Cultural Ambassadorship: Rewriting My Ethics Abroad

Disclaimer: These views are those of the author, and are in no way affiliated with the U.S. Fulbright Program or the Turkish Fulbright Commission.

I received news of my acceptance into the U.S. Fulbright program in March 2015. This was astonishing to me, and deeply humbling. I’d always wanted to leave the States, was deeply interested in learning all I could about Turkish cultural history, and could never have afforded such an opportunity without funding.

When I shared the news with my friends and family, the reaction was nearly always the same: a congratulations, praise, smiles all around, and then:

“But, aren’t you a feminist? How are you going to survive there?”

At the time, I found this question to be keen and terrifying. At the time, I was worried, too. It’s one occasion to revise and explore one’s conception of intersectional feminism in the U.S., where I have a dynamic network of thoughtful people who challenge and encourage me daily - but to do so in the Middle East, where the gender culture, I assumed, would be far more difficult to navigate? How was I going to manage?

After nine months in a small, religiously conservative Anatolian city, however, I can safely affirm that the issue does not have a simple answer. It wasn’t an easy year, that’s certain - but the difficulties themselves were surprising in form. The sociopolitical environment in my host city pushed me to not only reevaluate my perspective on gender dynamics in Turkey, but to completely revise my own sense of ethics, my capacity for empathy, and my willingness to listen to those with whom I do not agree.

As Fulbright scholars, the U.S. State Department expected us to be what they called 'cultural ambassadors' — global citizens who would have real responsibility in shaping our students' and colleagues' perspectives on American culture, as well as delivering ideas about Turkish culture and politics back to our friends and families in the States. I was often the only American my Turkish friends knew - in fact, I was one of only two Americans in my entire city. And I am often the only person my American friends know who has spent a significant amount of time in Turkey. To them, I have been one of the few sources of news on their social media regarding Turkish politics, as well as the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

It is no secret that Turkey is, in general, conspicuously conservative in regards to gender roles and the traditional sense of family, at least in comparison to Europe and the far West. At the Fulbright Scholar’s orientation in Ankara, a Turkish professional gave a presentation on what to expect as far as gender relations and cultural structures in our host cities, which were more often than not smaller, more conservative than Istanbul or the capital.

The presenter informed us that Turks generally operate in a “high-context communication style”, which favors indirect modes of communication, and that direct, straightforward communication is regarded as “rude, embarrassing bold, overly assertive, aggressive, or inappropriate.” Most interactions center around “maintaining harmony, saving face, and avoiding risk.”

Then, the “conservative societal norms” in Turkey: dialogue is formal between men and women; men and women do not exchange information about their private lives; there is a conservative style of dress; premarital sex is strongly condemned.

The presenter went on to point out ambivalent sexism in Turkish culture. I have this note from this section of the presentation: Society puts the responsibility on women to endorse traditional roles (i.e. to be pure and protect themselves against sexual activity.)

These broad-stroke cultural patterns could, when left unexamined, be grounds for harsh judgment, especially in the context of progressive values. It is easy to look at these behaviors in conservative parts of Turkish society and label the culture as backward, sexist, and oppressive - all those things about which my peers worried and wondered before I left the States.

It is important to recognize that there is no denying the existence of these social structures in the United States, too. They do exist. We have seen some of these behaviors normalized during Trump’s campaign, such as the collective brush-aside of Trump’s disturbing sexual remarks, which, in the eyes of the progressive community, clearly indicates backward, sexist, and oppressive behavior. Turkey is going through a similar sociopolitical conflict regarding abortion access and rights. And often does the cultural response to sexual assault in the States - one of victim blaming - neatly align with Turkish societal norms that hold women responsible for “protect[ing] themselves against sexual activity.”

But because we are citizens here, because we are feminists, because we are allies and apologists, many of us use our voices and influence to restructure the cultural operations of our social environment, to redesign the patterns and expectations of gender roles in our workplace and community so that we can enjoy the benefits of economic and social equity. We can be clear and even confrontational about our ethics in the States.

But here is the difference: I am not Turkish. I am American, and I am white. My people have a long, disturbing history (extending to the present) of imposing their beliefs and value systems on others. I was thus wary of pushing any political or cultural beliefs on my Turkish peers and colleagues for fear of participating in this form of colonialism. It was already complicated enough for me that we were expected not only to teach English—which has its own heavy colonial implications—but also to deliver information about American culture.

So, in this context, how was I to approach the social differences? It’s easy to call something a “social difference” and minimize the alarm - but what I’m really trying to get at here is this: how could I responsibly cope with conservative Turkish social norms - which I expected would put me, as a female, in a place where I would feel marginalized or uncomfortable - without imposing the belief systems of my own culture? How could I learn to appropriately and sympathetically challenge certain long-held beliefs of my friends and colleagues without blindly imposing my Western values?

Instead of casting judgment, I wanted first to meet people in the middle, to understand their paradigm, and to learn as much as I could. To wait. It was my responsibility as a cultural ambassador first and foremost to adapt, and to listen.

When I arrived in my host city, Tokat - a small, conservative, religious city in central Anatolia, roughly the size of Clarkesville, Tennessee - I made a few immediate changes to my behavior. I altered the way I dress, for example. I almost never showed my ankles, and most blouses I wore came up to the collar bone, no cleavage at all. I switched my nose ring for a less conspicuous stud. I did this happily, as a gesture of respect—and although quite a few women living in Tokat would occasionally show their ankles or collarbones or what have you, I didn’t want to flaunt my Western identity, or to push an aesthetic that insulted people’s beliefs.

