Sunday, April 24, 2016

Eskişehir: Old City With a Modern Twist

February 26-28, 2016

On the last weekend of February, we visited our two friends Lizzie and Michelle in their town Eskişehir, which is located in northwest of Turkey. “Eski” means old, and “şehir” means “city.” This old city was a perfect getaway for Alex and me, as we hadn’t had any major travels since Europe in January, and our midyear evaluation in Ankara doesn’t quite count because it was required and therefore not relaxing. Like Konya, Eskişehir is not a popular city for Fulbrighters to visit, and like Konya, it proved to be a hidden gem.

It was a 10-hour bus ride to Eskişehir! Yawn! I have been on so much bus travel in Turkey, it’s crazy to even think about. Dare I calculate the total number of hours I have spent in awkward sleeping positions with cramped legs? Alas, ‘tis is the life of a tourist/avid traveler. When we got to the Otogar (bus station), we took the tramline to the Anadolu Universitesi, where Michelle and Lizzie met us. After dropping off our belongings at their house (I shared a futon in Michelle’s room, Alex shared the futon in Lizzie’s room), we all went out to a restaurant nearby known particularly for its köfte (meatballs). In Pakistani cuisine, köfte are actual meatballs; in Turkish cuisine, köfte are both meatballs and flat meat kebabs. After Adana kebab, köfte is my second favorite food.

The next morning on Saturday, we started our day with a hearty kahvaltı (Turkish breakfast) at our hosts’ house. Lizzie made us menemen, a popular Turkish breakfast dish which includes eggs, tomato, green peppers, and spices such as ground black pepper, ground red pepper, salt and oregano. We had bread with butter, Nutella, kaymak (cream), and honey. We also ate bananas and apples and sipped on juice. Afterward, we walked around town, popped our head in and out of stores, and enjoyed the good weather. I loved the metal statues adorning this quaint town. For example, there were was a sculpture of a man peeking out of a manhole, and another sculpture of an elderly couple sitting on a bench. I love city art such as this. Antalya’s Kaleici has something similar, but ours is green and the statues are wearing Roman garb. We even took pictures inside the bucket of Nasrettin Hoca whose many sculptures were scattered throughout the city. Nasrettin Hoca is an admired philosopher and a popular children’s character whose thousands of stories have wit, wisdom, and subtle humor. Supposedly, Nasrettin Hoca was born in the Hortu Village of Eskişehir which is why he’s so revered here. A while back, our university representative Metlem invited us to attend a puppet show by Nasrettin Hoca with her son Demir. I remember the auditorium being filled with families with their children, all of whom wanted a picture with this character.
In the afternoon, we stopped for some chit-chat food. We tried Eskişehir’s famed çibörek, which is a thin layer of boiled, flattened minced meat encased in a lightly fried filo pastry. We also tasted leblebi (roasted chickpeas) over boza (fermented wheat drink). I wasn’t a fan of the boza, but I loved the çibörek. Something interesting happened while we were enjoying these snacks. Michelle and I sat on an empty bench, while Alex and Lizzie stood in front of us. Suddenly I noticed an old lady dressed in a hijab and abaya staring at us. I asked Michelle if she knew who it was and she said she did not. We offered this teyze (“auntie”) our bench, thinking she wanted to sit down. And then we offered her our food, thinking she was hungry. But no, she wanted none of these things. Instead, she continued to stare directly at Alex, whispering some things under her breath. After a few seconds, she walked up to Alex, touched her curly hair, and told her in Turkish that she needed to cover head because otherwise she will get “kuna” (sin). We were so surprised with what was happening that we didn’t know what to do. We tried to tell her to shoo off, but she stood there giving Alex the evil eye. Soon after, she walked away on her own and we stood staring at each, shaking our head both in disbelief (so bizarre!) and not surprised (because it’s Turkey and no one respects personal space).

