Never have I felt as European as I have during my stay in Turkey. I came to Istanbul in September 2009 and I have faced attitudes and comments that have surprised me and which I did not always expect to hear. Some of them made me laugh, some made me almost speechless and the rest made me to give a speech about how I see the issue.
I am from Finland and I am used to consider myself as Finnish. I have noticed that there is a difference in the conception of nationality and nationalistic ethos between Finland and Turkey. In Finland the issue of nationality is not extremely strong. Furthermore, for me personally the idea of nationality is that it does not give you a label that marks you thoroughly. It can be a part of you, but it is also possible to step outside its boundaries. For some people nationality seems to be the primary subject that defines you not only from inside but from outside, too. People have asked me many times: are all the people blond in Finland? I have brown hair. Do I really need to answer this question?
I know, I also come under the category that people describe as “European.” However, if defining oneself as a part of something, in this case as European, requires things such as identification, sharing the values and norms, and some kind of common history. I do not feel particularly European. More likely it makes me ask: what is being European, what do I really share with numerous individuals inside the geographical borders of Europe? In what way am I part of it, with or without my own will?
What always strikes me is the notion that Turkish people I have talked to, see Europe as a single entity, as a monolithic whole. There are many occasions when people told me: “Things in Europe are different than things in Turkey.” “People in Europe have more money than Turkish people.” “The education system in Europe is better than here in Turkey.”
My Turkish friend told me about his family. They hold the belief that can be described as positive racism and which, I could imagine, many Turks share. They believe that in Europe more or less everyone is well-educated. They consider Europeans as smart people who take care of their health and life. Then again, amongst the same family they have a belief that European people are different from Turks because they are less sociable, less compassionate, and less family-oriented.
Lumping together all the nations that populate Europe and refer to this as a single entity is from my point of view, talking about something that does not exist. And for me, how is it possible to defend or reject when the object at issue does not even exist?
I have met many people and in the discussions they may tell something about Turkey and after that ask “How are things in Europe?” My answer is usually “I don’t know how they are in different countries in Europe, but in Finland…” It is not because I try to be difficult or cheeky, but because that is true. Yes, there may be some common tendencies amongst some countries in Europe for example with the economic status. Nevertheless, countries located in different parts of the world may have more or less the same economic situation. Furthermore, there are some countries in Europe that are economically weak and some that are economically strong. How is it relevant to talk about the economy as a whole when the situation is actually not that black and white at all?
Very often the discussion also turns to the EU. Many people seem to have an opinion if Turkey should join or not, or if the EU is a good thing or not. and obviously this topic relates to some kind of consistency between (some of the) countries in Europe. Truly, sometimes it feels that when talking about Europe, we are actually talking about the EU. Of course, that is not extremely surprising, as many countries in Europe are in the EU, but nevertheless, the EU is different than Europe.
I must say, I have troubled my head a lot with this Europe-Turkey confrontation. Sometimes it feels very wrong because I do not demand a Turk to explain to me the whole Asia or generalize about the whole Islamic world, just because they happen to be a part of them. I have always handled questions or assumptions by remaining silent or by starting to explain. Maybe next time I will give a chance (or should I call it a challenge?) to the person to answer my questions I have posed here.