These were techniques given to us at orientation: how to adapt, how to be respectful. Look at what other women are wearing. Look at what other women wear in your office.

And a more significant change: I transformed the way I interacted with men. Again, this was something pushed (very intelligently) at orientation: our cultures are different, and as cultural ambassadors we must adapt; the men do not mean harm, but behaviors can very easily be misinterpreted. No eye contact with men on the street and absolutely no smiling—a provocative gesture. Be careful how friendly you are to male acquaintances: being assertive and candid may be considered rude, or worse, as a display of romantic interest.

But as time went on in Tokat, as more and more distance grew between my social behavior at home and in Turkey, I began to notice a pattern in my own thoughts, in the way I judged and valued myself: I noticed that if I wore something too flashy, for example, I felt guilty about it. If I accidentally made eye contact with a man, I felt ashamed. Immersed, I began internalizing the ethics of the culture. I began to feel morally wrong for behavior that, in the States, would barely cause a blink.

Once, for example, I was walking home very late one night with two few friends, both of whom were male. A policeman stopped us to ask questions, what were we doing out so late at night. They held us there in the street for half an hour. We had been drinking, which is perfectly legal—but alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and the strong religious presence in Tokat’s society makes consuming alcohol an extreme taboo and grounds for serious judgment from others.

I was absolutely mortified. I was so angry with myself for entering this situation: being seen in public, having a drink with my friends. Tokat is tiny, a population of 130,000, and I was certain that word would get out and my reputation would be smeared. How would I command the respect of my students, then? I felt so ashamed.

This nosedive into self-reprimand made me realize something very important about ‘cultural ambassadorship.’ Yes, it was respectful and ultimately essential for me to listen, to adapt, to try to mimic some of the behaviors of those in whose culture I was immersed. Yes, this was a gesture of empathy and respect, one that was mindful of colonialism and of the autonomy of Turkish culture and history. But this conscientious effort cannot be taken so far as to compromise one’s personal sense of ethics - the ethics that transcend cultural values - and allow shame to creep in.

When I stepped outside of the situation and put my actions in the context of my core values, I realized that I hadn’t done anything immoral. Not in my book. In all simplicity, I was enjoying friendship, and was walking home at night.

This is not to say that, because my core value system was different than that of the police officer, or that of my community, that I should have spoken up and told them so. Observer, not a colonist; listen, don’t provoke. My behavior toward the policeman was accommodating, respectful, and meek - which was good, tolerant - but my personal sense of shame in the days afterward was a hyperextension of the empathy machine that pushed me into a self-imposed (and undeserved) state of shame.

This type of overcorrection was fairly common among my peers placed in smaller conservative cities throughout the Fulbright program, and was in no small way precipitated by the training and policies of the Fulbright Commission, who (understandably) wanted the parties from both cultures to interact and exchange as painlessly as possible. We were thus discouraged from talking about politics with our friends and colleagues, by both the Commission and previous grantees. The U.S. State Department has used Fulbrighters as a conduit of social diplomacy and trust: we were there to improve Turks’ perceptions of Americans, and to improve Americans’ perceptions of Turks. We were there to encourage international empathy and cross-cultural connections.

My time in Tokat taught me that I have the capacity to be exceedingly tolerant, at times to a fault. I think this stems, at least in part, from my lifelong performance as a social mediator: I have spent much of my life trying to minimize offense, trying to get along with as many people as possible, and trying to ensure that others get along, too. It would make sense that I would try to contort myself into the most agreeable shape, regardless of the consequences.

But I learned that neither end of the spectrum is productive: people like me cannot only listen, nor can we only preach. When I felt close to a colleague or friend, trusted and confident enough to have a conversation about social politics, I did learn to talk delicately about feminism, about gender equality, about the difficulties of people of color in the States. And they listened. I listened to their response. Conversations were built on mutual respect - not a moral highground.

My goal in Tokat was not necessarily to go around changing people’s minds, however; as a cultural ambassador, I was there to share information, to share my perspective, not to colonize. And actually, if I had tried to convince a religiously conservative male Turk in one sitting that women belong in any position of employment or power that a man could hold, I would likely not have been successful. If I had plowed forward with my perspective, I most certainly would not have been successful.

Instead, I tried to expose my students, colleagues, and friends - many of whom had been raised in a religious community - to someone who, while sustaining very deep and disparate sociocultural beliefs and opinions, could listen. They met a liberal American who took great interest in their thoughts, who could be kind and accommodating; I met countless brilliant, sensitive, witty, and empathetic Turks who were willing to share their social and religious beliefs in a mindful way.

This sort of mutual respect is so important to the relationship between international cultures today, and it allowed me to build friendships in Tokat with those whose culture was so distinct from mine. I’ve brought that sense of patience and tolerance with me back to the States, and reassured in my core values, I’ve learned to find an appropriate balance between standing up for my beliefs and listening to others’. In a time where there is more cultural interconnection and more tension between societies than ever, we must find a balance, approach other cultures with respect, and work empathetically to share what we believe in.

If there’s anything to take from all of this, anything I can pass onto you to help us navigate our daily threats: listen, but do not be so unconditionally accommodating that you compromise your identity; fight, but do not be so self assured that you cannot see the Other.

We all have a lot of work to do.

Ashleigh Starnes

About Ashleigh Starnes

Ashleigh Starnes is a poet, choreographer, and june-of-all-trades based in Atlanta, Georgia. She enjoys reading about physics and playing instruments poorly.

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