Later that afternoon, we took a dolmuş (pronounced “dolmush”), which is a small square-ish bus in Turkey, to Sazova Park. This park has a Fairytale Castle as well as parks, swings, and open areas for kids to play in. It was constructed so that children can live through the stories they read with legendary characters and magical places. I have never been to Disney World or Disneyland in the United States, but this came close to those places. The castle was white with blue conical hats. We got to go inside and on top, where we enjoyed full park view. Typically there are Ottoman costumes that yabancılar, or foreigners, can try on and take pictures in, but unfortunately this time there weren’t any. I made a mental note to put this on my to-do list for Turkey. I would love to dress up in Ottoman clothes one day—they’re so pretty!
That evening, before dinner, we went to an exhibit that displayed mosque designs from around the world. This was really cool to see, as I have never seen nontraditional mosques (those of different shapes and sizes). Lizzie and Michelle took us a fancy restaurant whose name escapes me at the moment. It had a very antique feel to it, decorated in carpets, pots and pans, and wooden columns. It was very crowded because it is a popular restaurant and it was Saturday night. We waited 30 minutes for our name to be called; when we were seated, it was totally worth it. We ordered a combo of shish chicken, lamb, and ciğer (pronounced jigar, which means liver), as well as çiğ köfte. We got lots of fat bread and salad with this order, which was very filling. I loved this restaurant for its ambiance, live music, and great food.
Sunday was equally eventful. We had kahvaltı with one of Michelle and Lizzie’s colleagues named Günce (which means diary) and her boyfriend inside an old Ottoman house now turned into a restaurant. Turkish kahvaltı truly is always delicious because it’s composed of a little bit of everything. The table is adorned with small bowls that have jam, honey, kaymak, butter, olives, and different cheeses. Big plates have menemen (scrambled eggs), gözleme (fried flat bread similar to Pakistani paratha), tomatoes and cucumbers. Choice of drink is almost always warm çay. After eating, we all had Turkish coffee and I asked Günce to read my fortune. She spotted a big fish in my coffee cup, which she said symbolized prosperity. She said there was an angel waiting for me at the end of the road; that something big will happen at the end of the year, and that I would find out my kismet (fate) by the end of 2016. She also said that she saw dancing ladies but didn’t know what they meant. 
After breakfast, we roamed to the Sunday market where elderly ladies sold handmade jewelry and crafts. I bought a back necklace with Ottoman-esque coins hanging from it, a few pairs of earrings, and an evil eye bracelet. We then wandered Eskişehir’s colorful Ottoman houses in the old city of Odunpazarı. These houses are now function as craft shops, cafes, or restaurants. We stumbled upon a shop specializing in glass crafts. When we walked in, we saw there were two artists working at their desks with open fire gun. Customers and tourists surrounded the table, awing at the talent and marveling at the creations. I bravely asked if I could try to make something…and much to my surprise, the artist said “yes, why not?” Before I knew it, I was wearing goggles and melting a yellow glass rod. In just 15 minutes, I created my very own evil eye pendant; but unlike the traditional blue, I chose yellow because it is my favorite color. Lizzie even made a video of me creating the pendant—what a cool memory to look back on. After my pendant cooled, I bought it for 10 lira. Alex and Michelle followed suit, so Lizzie, Günce, and I decided to walk the streets of Odunpazarı.
After having fried ice-cream and a cup of tea, we headed to Şelale Park, where we saw a beautiful sunset. The hill on which we stood was steep and people could be seen lying on the grass, rolling down the hill, or just sitting on a slant. We had more çay (drinking 3-4 cups a day is quite normal and has even become my habit) and headed out for dinner. We said goodbye to our new friends, ate a quick sandwich, and returned home to pack. We took an overnight bus back to Antalya, and slept the following day.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ankara Midyear Evauation Meeting

