For our Motherhood Around the World series, our twelfth interview features Diane Zhang, who moved from Brooklyn to Istanbul with her husband, Josh, and 11-month-old son, Aaron. Here are 13 things that surprised her about being a mother in Turkey...
Diane and her husband Josh graduated from law school the same year and both lined up jobs in New York. Though they had friends in common, the pair actually met in South Africa, where they both (coincidentally) decided to spend a year before starting work. They each needed an apartment, so after only two weeks of knowing each other, they decided to live together—as roommates! Six months later, Diane and Josh returned to New York, this time as a couple.
“We always knew we'd love to raise children abroad,” Diane says. “I was in my third trimester of pregnancy and was spending the morning recovering from a horrible stomach flu. Josh checked his Blackberry, then turned to me and said, 'The firm just asked if anyone is interested in moving to the Istanbul office.' I was so, so sick but managed to croak out, 'Us.' "
Though the couple jumped at the chance to move, it was a huge adjustment. “Our first few hours in Turkey were spent stuck in traffic with our baby trying to get to our corporate apartment. I was so stressed and tired that I was nearly sobbing,” Diane remembers. “I felt scared and overwhelmed. For the first few months, thinking about New York or even just seeing a photo of a dirty subway station would make me nauseous with homesickness. Thankfully, Istanbul now feels like home."
On the neighborhood: We live in a sleepy fishing village—a 20-minute cab ride north of the busy downtown area of Istanbul. The promenade is lined with pastel Ottoman mansions called yali. On morning strolls, we pass fishermen catching that day's special for the neighborhood restaurants, and we see the local baker, greengrocer, cobbler and waiters sitting outside on their smoke breaks. It's wonderful to live a small-town life in one of the biggest cities in the world. Istanbul is the world's third largest city by population (14 million!) and straddles two continents—Europe and Asia.
On a hands-on culture: People in Turkey touch and kiss your baby—all the time. My son Aaron was only a couple months old when we moved here, so I was still a little paranoid about germs. At the mother's group I attended back in Brooklyn, most of the women would have been totally horrified if a stranger had come up and touched their babies. Avoiding this would be impossible in Istanbul. Strangers have actually lifted my son out of his stroller! When I'm walking around with Aaron, it's not unusual for passersby—even teenage boys!—to reach out to pinch his cheek, tickle his feet or fluff his hair. You'll hear a lot of "Mashallah!"—loosely translated, it's an Arabic phrase meaning "may God protect,” and is an expression of delight and affection when said about babies. Turkish people are completely baby crazy. It's honestly like nothing I've ever seen before. In the States, it's okay to say you don't really like kids, but one of our Turkish friends said you can't say that here—it actually makes you a bad person!
On the kindness of strangers: The people here are just so wonderful—I think they're the best part of the city, which is saying a lot. One day, we were walking to a shop and it started to lightly rain. My husband Josh was carrying Aaron, and we didn't have an umbrella. While we were waiting at a crosswalk, a young man walked up to Josh and held his umbrella out over him so Aaron wouldn't get wet. He walked us all the way to our destination, keeping Aaron dry the entire time. When we got there he just said goodbye and went on his way—to him, it wasn't a big deal, it's just something you do.
On multi-tasking playgrounds: One funny thing playgrounds: They have exercise machines for adults! You'll see parents exercising on stationary bikes or ellipticals, next to kids playing. There's also a machine that looks like some sort of torture device; it's a flat plank with a little metal hook at the end. We couldn't figure out what it was for the longest time until we saw someone using it—you lie on it to do sit-ups, and the metal hook at the end holds your feet down! So basically we were right: It's a torture device. On national pride: Our Turkish friends have immense pride in Turkish culture. Photos of Atatürk (the first president and founder of the modern Republic of Turkey) are EVERYWHERE in both public buildings and people's private homes. His name means "father of the Turks," and it’s a crime to insult his memory. We thought about getting a cat and naming him Catatürk, before we realized that might actually be illegal.
On a lack of tantrums: I have never ever witnessed a public meltdown. If a baby were to get fussy in public, a bunch of strangers would immediately swoop down to pick him up, bounce him and play with him before it reaches a fever pitch. Once, while we were dining out and Aaron was reaching the end of his patience, a waiter scooped him up and carted him around the restaurant showing our son to the rest of the staff while my husband and I finished our meal in peace.
