Ahmet looks out over the channel below. Ships inch by. Beyond them, layered red roofs and minarets undulate on the Asian side of Istanbul. And next to him, punks, bohemian-sheeks, modest Anatolians, fashionistas, and bedraggled test-takers gossip together. Ahmet stares past it all.
Ahmet was one of nine children who grew up in Mersin city, within a Kurdish neighborhood called Yeni Pazar, which means "new bazaar." The bazaar was far from new. Ahmet's under-resourced primary school, Hatice, scrunched 60 students together into each classroom. In the afternoons, Ahmet helped his father earn money by pushing one of their vegetable carts around town. He read books over potatoes and watermelons.
Then, in eighth grade Ahmet surprised everyone by maxing out on the national standard exam. His score earned him a place at a prestigious boarding school, the Teacher Training High School, where he picked up English and recognized his knack for languages. He went on to the prestigious Bosphorus University, where he pursued his interest in language.
That summer, Ahmet paid $3,000 of his scholarship money to a Turkish travel-exchange company to see the American experiment first hand. He was partly skeptical, expecting black Americans to sympathize with him because he was a fellow minority, and white Americans to show him relative indifference.
He was surprised by what he observed between June and September, 2004, serving breakfast and lunch at a local Ocean City diner. Ahmet found that identifiers like age and gender had far more to do with how people related to him in America than did race or ethnicity.
"For example, when I had a hard time understanding the teenagers [ordering food] in English, they would say, 'If you don't understand our language why are you here? Why are you in America?!' I was so upset I never expected these kinds of statements from black and Mexican teenagers."
Then, he befriended a 70-plus-year-old white American couple from Pennsylvania. "They asked me about my life as a student in the university and about what I cared about.” When Ahmet told them of his interest in languages and minority rights, they asked, "Do you have a girlfriend?" to which Ahmet sheepishly lied and said, "Yes."
"Too bad," the old couple responded, "Our adopted daughter is from India. She speaks seven languages and is in medical school and is also concerned about minorities." Ahmed had missed his chance. He learned English without pressing tongues, he admits.
Now he's back in Istanbul, designing a bilingual Kurdish-Turkish syllabus he hopes may be implemented one day. "Multilingualism is part of multiculturalism," he says, buzzwords ringing, "Knowing many languages makes people more sociable, more democratic, more empathic, and more humanistic."
"America is not a perfect model," he cautions, but some of its foundational texts and ideas did inspire Ahmet when he entered university. And on the Maryland shoreline, he saw that "In the U.S., people are people: black, white, all with red blood. You never know who tips well or who is rude just by their looks.”
"I know where I stayed [Ocean City] is a holiday place, a rest place. Maybe it's not representative of America. But then again you can never make a generalization about a country, or even a group of people. Everyone is different. That is what I am trying to say."