounded by orange groves. The locals disdained any connection to sprawling chaotic Los Angeles to the south. So I was drawn to that urban energy for college, living in the shadows of skyscrapers and freeways while I studied art history and clothing design. From an early age I liked figuring out how things fit together – puzzles, garments, buildings, languages, cultures.
Istanbul was a production stop in my travels as a clothing designer for an American sportswear company. The bazaars, the food, the textiles and layers of history intrigued me, as did a modern work style melding with timeless elements of daily life that made business trips fun, not dreadful. I came back on my own time to explore this unique cultural mix of Europe and Asia and met my husband and business partner Abit.
Can you tell us about your Etsy Shop Bazaar Bayar? How did you start it and why? Could you explain what fair trade means?
Bayar is Abit’s family name. We opened a textile shop and café in the small Aegean town of Selcuk when I move to Turkey in the late ‘90’s, a bazaar of our favorite vintage textiles, homemade meals, local wine. We’re both treasure hunters who live to make things – me with fiber, he with food. Abit grew up in Mardin, a southeastern province on the Syrian border, an ancient cosmopolitan crossroads of Kurds, Persians, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews, even Zoroastians. I bonded with the women of Abit’s extended family through our shared love of knitting, crochet and weaving. Village women not only had to weave, grow, make everything they needed for a household, but they beautifully embellished those items when they merely needed to be functional.
We opened our Etsy shop in a move to Istanbul in 2010, to have a 24/7 location independent place to sell our rugs and handknits. Women in the city still knit and crochet for their families, and welcome extra cash. Witnessing bad conditions in the garment industry taught me the importance of fairly compensating makers for their work. Their valuable skills should not be exploited so international buyers can have cheap prices. Turkey is an emerging economy, part of the G20, with wide differences in economic levels.
Are women in Turkey business minded or do you train/educate them about business practices?
My first visits in the early ‘90’s, our agent’s manufacturing business was run by an impressive group of multilingual women. The owner had a very different approach than those in other countries where I’d worked: he preferred female attention to detail and their spirit of cooperation, traits he felt were lacking in men he’d employed.
Opportunities for education vary greatly here, with some women rising to positions as CEOs while others can only find work picking produce. But a strong work ethic, a desire to be productive is pervasive in the culture. I might know more about doing business via the Internet or catering to a global market. But I let the women we work with follow their own rhythms and creativity. We’d rather invigorate traditions than completely recreate them.
Can you describe what you enjoy about living in Turkey and maybe a few things you don’t?
We have easy access to the materials and inspiration to build our handcrafted life. We can combine seaside living with an urban environment without huge expense – impossible in California. Istanbul is the world’s largest village, with the butcher, baker and produce seller across the street, neighbors who know and look out for each other. After 14 years, the negative aspects are decreasing. It’s still tough to balance the claustrophobic closeness of families here with my independent nature, but respect on both sides has grown.
What is it like to live in a country that borders Iran, Iraq and Syria? Have you ever been concerned about your safety?
I’ve only been fearful when living by myself in the US, never here. Traveling alone to many countries, my most uncomfortable times were in India and Italy, but they were part of the essential life lessons that only travel, especially being the odd one out, brings. Traveling around Turkey was easy, except for the cloying attention of carpet sellers. Considering that’s how I met Abit on the street, I guess I’m more open to adventure, but I have a curious nature tempered by common sense.
Turkey is in an “interesting” neighborhood, true. Yet I see it as the stable center. These ancient places take the long view of history, thinking in centuries and civilizations. The people in the countries we border don’t scare me, though some of their leaders do. Outsider fear mongering through deliberate misunderstanding is far more frightening to me.
Could you tell us about your knitting retreats and what they are like?
Our retreats came about as my knit partner Figen Cakir and I began collaborating. Compulsive knitters and yarn shoppers we are, we wanted to share our finds! We spend our 3–day weekends with guests exploring the bazaars for yarns and trims, visiting old mosques and museums for tile and color inspiration, and eating too much delicious food to keep up our strength for knitting, designing and lots of conversation. We’re also traveling to Mardin and Selcuk at the end of May this year, a journey to the places and crafts we call home.
This is a question from my husband: Have you ever attended a Turkish wedding? Would you describe what it was like?
We attended one yesterday! Weddings are the central social life event here, varying greatly by region, income and ethnicity. In Selcuk within Abit’s large Kurdish family, they seemed to happen weekly. Everyone the bride and groom has ever known is invited to a large outdoor public location, though recently communities have built wedding halls to control the street party aspect.
Sister-in-law’s wedding in Selcuk, 2009. We’re related to everyone here!
Huge amounts of Kurdish home cooking were served yesterday – platters of grilled chicken and butter drenched rice, white bean soup with a spicy tomato base, stuffed peppers and grape leaves, pickled veggies (a traditional cure for winter sniffles), arugula drizzled in lemon juice and copious amounts of sugary strong black tea. Traditionally weddings were 3 days to even a week long, with ancient rituals like henna nights and visits to the hamam the day before to prepare.
We had our wedding in the hilltop garden of an old stone schoolhouse in the village of Sirince. An embroidered Indian gown and sit-down dinner were my cross-cultural contributions. A short civil ceremony followed by a long receiving line of well wishers pinning us with gold and money, a crazy tall wedding cake cut by a ridiculously long curved sword, and hours of traditional line dancing with everyone young and old. Turkey is like this: a vigorous swirl of emotion, color and creativity tempered by time and tradition. A place to create a culture of our own.
Do you want to know more? Check out some of the links below!
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