On switching to tea: Istanbul is a tea—not coffee—culture, which threw me for a loop. (The Western-style coffee here is borderline undrinkable.) People always, always, always drink black tea. It's served BOILING in clear tulip glasses and only with sugar. Empty tulip glasses litter the landscape around Istanbul. You see people drinking steaming cups in 90 degree heat, construction men drinking it while working, market vendors always have a cup beside them. We had handymen over one morning, who asked for tea, and I felt so sheepish because we only had Earl Grey. We keep a huge stock of traditional black tea in our house now!
On local cuisine: We can't get enough of the breakfasts here. Breakfast is called kahvalti, and finding the best one is kind of a pastime for us. Breakfast involves a huge basket of different types of bread (dill buns, olive-studded wheat rolls, warm and chewy flatbreads), sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, different types of cheeses (some salty and crumbly, some chewy, and some deep fried), menemen (a dish of eggs cooked with different spices and tomatoes and served in a hot skillet), a spread made of tahini and molasses mixed together, and, of course, tulip glasses filled with hot black tea and sugar cubes. The best part of all this is kaymak: dense clotted cream, served to you in a pool of honey. You smear it on bread (but I eat it straight, too). Stores sell jarred baby food and rice cereal, but for the most part kids eat the same thing as the adults—the food is just so good!
On the lack of bedtimes: Our Turkish friends have told us that most kids don't have bedtimes—they just stay up with their parents. And we see parents out walking with strollers at 11pm or midnight, sometimes later. Our babysitters have told us stories about being hired to sleep train three- and four-year-olds. The emphasis on parents having "alone" time isn't as strong here; date nights don't really exist. People are very surprised when we tell them that our son goes to bed between 6:30 and 7pm, that we don't hear a peep from him for the next several hours, and that we value those hours so much! One thing that might help is that many working parents have nannies. The nanny will accompany the whole family to the park or to a restaurant, like part of the baby's entourage, and when the baby gets fussy, the nanny will leave the rest of the family and go walk around and bounce the baby.
On weather worries: Babies here don’t go outside when it’s chilly, windy, rainy, anything. I get a lot of confused looks when I take Aaron out for a walk on days when it isn’t the best weather, and people get very concerned with they see him exposed to the elements. When he's in a light sweater, other babies are in snowsuits. People (particularly grandmas and grandpas) get incredibly concerned if there's even a little bit of skin exposed, like between his sock and his pants. And if he doesn't have a hat on, the world ends!
On working moms: Istanbul is very progressive in terms of gender equality and women in the workplace. It’s not uncommon to see successful working moms in the city. Almost all of the senior partners at Josh’s law firm are women. Maternity leave is much better than in the States (you get time off both before and after the birth), and childcare is much less expensive than it is in New York. In the rest of the country, however, the pressure to have motherhood be the sole and primary focus of a woman's life seems strongera than in the States. In Turkey, the government comes right out and says that all families should have at least three children!
On adjusting to a slower pace: People generally aren’t in a hurry. They take time to relax, even though they work hard. One funny example: We arranged for some workers to come install shelving in our apartment and it took them a few weeks to show up. When they finally did, Josh sent me a text asking how it was coming along. I had to tell him that we were all sitting around drinking tea and playing with the baby. But it did eventually get done, and when they worked, they worked very quickly!
On women’s fashion: I think a common misconception about Turkey is the belief that women are required to dress very conservatively. Sometimes you'll see women in colorful headscarves, but many women dress very similarly to women in the States. A lot of people aren't aware that when Atatürk founded modern Turkey, he made it a secular state, which meant that religious headwear was actually banned from certain public places, like universities. Of course this has its own debate surrounding it, but the general takeaway is that women are not required to cover themselves up. One of the biggest trends for young women are flower crowns, which you can buy from street vendors, and they wear them with crop tops and high-waisted skinny jeans. Maybe it's Istanbul's answer to the bohemian hipster look?
On what the future holds: Istanbul feels like home now. Admittedly this journey has, at times, been less about having an adventure than it has been about worrying how you're going to mime "swim diaper" to a sales associate in a baby store. But it has certainly cemented the desire to live abroad. We'd really like to give Aaron (and, hopefully, any future children) an expat experience they can actually remember.
Thank you, Diane!
P.S. Motherhood in Japan, Norway, Mexico, Northern Ireland, China, England, India, Abu Dhabi, Congo, Germany and Australia.
(Flower crown photo from The Very Thirsty Raindrop; playground photo by Luke Maloney; all other photos courtesy of Diane Zhang. Interview by Caroline Donofrio)