I promised my mother as we were leaving Georgia that I’d tell everyone in Turkey, our next destination, that we were Canadian. There’d been a little too much political turmoil in that region of the world for her liking (something about Americans being arbitrarily detained), and she pleaded for us to pick a different travel destination. Truth was, that I was a little on edge myself, but we’d already paid for our tickets. We settled on still going but masquerading as our innocuous neighbors to the north. Besides, it was only 5 days in the region, and all of them with an old friend from college, Sevil.
The night before our flight to Istanbul, I stressed over the smallest details including what to wear. If this seems silly now, just wait; it gets better. Turkey is a primarily Muslim nation, so I wanted to make a good first impression, one that read: Oh hey there! I’m just a benign Canadian. Don’t mind me in my culturally appropriate clothing! I picked out my most modest outfit – jeans and a t-shirt – to greet the country. It wasn’t until Nate and I successfully navigated our way through the airport, through the public metro system, and had arrived at the mall where we were to meet Sevil that I realized that the t-shirt I decided on had “OHIO STATE” emblazoned on the front. Nice.
Cue adorable elderly couple. They emerge from the crowd of mall goers and make a bee-line toward us.
Kindly Old Man: “Ohio State! Do you go to school there, or are you from there?”
Nate and I: “Both!” (D’oh! Cover blown!)
Kindly Old Man: “Our son goes to school in California!”
Kindly Old Woman: (Nods in enthusiastic agreement)
Nate and I: (Something like…) “That’s great! Does he like it?”
Kindly Old Woman: “Yes! Very much. What are you doing here? Where are you staying?”
Me: “We’re just visiting with a friend I met in college back in the States”
Kindly Old Woman: (Pleased as punch) “That’s wooooonderful!”
Kindly Old Man: “Well, you two have a wonderful time here in our hometown!” (waddle off stage right)
I watched them walk away in utter amazement. I looked around. Was I on a reality TV show where they show unsuspecting travelers just how unfounded their fears are by unleashing old-people kindness upon them? No cameras showed up, but I felt a little sheepish for judging the country a little prematurely.
We did actually try to keep up the whole Canada-charade for a bit, telling everyone from the local kebab shop guy to a kind stranger who offered us directions that we were Canadian. It just didn’t sit right with me, though. I especially felt ashamed after getting directions. Nate and I were looking for a landmark, and we were clearly lost in a sea of people. The man approached us, and I immediately averted my eyes assuming that he wanted our money, and probably our lives. I was getting ready to grab Nate by the hand and pull him away from imminent danger, when the stranger asked what we were looking for. He gave us clear directions and bade us a good day after a little bit of small talk (him asking us where we were from and us responding weakly: “Canada?”).
After a few more encounters like this, I told Nate that I couldn’t do it anymore. I hated lying to people, even if they were complete strangers, and even if it was in the name of self-preservation. There was something niggling at me even worse that telling a fib. After a few years working overseas as a representative of the US Department of State, this deception felt wrong on a much deeper level. When I work for the State, my job is to have genuine encounters with people from around the world in which we share our cultures and values with one another. The mission is to bring the world closer together, and to show people that we Americans aren’t our media or politics. We’re all just people. And here I was basically agreeing with the world that we were that bad. We are so bad that we’re pretending to be from another nation. I was perpetuating the cycle. Shame on me.
From that moment on, we reclaimed our nationality, which was good because I couldn’t quite get the accent down (haha!). We engaged in conversations with strangers whether they wanted to sell us something or not. Our trip got a lot less stressful and loads more enjoyable after that because we were able to actually connect with people instead of constantly looking for the nearest exit. There were zero negative reactions, by the way. Well, we did have one man tell us that we must be Democrats because Republicans would never be so friendly. We defended Republicans, explaining that we personally both knew several friendly, open-minded people of the persuasion. He wasn’t buying it. Sigh. Can’t win them all.