You try not to be xenophobic – believing that where you’re from is the greatest place on the planet and that every place else comparatively sucks. The thing is, even the best of us – by which, it goes without saying I mean myself – can slip.
I mean, there are limits, of course. You do not to respond to everything a culture throws at you with a non-judgmental “That is simply the way they do things.” Beheadings for example, which seems to be the execution “Method of Choice” of certain militant, Middle Eastern subcultures…
“Sorry, that’s out. We’re tolerant. But not that tolerant.”
(Asserts the citizen of a country that dispatches its condemned via an unreliable lethal cocktail.)
NOTE: During the preceding nine posts chronicling our recent Turkish adventure, you may well have detected signs of suggested Turko-phobia, my discomfort, for example, with some Turkish toilets I had encountered that were just drains. But in those cases, I kept my disapproval to myself. Yeah, and then I wrote about them – I know. But that was primarily for comedic effect. Which is different, don’t you think? I mean the joke was essentially on me… is what I am trying to say. Never mind.
Further exemplifying my determination not to offend was this intense inner struggle I experienced concerning asking about the potability of the drinking water. I had noticed that the hotels we stayed at, as well as the boat, all supplied bottled water. Did that mean, I wondered, that the tap water was not drinkable? Or were they simply being “fancy” with the bottled water?
The thing, is how do you politely ask that kind of question?
“Can Turkish tap water kill me?” is probably not the way you want to go.
It’s a legitimate issue, the way to appropriate way to ask something. You are reluctant to inquire of a person who lives there,
“Is this a Third World country, or what?”
I encouraged myself to steer clear of this potentially uncomfortable issue, but, like trying not to sneeze, the more I suppressed my concern, the more the question propelled itself to the forefront of my consciousness. And so, after three days of holding my tongue, in the least offensive construction I could think of, I said,
“I am curious about the tap water.”
I am informed, without rancor, that it’s fine; it just doesn’t taste that good. And I leave it at that. There was no,
“So you’re saying that it’s not raw sewage coming out of the faucets?”
I instead dutifully behave myself, proceeding to less provocative concerns, like, “What’s for dinner?” or “Do you know if the ‘ice-cream guy’ coming today?” I remain throughout pretty much on my very best behavior.
Until the final night of our journey.
We, by which I mean the five remaining traveling companions and Sarhan, are sitting together at dinner at the Kismet Hotel outside of Kusadasi – forgive me, but this is probably my final opportunity for Turkish beach town name dropping – and the conversation inevitably turns to Jane, who had fallen on the boat and had undergone emergency surgery in Fethiye. (Okay, but that’s the last one.)
I can feel my adrenaline revving up for a rant. Being the sensitive person that I am, I immediately identify with Jane’s desperate situation – having no alternative but to go under the knife far away from home, the small town surgeon wielding that knife, an unvetted stranger from a foreign country.
In my admittedly hyper-fearful response system, facing a crisis of this nature inevitably triggers the emotional equivalent of,
“I want my Mommy!”
“Home”, the geographical surrogate for “Mommy” instills the illusion at least of the familiar, the capable and the safe. I encapsulate this contrasting situation, bewailing painfully,
“I mean, who is this Turkish doctor?”
Do you see what I did there? Exposing my xenophobic bias to the world, I was essentially expressing a coded version of,
“Who is this not American Board Certified ‘Exotic’ who’s going to be cutting open my shoulder?”
I immediately felt terrible. Trying to backtrack, by insisting I’d feel the same way about any small town hospital, explaining that only two weeks before I’d experienced my “heart incident” in Los Angeles, I was vacationing at our cabin in Indiana, and I’d have felt exactly the same had I been rushed to the local hospital in Michigan City.
I then abruptly stopped talking, sensing that the insult I had inflicted was terminally irreparable.
I had “misspoken” – defined as “inadvertently telling the truth.” By verbalizing my, more than likely, irrational concerns, I had insulted Turkish doctors and, by implication, the country of Turkey as a whole. That’s why the next day, when we parted company, I said to Sarhan, “If anything stupid accidentally came out of my mouth…” and I asked for his forgiveness.
Sarhan gallantly dismissed my apology. It is true that when I committed my faux pas, Sarhan had behaved like he had not been offended. But I had looked in his face at that moment, and I had detected an involuntary flinch.
Ah, well. Two weeks, and only one egregious boo-boo. (That I know of.)
That’s better than my overall average.