Chicken Soup for the Lesbian Soul

This post is about one particular area of culture shock that, no matter how much time I spend in Turkey and with Turkish people, I still find challenging.

I’m not talking about lesbianism, which I will get to later. I am talking about hospitality culture, and particularly, about when Turkish people buy me stuff. It’s not that I have any problem with people being generous, or with hospitality, or with people being happy that I’m there. All of these things are lovely.

What I find difficult about Turkish hospitality culture is that its rules are totally different from Canadian hospitality culture. It’s like learning a new language. Moreover, unlike actually learning a language, there are few Turkish culture teachers who have also spent a lot of time immersed in Canadian culture that can instruct me on the finer points of how to feel and behave when people (read, mostly men) offer to buy me stuff or just buy me stuff without allowing me the space to politely refuse. My cultural codes play constant interference in my head, and I always struggle with making the same assumptions about gifts in Turkey that I would make in Canada.

Oh Canada / my home and native land / your cultural norms / the only ones I understand.

Oh Canada / my home and native land / your cultural norms / are the ones I understaaaaaaaaand.

Here’s an example: in Canada, if a man asks you out, there are tacit codes for about how much money he can spend on you before it becomes clear that you are very interested in him romantically. The last time I went on a date in Canada, I think I let him spend $10 on me. This is low, but it was a first date and I was entirely unsure about my own level of interest, so I didn’t want him to get any ideas.

If, however, I had allowed him to spend $30 or $40 on me, I would practically have been obligated to give him a second date, and if it had been more, he probably would have expected me to sleep with him that night. I would be allowed to refuse, but it would be considered greedy to do something like that and we likely wouldn’t continue seeing each other.

However, if I were interested but not ready or willing to have a physical relationship, I could keep the amount of money I allowed him to spend low, perhaps pay for the second date, and by the third date have a frank and honest conversation about our mutual expectations going forward.*

In Turkey, the first time I went out with a guy, I made it very clear beforehand that I wasn’t romantically interested in anything because I was only there for two months, and he told me that he was living temporarily at his parents’ house because he was between jobs. From my perspective, considering the fact that he didn’t have a job, and because I didn’t want him to think that I was romantically interested, we should choose cheap places and both pay our own way, right? Wrong. He paid for everything, including a fair amount of alcohol (which, relative to the Turkish cost of living, is like liquid gold.) I felt quite badly about how much money it was, and I remember him saying to me, as I made noises of protestation, “you’re a guest in Turkey,” and then “it’s basically impossible to say no to things in Turkey.”

He was right. I have now been in this situation countless times, and I usually can’t say no. Each time, I am very thankful for the generosity but I normally feel a bit guilty as well.

I also have trouble distinguishing between what is regular “you are a guest” gifts and what are “I like you romantically” gifts. In some ways, it doesn’t matter, because it is difficult to say no either way. Eventually I realized that the only way I can deal with this is to be clear about my expectations, be careful, and accept gifts graciously and thankfully. Then, if somebody turns out to have other intentions, I can politely tell them that I was telling the truth about what I was and wasn’t looking for.

Easier said than done, however. I still find myself doing things to mitigate how guilty I feel about people buying me things. So, when a Turkish guy invited me out here in Georgia, I suggested we go to a place that I knew wasn’t that expensive so that I would feel better about him paying.

Unfortunately, when we got there it was temporarily closed. He said, “Hey, I had sushi last night and it was really good. I’d be happy to have it again – do you want to?”

In Canada sushi is not particularly expensive, so without really thinking about it, I said, “Sure, sushi sounds good.”

Big mistake. When we got to the sushi place I looked at the menu only to realize that the sushi was approximately three times the price of Canadian sushi. So I said, “Oh, I didn’t realize it would be so expensive.”

And he said, “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t invite you to an expensive place and expect you to pay.”

Welp. Here we go again.

I told him that he could order because I couldn’t even order food that expensive for myself, and he did the honours. The sushi came (it was the best sushi I have ever had) and he started making racist comments. I can’t even write them down because I don’t want to make my Turkish friends who read this blog angry.


Finally, I said, “You know, I don’t agree with what you’re saying and I would prefer to talk about something else.” We changed the subject, tucked into the sushi, conversed, whatever. I already knew that me and this guy were not going to be friends, so I couldn’t act remotely flirtatious. Just politely friendly.

Midway through the meal he said, “You know, you have a lesbian soul.”

I said, “What?”

He said, “I can tell you’re a lesbian.”

I said, “I’m not a lesbian.”

He said, “No, I promise you that you are. I have a lot of lesbian friends, and you act exactly like them.”

I thought, “When you say “lesbian friends,” do you mean women who don’t find you attractive? Or are they actually lesbians?”

I said, “well, I’m not a lesbian.”

He said, “No, seriously, you are definitely a lesbian! If you want, tonight we will go out to the club and I will buy you a prostitute and you can try being with a woman. I guarantee you that if you are just with a woman once you will not want to go back to men.”

This was preposterous. I made a face as if I were seriously considering it.

He said, “See, you are not grossed out!”

I said, “I’m afraid I might have to refuse your offer. I don’t like the idea of paying for sex. Also, I’m not a lesbian.”

He said, “What’s the problem? You won’t be paying, I will be.”

Did I feel bad when he paid for 40 American dollars’ worth of sushi for me? No, no I did not. Did I feel obligated to see him again? Also no!

The ladies in Bend it like Beckham are as confused as I am.

The ladies in Bend it like Beckham are as confused as I am. Although I am neither a lesbian nor a Pisces.

On a side note, this is not the first time this has happened to me with Turkish men. The other three times, I politely refused a man’s offer to take me out only to have him ask, “what, are you a lesbian?” as though it were the only possible reason I could possibly refuse to spend time with such a stud.

I always have to bite back the urge to say, “not usually, but your Mom is special.” In Canada, it would be a mild burn. In Turkey, it might get me beaten up.

*The amounts differ depending on the relative income brackets of the two people going on a date, and there is a threshold where you cannot safely assume romantic intent, which is usually about the cost of one coffee or beer.

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