A different take on work: On escaping the “emotion work” of everyday life in Istanbul

As one half of aTurkish-American marriage, you notice some cultural differencesright away – and others slowly by slowly. In thinking about cultural differences in this roadtrip called our marriage, work is a key piece when it comes to cultural difference – and as my theme of the month is “work,” due to my participation in Blogher’sNaBloPoMo, a discussion on “emotion work” as the sociologists call it, seems appropriate.

“Emotion work” is defined as the management of one’s own feelings or as work done in a conscious effort to maintain the well being of a relationship – and in the case of this blog post – I am talking about the relationship between a person and their city, specifically, my husband, and Istanbul.


Let me go back some years, to the first date I had with my now husband. Sitting in the glow of warm light in Cafe Algiers, a favorite Cambridge coffee spot, where my date and I began the dance of getting to know one another. One of the first things I asked him related to the differences he noticed between his former life in Turkey and his present life in the United States.

“Oh,” he said, as if pained by an attack of acute gastritis (and eye rolling), “Turkey – Turkey – living there is just so much WORK. I was planning to move to a smaller city on the coast before I came here – Istanbul is just SO DIFFICULT.” I don’t recall the rest of that conversation – but I did wonder what the heck he meant, having never visited one of the second or third world’s mega-metropolis-cities at the time. I think my follow-up question was deflected elsewhere as we ordered a second cup of coffee before heading out for a walk along the Charles River.

Once ensconsed in our relationship, when he did invite me to visit Turkey to meet his family – and learn about that side of himself - I started to understand what he meant about the work of living in Istanbul – and it was indeed “emotion work” – just with a city this time.

It didn’t take long,sitting in traffic, going in and out of markets, museums and watching "M." trying to get a few bits of bureaucratic business done, I began to realize why living in Turkey might feel like so much WORK.  One day, sitting together in a cab without air conditioning, stuck in a a tangle of traffic like none I had ever seen, M. revisited the topic of the “work” of “just living” in Istanbul.

Visibly frustrated – and a tinge sad if my eyes did not deceive me – he explained “This is why I left Istanbul, this is draining, like emotional work, just to get from one place to another.” He went on to describe the massive influx of immigrants from the eastern part of the country over the past 20-30 years that had changed his city of 7 million to one of 17 million seemingly in the blink of an eye. Of course, the city’s infrastructure could not smoothly absorb all of this – making day to day movement, well, work.

And then there were the queues – or rather – the lack thereof. Raised by very orderly people in a country in which queues are only slightly less relied upon than in Britain, I was shocked at the mad dash and super crush of humanity at the entrance to any particular venue – mosque, store, museum, move, restaurant, all of it. And I learned too, that this aspect of everyday Turkish life, for M., had become intolerable “emotion work” as an Istanbullu, and a big part of what eventually led him to live in this country.

“Nothing,” he says with a frustrated sigh, “is easy, and over time that wears you down. When you want something – you have to battle with everyone to get to the front of the counter – there is no order, no peace.”

I believe that M’s dislike of the emotion work of living in Istanbul is a reflection of culture shift – from an eastern approach in which the present, comfort and balance were much closer at hand than in this globalized era. Now, this may also relate to his family’s class status – but I would argue we are a pretty good match in that department, so my bet is on cultural difference. And given his escape, I think that is why he is particularly happy with the boundaries around his professional work. And so how does this impact me? Well, it gives me a lot of food for thought.  The "emotion work" of living in our city is nothing compared to Istanbul - but given my recent workaholic collapse as a University professor and with my left shoulder injury to boot, I have a lot of time to re-consider my relationship with work - including the "emotion work" of academia.  But that, dear readers, is a post for another time.  

And you – what about the "emotion work" in your life? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Liz Cameron Www.slowly-by-slowly.com

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