February 18-20, 2016

Once again, 104 Fulbright grantees gathered at the famed (or infamous) Niza Park Otel. We were all summoned here for a mandatory, 3-day midyear evaluation meeting. The purpose was to check in with grantees, give updates, and discuss some ways to overcome issues we might be facing at our sites.
The thing with the Fulbright Program is that no site can be comparable to another. Each university is different, each city is different, and therefore each Fulbrighter is having a unique experience. This also means that there is a wide spectrum of positive and negative experiences at each location. Some folks, for example, do not have good relations with their university representation; some are struggling to get Turkish lessons, even 2 hours a week; some universities, like ours, are strict with international travel permission while others let their Fulbrighters go to a different country every weekend. Some Fulbrighters are actually teaching the 21 hours/week contractual obligation, some are teaching 2 hours to nothing (like us). Some are struggling in the classroom because they have no teaching experience, others are thriving. Some love their bustling cities, others are not fond of their conservative towns. Some wish the Fulbright Program provided more professional skills to advance their careers, others love the “year off” mentality.
The agenda was similar to Orientation, with speakers and panelists, briefings and updates. Something unique to the midyear evaluation meeting was the singing performances, in which I also participated, and the talent show. The talent show was amusing. I’m impressed that my fellow peers had learned Turkish songs, instruments, and dances.
Overall, it was great to see some of my peers and chat with new friends. With a cohort as big as 104, it’s absolutely impossible to know everyone on a personal level. People chatted about their travels and shared their awful university situations. There were opportunities to empathize, sympathize, and even pity or envy. We got cool blue t-shirts, though the company made the sizes too small. Everyone complained. I got a small, for example, and I felt like I was wearing a 6-year-old’s tshirt! I switched to a medium immediately, and even that was tight. Oh well. Another gym tshirt to add to the collection I suppose.

With hotel roomie Erika Prince, placed in Ankara.
We had the same hotel roommates, and I loved sharing a room with Erika Prince. She’s stationed in Ankara and shared her experiences of being in the capital with two bombings already. We also exchanged some “fossip” (Fulbright gossip) and vented about things in our cities, especially within our school. Unfortunately, similar to our situation, Erika and her roommate are underutilized at their university. They were told they would be helping prepare a classroom curriculum; not only did that not happen, they also had no students to teach for the first few months. It’s really disheartening to hear that, like me, so many of my fellow Fulbrighters are not having a meaningful professional experience through this prestigious program. If I were a recent college graduate, perhaps I would have enjoyed this year off; but I am a 20-something young professional who likes being challenged and doesn’t like her days to go to waste. On the flip side of that, I know I’ve gained some really spectacular cultural and travel experiences which have been very valuable and enriching. Sometimes we don’t always get what we sign up for, but it’s important to make the most of the situation and count our blessings.

One aspect of midyear that I really enjoyed were safe-space workshops organized by Fulbrighter Sarah Khan, who is placed in Sinop near the Black Sea region. She single-handedly organized topics, questions, and sought out facilitators for the following workshops: experiences of women of color in Turkey, faith and religion in Turkey, and identity discovery in Turkey. It was really chilling to hear some of the experiences that my fellow Fulbrighters were having, especially those of harassment, struggle with trying to convince Turks that they’re “American” (something I can relate to), and how some have gained a greater appreciation and understanding of the religion of Islam.

On the last day of the meeting, we had the option to make a few video remarks about the program for promotional purposes. I decided to be interviewed and my video is now available on YouTube here. Check it out!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Singing in Turkish Class

With Muzaffer Hocam (left) and Burçak Hocam on our singing day.

On Friday, February 12th, we had a singing talent show in our Turkish class. I volunteered to sing three songs: one in Turkish ("Aşık Değilim Olabilirim" by Nazan Öncel), one in Hindi/Urdu ("Tum He Ho"), and one in English ("Breathless" by Shayne Ward). Those that know me know that I don't shy from opportunities where I present my talents, even if those talents are not really a "talent." Singing isn't my forte, but acting in front of large crowds, challenging myself, and having a good time is. Enjoy these videos from my peers and me. Some of the videos' file size is too large (greater than one minute), so I've posted whatever I could. :)

On a different note, it would a few weeks after this fun singing class that Alex and I would lose motivation to attend Turkish lessons. Driven primarily by our school situation -- or lack thereof -- we stopped attending Turkish lessons for the entire month of March. March was, in fact, the worst month for us as we felt frustrated and depressed, with little motivation to do anything. We would stay up late and sleep in late, with virtually nothing to do or look forward to. We traveled on weekends to escape our situation and reality. We went to school once or twice a week, and students showed up sporadically. More on this later.

