Throughout my childhood I have been exposed to a lot of spoken Turkish. I heard my father and uncle speak Turkish to each other every weekend. Whenever my grandparents would come to visit the family my house would be flooded with Turkish. Although I never formally learned Turkish I was very familiar with the sounds of Turkish and producing them wasn’t too difficult for me. The only time I ever practiced my limited Turkish was over the phone with my father’s mother. She would always shower me with praises and blow me kisses through the phone. I would always say nice little compliments to her and then say, “I love you” to her as I hung up the phone. It was very natural for me, and since I didn’t fully comprehend what I was saying I never completely understood that goodbye and I love you were separate words since I always said them together.
When I was studying European political systems in London in the fall of 2009, my father told me to contact his old friend Amar. My father had not seen his friend in twenty years. Amar was working in the Turkish embassy in London and had been in E-mail contact with my father. My father gave me Amar’s phone number and told me that Amar would be expecting a call from me. Not thinking much of the situation I decided to call Amar and set up a time to meet with him. I wanted to interview him on the topic of Turkey’s ascension to the EU.
When Amar picked up the phone it became obvious from his nervous tone that he didn’t speak English well. I had to revert to my hyper limited Turkish to communicate. Within a moment our communication broke down to almost nothing and I decided to end the conversation before we could plan to meet. However, when I decided to hang up, instead of saying “goodbye” I said what I say in parting to my grandmother “I love you”. Amar froze for a moment and then said, “OK Deren” and immediately hung up the phone.
For a moment I wasn’t certain if I had made a mistake. Then it dawned on me that I had told a grown man that I loved them and I had never even met them. This was a high official in the Turkish embassy and I had just made a complete fool of myself. I grabbed my head and fell to my knees screaming, “ f*@k!” I had been so conditioned to speak loving Turkish compliments to my grandmother that I unwittingly told a stranger that I loved them. I will not forget the humiliation of that mistake. Unlike Japanese where my mistakes are personally expected, in Turkish I feel a heavier obligation not to make mistakes. Still it was a great learning experience.