cultural adjustments, cultural nuances

Kit Shaun Tommy Koh
July 23, 2015

"in this country, anything goes" I heard this twice this week, once from a local student and once from an academic.

I've 2 travel related stories for this post, both highlighting a central and simple phenomenon encapsulated in the quote above. While George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy might have effectively captured past British social conventions, I wonder what a Turkish writer in a similar situation would illustrate Turkish society as being?

The first incident happened at the Kapikule border between Turkey and Bulgaria. Rudely awakened (or not, since it was near impossible to sleep in train seats) at 2am in the morning to get off the train and get on a bus for the rest of the journey into Istanbul, approximately 50 passengers staggered out of the train toward border immigration for passport stamps. It was a completely new experience:

1. The office marked "Immigration" was closed. Unlike in most places like airports where CBP will be ready to welcome incoming travellers, we were met with an empty office with drawn blinds. During this time, the passengers made a reasonably orderly line.

2. A police car showed up and started singling out various nationalities  to stand in a separate group. Ostensibly to pay a visa fee (although I didn't see any payments processed), this caused significant confusion amongst the once orderly line.

3. When the office finally opened, an entire crowd of Romanians surged to the front. Standing third in the line with the real and tangible prospect of being shoved over by 20 anxious people, I was concurrently worried about being trampled and surprised by the sudden breakdown of a seemingly stable order.

Thankfully, with the help of 2 very helpful Turkish students behind me (from a university in Izmit who were touring Europe), I was pushed forward while the surging crowd were kept at bay with many loud Turkish words exchanged. There were two takeaways from this encounter: first is that train borders here in Turkey seem very different from airports in terms of orderliness, second is that in Turkey, anything goes.

The second incident took place in a Turkish Airlines ticket office at Taksim. It was my second visit to the office in order to try and reissue a ticket to fly back one day earlier. The first time I tried, I was 25th in line and the number didn't jump in 45 minutes. Thankfully, with the help and support of the Turkish Airlines Office back in Singapore (they're all angels there), I managed to get most of the issue sorted out and merely needed to return to the office to pay a simple change fee.

This time, I took a number and was 23rd in line. At least on this ocassion the numbers were jumping. Yet all of it kind of fell apart. There was an agent who called for English-speaking customers and I went forward (skipping about 15 turns), while I was being helped, there was a sudden commotion and there was a customer yelling at a sales agent in Turkish who was holding her ground and yelling back at him.

After a minute or two, other sales agents starting yelling as well. When I left the office- my transaction thankfully completed- the heated dialogue (still heated, although no longer being yelled across the office) was still ongoing. Perhaps this explains why the office employs two security guards to stand at the entrance.

This incident prompted some reflection on the concept of service. In many parts of the world, to be shouted at in a sales office would never be acceptable- and yet, heated exchanges seem acceptable- if not the norm- here in Istanbul. Exposing yet another cultural nuance, I found it interesting to think about Turkish Airlines' ambitions to be a global carrier. If someone from another culture needed assistance, what would they think about such "service". Again, as above, it really seems as though "in this country, anything goes"

As I continue my cultural immersion here in Turkey, I find myself paying attention to even more nuances and quirks which make Turkey uniquely Turkey.

And for anyone reading this, I highly recommend against booking flights on online travel portals like Expedia. Should you need to change or cancel your ticket after booking on Expedia, support is close to non-existent! Booking directly with the airline gives them the ability to help you when things go south and they're much better at service recovery- something I unfortunately found out the hard way with my Expedia booking (although Turkish Airlines managed to help me out this time!)


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Kit Shaun Tommy Koh

<p>A Blue Jay at Hopkins, a citizen of Singapore, a resident of the world: Titles and categories often complicate how we see our place in this world. Above everything else, I see myself as a pilot. Being up in the sky grants freedom, space, possibilities- a reminder that everything can be seen from a different perspective. Be it in education, while travelling or just being with friends- I constantly seek new dimensions, new ways of perceiving, a new- greater- understanding.</p>

2015 Summer 1, 2015 Summer 2
Home University:
Johns Hopkins University
Political Science
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