Mariya singng "Aşık Değilim Olabilirim"
Rumi and Muzaffer Hocam dancing
Khaled and Muzaffer Hocam singing
Couple from Kazakhstan singing
Students from Afghanistan
Rumi from Ghana

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Isparta Snow Day

February 8, 2016

Enjoying the snow in Isparta one day after my birthday.
I celebrated my first day of being 25 in the snow. Alex and I joined a group of foreign students studying in Turkey whose teacher had organized a trip to Isparta, a city three hours from Antalya by bus. (One of my favorite graduate students from the fall semester, Mucahit, is from this town which is known for rose water.)

We spent the day at Davraz Kayak Merkezi skiing resort. I cannot ski but I had a lot of fun snowboarding and meeting new people. It was so cold! I’m glad I had five layers of clothing on, including two layers of socks. I really wanted to do the lift ride up the mountain so Alex and I did that together. It was freezing up there!! We grilled sausages and ate them in a sandwich for lunch, along with oranges. February wouldn’t feel the same without snow, so I’m glad I got to see some.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

What do we actually do at school?

I realize that I haven't written about what we actually do at Akdeniz University. One of the major let down's of my Fulbright experience has been my underutilization at the school. In a nutshell, we work with two types of students: graduate level and "prep" (undergraduate) students.

Graduate students
Teaching IELTS prep to spring graduate students.
We facilitate after school speaking clubs for graduate students (formally) and get called in as substitute teachers for prep students (informally). Our graduate students are the "chosen ones" by the Turkish government; as they have all completed their bachelor’s, have a prestigious scholarship to learn and master English, pursue a higher degree in their desired field, and then come back and serve their country. Our role is to compliment their intense six-month English IELTS course at Akdeniz University, by making ourselves available for a few hours a week after school. IELTS is a English language test similar to TOEFL, taken primarily by foreigners to demonstrate their English comprehension abilities. It is often used by colleges and graduate schools to measure an international student's English aptitude. Upon completion of their coursework at Akdeniz, and taking their IELTS exam, these graduate students go to either the UK or the USA (their choice and score-depending) to immerse in another six-month English course to perfect their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. After that, they must apply and get accepted to a master's or doctoral program in these countries. Depending on the number of years they spend abroad, my understanding is that they have to serve in the Turkish government for twice as long as that. For example, if a student’s master’s degree in cotton genetics takes two years, they have to commit four years of service.

When we first got to Akdeniz, the administration took one full month to give us a formal schedule. Moreover, they did not inform us who our students would be, what the IELTS exam is, how we can best prepare these students, and what exactly our role is (teacher? supplement? friend?). Despite their lack of communication, we gathered bits and pieces from our colleagues and the students’ official English teachers and found methods and resources to help our students. I have never taken the IELTS test, but based on my conversations with my students, it seems slightly similar to the SAT or GRE in that there are verbal reading, comprehension, and vocabulary sections on it, as well as a timed writing section. However unlike those two tests that I'm familiar with, there is also a listening and speaking portion that is graded by examiner on the day of the test. As speaking club facilitators, we figured our role was to focus on speaking. After all, we are native speakers who can best help them with their pronunciation and everyday mechanics and nuances of the English language—of which there are many; for someone who also learned English as a second language, I can attest from personal experience. Spellings are rarely phonetics and there are more exceptions than rules to memorize.

