Culture Shock in Turkey: Seat Belts, Safety, and the Veil

When I arrived in Izmir to meet the family I would be au pairing with, I saw Sermin* waiting at the terminal for me with her oldest son Adem. They didn’t see me come out of the terminal, so I said her name from behind her. She jumped, then asked if I’d been waiting long.

Well, no. You probably would have seen me if I had.

Walking out of the terminal, we performed all the usual pleasantries that accompany the greeting of someone who has been on a long trip. How was the flight? Good. Are you tired? Not so bad. Did you have any delays? No.

We got in the car, and I got my first taste of culture shock in Turkey. For in this fine country, back seat passengers almost never wear seatbelts, and that includes children. In fact, since back seat passengers are more often children, it is especially the young uns who are at a risk of … you know … whiplash, concussions, instant death, and other fun stuff.

Now if this were the end of it, it would not be a very good story. “Whatever,” you are probably saying, if you were born before 1975. “We didn’t wear seat belts when we were growing up, and we were fine. Ok, it’s better if you do, of course. But really, the only reason we ever do it is because there’s a law, and we’re from the West, so we follow the rules because that’s just what we do.

“What the hell?” you are probably saying if you were born after 1975. “She really deserves the bad mother of the year award. I definitely wouldn’t let my kids play at her house. But you’ve got to stop making such a big deal about this. I mean, Turkey is a developing country. It’s in the Middle East. You should expect things like that.”

I wish that were the end of it. Unfortunately, the excitement of having somebody new to show off to put Adem into overdrive, and before we knew it, he was using the backseat as a platform for his feet as he stuck his head out of the sunroof to taste the fresh air. His hair whipping around in the wind, his mouth open, he resembled a happy dog on the back roads of rural Canada riding in the back of a pickup and delighting in the feeling of fresh air on his taste buds. I briefly considered if I could teach him to say “I just laaahve the feeling of fresh air on my cilia,” in English, or if that would be a bit much to start with.

The next day, we drove somewhere else, this time with the two oldest children in the car. As we sped down the highway at 130 km/h, the two boys rolled around in the backseat, trying to wrestle each other into being as far away from each other as possible.

Counterproductive, I know. But nothing I did seemed to get this across.

After that ride, I started sitting in the backseat of the car as well, and would just buckle their seat belts. This did not work well. The younger in particular once wrestled me for a full 30 minutes while he screamed his head off. His parents tried explaining to him calmly that this was the way it was with me, and they were going to call the police if he didn’t wear it. Alas, this approach was ineffective.

At the end of this ordeal, we were a sweaty, unhappy mess, and I didn’t look forward to more performances of the kind.

And there weren’t any . . . because I gave up. Perhaps I am deserving of the “worst babysitter of the year” award, but I just couldn’t go against Adem’s six and a half years of cultural conditioning.

This whole ordeal is fairly representative of the way things are in Turkey. While laws are basically the same as they are in Canada, disobedience is much more socially acceptable. There is a sense in which I appreciate this – you can take alcohol to the park without anybody looking askance, whether or not you are drunk. There is no need to bring a paper bag or put it in a thermos, or any other tried-and-true underage drinking strategy. More often, however, I don’t appreciate this aspect of the culture. One time I was out with an acquaintance I’d met here. We went to grab some food, and after the meal the restaurant gave us small packets of wet wipes to clean out hands with. A minute after we left, he dropped his wet wipe. Assuming he’d done it by mistake, I just picked it up to throw in the nearest garbage can (which was about 20 metres in front of us.) He said, “Oh, don’t pick that up,” and I said, “no, it’s no problem at all.” Five metres later, he dropped the wrapper too, and I realized that he was just littering deliberately.

I don’t want to say that this is representative of all Turkish people, because it’s not. But I will say that Turkey is a much less structured society than Canada. Whenever I buckle my seat belt in the backseat, people chuckle at me – because why would you do it if the cops can’t tell? Twice, in a pinch, I’ve gotten on driverless transit without paying within the sight of others and nobody even gave me the stinky eye.

All that said, while societal structures that focus on safety are generally more lax here, other societal structures are not. For example, it’s been my experience that the way you dress is incredibly important, and if you don’t dress the “right” way, people make comments. Your shorts are too short? People talk behind your back. You’re veiled in Izmir, one of the most anti-veil cities in Turkey? Oh my gad, you shouldn’t be. That’s not very progressive. You’re wearing makeup with your veil? Well, aside from the fact that you’re veiled, which is problematic because of reasons, (the reason being, of course, that people in Izmir think of themselves as Westernized) the juxtaposition of your obvious face-painting immodesty when the veil is a symbol of modesty is a problem. And so on. The gaze of others is strong here, and is more stifling than any veil could be.

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