“Suzan Korkmaz, it’s your Aunt Meral. Where are you? How are you? What are you doıng? Are you studyıng or workıng? Why haven’t you visited?”
I was deep in hibernation mode, finishing my thesis, when I received this somewhat desperate text message. While I’m usually careful about letting my parents know I’m alive regularly, I had forgotten to update the Turkish family that had adopted me.
Aunt Meral is not really my aunt (for that matter, it’s also a very Turkified version of my name), but in Turkey it is considered polite to address someone using a familiar title, aunt, teyze, or older sister, abla, for women, and uncle, amca, or older brother, abi, for men. In turn, older Turks address young people as son or daughter. At first, I was rather offended that elderly neighbors I addressed with the formal you, siz, would say sen, the informal you, in reply. But gradually I learned that this is a sign of affection, a way of treating me like their own child.
For my part, I guess I offended them by not using these terms. My Turkish family and I were visiting another family for iftar, the Ramadan fast-breaking diner, and after the meal the women retired to the kitchen to make grape leaf dolmas. They patiently showed me how to take a small spoonful of rice and fold the leaf around it before rolling it into a tight tube. Then one of the women slowly but insistently explained to me that I should say aunt to Meral. She had brought this up the last time I had seen her, so I realized now how important it was. Still, I felt very shy about calling Meral aunt at first, and completely avoided addressing her by name for a few days. Since I rarely call even my actual relatives “Aunt Sarah” or “Aunt Denise,” it took a while to get into the habit.
I was on the other end of the nicknaming process when a new baby was born into the family. Holding the child in my arms, I quickly learned I had to be careful to speak only Turkish to her, because her seven-year-old sister got jealous when I used English with the baby.
“So, will you be Aunt Suzan or Sister Suzan?” Their mother asked, probably in an effort to stop my inane attempts at Turkish baby talk.
I may have been reading too much into it, and in any case the infant wouldn’t be calling me anything for some time, but I thought there were many factors to consider. The baby was younger than my actual niece, and being twenty-odd years older than her put me safely in biological aunt, rather than sister territory. But, on the other hand, aunt is really only used with much older women; friends genuinely wondered whether I say sister or aunt to my 50-something Aunt Meral. And since the seven-year-old sister calls me sister, I figured we should be consistent, and went with abla.
Men use the terms brother and uncle much more in public life. My male friends always chatter with their “uncle” the taxi driver, dolmus driver, waiter, or anyone they want to be friendly with. And they want to be friendly with everyone they spend more than five minutes with. Tourists and foreigners quickly get tired of constantly being asked where they come from, but this is the first question Turks ask each other upon meeting. Coming from the same area is enough to upgrade an “uncle” to “father.”
Of course, the women I know from the university wouldn’t let the guys have all the fun. I noticed the girls in my dorm would use the word abi repeatedly in their conversations. Family is important to Turks, but I found it hard to believe they were actually talking that much about their older brothers. When I asked about it, one tried to explain, “It’s a way of expressing sincerity. I’m not calling her my brother; it’s just an interjection. It shows I mean what I am saying.” The approximate English equivalent would be man.
I still find it nearly impossible not to buy something from a store clerk who calls me his daughter and my skin crawls when my boyfriend calls me sister, but for the most part, this is a charming aspect of life here. Family is the most important structure here, and this is one way Turks position you in their lives, as a part of their family.