We have been heavily using this website as a resource to help our students prepare for the speaking portion. We give them mock questions, time their responses, and provide feedback. Here's an example of part 1, 2, and 3 of a potential IELTS speaking exam for the topic of “Environment.”

Part 1
Are there any environmental problems in your country?
Do you take an interest in nature?
Do you or your family take steps to help the environment?
Part 2
Describe an environmental problem that has been in the news.  You should say
  • when this was
  • where the event happened
  • what actually took place
and say how you felt about this problem.

Part 3
What do you think is the main danger the world faces in terms of the environment?
What examples are there of how we damage the natural world?
In which ways do we respond well to environmental problems?

Prep students
Sometimes, we are called in to substitute classes for prep students whose teachers are sick or on leave. Initially, subbing these classes was a lot of fun, because it was the only time we got to stand in front of a classroom and actually ‘teach.’ I put teach in single quotation marks because we actually have very little flexibility in designing our lesson plans; instead, we are given a “pace sheet” that we have to follow. This is standard practice for Turkish public universities. In other words, we show up for 3-hour or 5-hour substitute blocks and tell students to open their books to page 89, for example, and do activities 1-7. Alex and I used to co-teach these sub classes but now we split them because it's nonsensical to exert ourselves doubly when the task can be accomplished singly. Our prep students are often immature, as they are fresh out of high school. Some of them don’t even bring paper or pencil to class, which is one of my biggest pet peeves. Some, of course, are quite motivated which makes me excited to teach. I am an animated teacher so I always try my best to make English fun. I know that these students have been learning English to some capacity since primary school, so they should, ideally, know the basic grammar structure and vocabulary. University courses are supposed to help them get from broken to fluent, mediocre to perfect. But when I substitute classes, I don’t feel like I am making a significant impact because I don't get to see the same set of students again. I’ve taught over 800 students by now, none of whose names or lives I know intimately, and that’s something that really bothers me.

Frustration with our situation
While we love working with our students, we have also been frustrated at our situation. Our frustration has nothing to do with our students, but rather the administration, and largely the bureaucracy. I personally feel underutilized and undervalued at Akdeniz University. Last semester, Alex and I each taught four hours per week to graduate students, officially (per our schedule). This semester, we teach only two hours officially. Alex has voluntarily picked up another hour on Tuesday’s and we both picked up an extra hour on Monday’s. We know there is a need for us, because our prep students come up to us and ask us to host speaking clubs for them. When we relayed this message to our administration, they said that our official job was to help the graduate students and if we want to make ourselves available for prep students, then they have no problem with it. This was an unsatisfactory response because it didn’t make us feel appreciated or recognize our efforts to take the initiative to take on extra hours. Perhaps the worst part of our teaching situation is that we are called to substitute classes at the last minute, sometimes literally five minutes before a class starts and sometimes we’ve had to skip lunch. When you’re handed books in passing in the hallway and asked to show up in room B104 at 3:30p for a 3-hour class, it’s hard not to feel like a scum. That’s literally how I feel sometimes, a slave at the administration’s mercy. And we’re Fulbright Scholars! What I don’t understand is why this university continues to request additional Fulbright scholars if they don’t have any meaningful work for them. We are quite literally asked to be “available” Monday through Friday, from 1:30p onward in case a class needs to be covered. After five hours of Turkish lessons every day in the morning, one speaking club in the afternoon, who has the energy to teach three or five more hours? That means our bodies are functioning 12 hours a day, totaling 60 hour work weeks…which is three times what our Fulbright contract says we are allowed to work (21 hours). Granted we don’t get substitute classes every day, or every week, but it’s annoying and extremely frustrating. I would be much happier having a full 21-hour schedule if I had my own class to teach; students only I was responsible for; a curriculum I could design. But instead, I sit in a classroom for two hours a week, hoping for students to invest in my optional speaking club (after they’ve had five hours of English in the morning!). I don’t blame them when they don’t come, because I would be exhausted too. In fact, I am exhausted of this very disappointing situation.