“What Are You Doing Here?”

In our first classes together, my students and I are practising introductory conversation. Some questions are almost inevitable. They want to know how old I am and are surprised to learn I am only twenty-five. They want to know where I’m from and if I’m married. Most of all, though, they are curious about something else:

‘Why did you come here? What are you doing in Bursa?’

It is an understandable question from their perspective. The Turkish economy is in disrepair. Many of my students are unemployed engineering, science and business graduates. For many of them, learning English is another way to increase their employability, preferably abroad.

Abroad, because it’s not just the economy that chafes at some Turks. Many are frustrated with the resurgence of conservative, religious tendencies in their society and discontented with the political turmoil that has engulfed the country in recent years.

So the idea of someone coming from one of the richest, most liberal and democratic nations on the planet to an industrial city in a country many one day hope to leave strikes them as a little peculiar.

My answer to their questions will be familiar to many who’ve spent some time living abroad. I want to experience life in a different society, to see the world from another perspective. Turkey, specifically, was one of the most interesting and enjoyable places I have visited on my travels so far. The history, culture, people, landscape and architecture all called me back for further consideration, so here I am.

It’s important to acknowledge the extraordinary privilege I enjoy to be able to make such a decision. The vast majority of people all across the globe will work far harder than I ever have and will still never accumulate enough wealth to travel the world as I have done. And, of course, I am free to enjoy all the positives of Turkish life while remaining protected from its more pernicious aspects by my status as a western expat, safe in the knowledge that I can return home to Melbourne whenever I would like.

With that privilege also comes perspective. Spending time in societies across the globe, with people from different walks of life, its possible to observe something of the truly universal nature of many of life’s experiences that are often erroneously put down as the product of a specific place. We mistake ourselves if we think that a simple shift in environment will be all we need to achieve a better life.

A colleague told me of an Iranian friend who had migrated to Canada only to find herself unhappy in a country different from the one she had idealized. A Turkish friend eager to emigrate lists the local dating culture as one of his complaints against his homeland – undermined by gossip and fixated on Instagram.

“You know,” I advised him. “There’s gossip in Australia, as well. And there’s definitely Instagram.”

And there are those just as discontented with the Australian economy, the Australian culture, and their place in Australian society as some in Turkey are. Perhaps it is that some of my own countrymen and women simply lack perspective on our own domestic circumstances. Or perhaps it is that an individual’s experience of life has far less to do with the nation they live in than might be imagined in the media and far more to do with the skilful curation and management of their own personal spaces, networks and perspectives.

Political freedom and social security are indisputable goods and can be used to reliably measure something about a society’s wellbeing. My privileged ability to enjoy the best of Turkey stems in large part from these two factors being for the most part guaranteed by my origins and identity. Cultural activity can be more or less hegemonic, more or less accepting of divergence from the norm.

But economic prosperity and material development are not the panaceas to all of life’s ills. Western consumer-capitalist culture, for all its trumpeting of freedom and liberalism, does not necessarily provide a superior dominant ideology to any other.

I would suggest that in every single city on Earth there are people yearning to live somewhere else and that even in the ‘worst’ of cities there are people content with their place in the world. I’ve met wonderfully contented people and painfully dissatisfied people all over the world, but the country that has stayed with me as bursting with happiness is India, a place of many miracles but nonetheless of extreme economic and social inequality and deeply-rooted cultural conflict.

‘But, wait,’ you might ask. ‘If you’re saying that where you are matters less than most people think, why travel at all?’

Well, in part, it was only through the experience of travel that I could come to this perspective. But moreso because, for me, to travel is not so much about where you are, but the mindset you cultivate along the way.

Philosopher Alain de Botton says of the travelling mindset that ‘Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic… We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting… we are alive to layers of history beneath the present…”

“Home,” on the other hand, “finds us more settled in our expectations… it seems inconceivable that here could be anything newto find in a place we have been living in for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind.”

From the moment we’re born we are absorbing our own culture as invisibly as the air we breath. Customs and traditions, values and prejudices, all the assumptions of our own specific history, economy and ideology can infilitrate our being and come to dictate our way of life without our ever having stopped to wonder if they might truly be right for us as individuals.

But with a traveller’s eyes we see these assumptions for what they are. We identify their counterparts in other societies as mere inventions of time and place and wonder whether our own truisms might not be just the same.

India was just the first of what turned out to be a long list of countries that challenged my preconceptions about the possibilities of life. Moving from place to place from month to month not only exposed me to the multifarious manners of being in the world, but it also forced to me surrender many of my own ideas and behaviours to the necessities of life on the road.

But that rhythm of life was only sustainable for so long. Eventually, it was time to settle down, at least for a little while. These next twelve months in Turkey will be the longest I will have stayed in one place for the past two and a half years.

Bringing the traveller’s mindset to a more structured rhythm, remaining open, dynamic and spontaneous within the routine of full-time work, and not surrendering to the drudgery and boredom that seems to creep up on many who feel stuck in the 9-5 life will, I suspect, be some of the central challenges of this new chapter. They are challenges I am eager to meet, bringing all that I have learned along the way to a fascinating new life filled with opportunities to learn and grow.

And that, I suppose, is what I’m doing here.

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