By Carrie Elizabeth Akarslan
You wouldn’t normally meet your boyfriend’s parents by going on a twelve-day tour of Japan together.
Of course, our relationship doesn’t follow the “normal context, ” and so this is a story about how I met my Turkish boyfriend’s parents for the first time.
I grew up on a small ranch in Oregon, riding horses and shoveling manure. I walked to school and went to church most Sundays. My family later moved to Connecticut, and after college, I moved to Florida for the warm weather and relaxed lifestyle. I lived in a city with a population of roughly 40,000, and this felt like a city to me.
Several years later, feeling the need for a new adventure, I found myself alone on the small island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras. I was considering a position teaching at an international school there so I decided to take a vacation to Roatan to learn how it’d feel to live there before committing myself for a year. I had envisioned my year teaching third grade and spending my free time becoming a divemaster and doing yoga. Life would be slow, simple and peaceful. Naturally, my first task was to sign up for some scuba diving lessons.
My second morning on the island I was standing on the back deck of the scuba shop overlooking the gorgeous sea excitedly awaiting my dive instructor. I was daydreaming, could this be my future?
My daze was interrupted when in walked this Jacques Cousteau character; tan skin, brightly colored wool cap with a bright smile gleaming through his full beard. I wondered to myself what in the world he was doing wearing a winter hat in this tropical weather.
I was amused at this character who introduced himself as “Birant, kind of like Brian.” His eyes seemed to sparkle and before my brain could jump to other notions, his two travel companions, both female, joined him. I quickly assumed one must be his girlfriend or wife and felt at ease to chat with the happy Turkish trio, no chance of romance, my life was on a path and romance was not in the plans. They invited me to join for lunch and explorations before our night dive; I assumed they were being polite learning that I was alone.
On the water taxi ride to the other side of the island, I noticed that Birant had taken a picture, a selfie of us! and wondered if this was strange since we had just met and he was traveling with two women. As the day passed I noticed that my new friend was very attentive, whether I needed sunscreen or a candy to get the salt water taste out of my mouth, he was always considerate of the lone traveler on the boat.
I later learned the friends were on a summer Central American tour together and would be on Roatan for just a few days before moving on to Belize and later Guatemala. These were friends, no girlfriend or wife, just three single travelers who I was booked to spend all my days with diving until they left the island. Our new friendship flickered with hints of something more.
I resisted the notion of romance, I would be moving to Roatan, and he’d return to Istanbul after a few more months of travels. He could meet a dozen more women along the way, and I didn’t want to complicate my life; long distance relationships never work, let’s be rational.
Despite all my logic, our new friendship was becoming more; our entire days were spent together on the boat and relaxing between dives. Birant and his friends were enjoying their time on Roatan so much that they extended their plans to stay to match mine, I later found out that Birant played a larger part in that decision.
As for the relationship, Birant asked me to “give it a try,” neither of us were kids interested in a fling.
The simplicity of his request felt so pure. I paused and thought to myself, if I say yes, then it’s all in. No fear, no safety net, I give it my all and see where this can go. I had never met anyone like him before or felt seen the way he saw me. I took a deep breath, exhaled, letting go of all my fears and whispered okay.
“The simplicity of his request felt so pure.”
After eight days together on Roatan, I returned to Florida. As soon as I was on my own the anxiety kicked in, all the fears, all the doubt, this was crazy. I sat on the plane wondering what would become of this romance, my life, my future. Everything seemed in order, then giant curve ball. I was in the process of settling my life for the move to Roatan, packing up my belongings, selling my car, my furniture and seeing friends. My days were now also filled with Birant.
We decided that I would rejoin the group in Guatemala for another week together before they headed back to Istanbul.
It would be another week together in person to see if this relationship if all that we were feeling for each other was real. My “Jacques” would be traveling on to Australia for a month before meeting his parents in Japan for a twelve-day tour. This would be our last chance to see each other until a school break as my job with the school would start in mid-August.
Towards the end of an incredible week in Guatemala, we were sitting in a bar in Antigua, when I received the email that changed everything. My deadline to accept the teaching position for the school in Roatan was up, and they needed a decision. I would need to relocate in two weeks. I showed him my phone and watched him read the email with bated breath. He handed the phone back to me and took my hand. “Don’t take the job, come with me to Istanbul,” he whispered.
Neither of us was interested in spending the next year apart only communicating via Skype with a seven hour time difference.
Alone in our room, he told me to meet him in Japan for sushi and return to Istanbul with me. My life was already ready for an international move; I knew that I wanted to see what could become of this summer romance and the best way to learn would be to spend time together.
Despite the fact that I don’t care for sushi or that I’m a former vegetarian with lingering food phobias, (no bones or eyes please!) and twelve days in Japan would also include his parents, I said yes. Somehow I knew that no matter what it meant, I would always say yes to a life that included him. I didn’t take the position in Roatan. I decided to do the crazy thing and move across the world for a relationship.
We spent the next month on Skype while Birant explored Australia. I had a long, nearly eight-hour layover in Istanbul. I was nervous about a ten-hour flight with my boyfriend’s parents. He wouldn’t be there to introduce us or to act as an interpreter or a buffer.
What did he tell them about me? What if they’re mean? What if they don’t approve of me or their son’s plans? Every fear came to mind of how this could go terribly wrong, but nothing I imagined was as terrifying as what was to come.
It’d just be the three of us flying towards the unknown.
His father speaks English, but his mother, a former French teacher, did not. I can only assume now that they were just as freaked out to learn the news of my arrival, filled with questions as to who this American girl was, and just what my presence would mean to their family and their family’s future.
“I was going to be on a tour of Japan with my boyfriend’s parents, just the three of us.”
I sat in the airport lounge, all my accessories plugged in and charging, hours to boarding when I received a message that my boyfriend was still in Malaysia with a visa issue. He was previously told that he didn’t need a visa to enter Japan, but what he didn’t know was that having the new microchipped passport was a requirement. He was traveling on his old passport, which didn’t have the electric chip. He needed a visa or his new passport which was locked away in Istanbul. He would have to get a hotel for the night and go to the embassy in the morning to try to resolve the passport issue and then he’d take another flight to Osaka to meet us in Japan.
I was paralyzed with fear. He would not be there to greet us at the airport! After a ten-hour red-eye flight with his parents, he would not be there with his napkin sign to greet us. I was already nervous and trying to block out my fears and negative thoughts, but this just opened the floodgates. I wanted to run away, so I start sending out the panicked smoke signals.
My mom, scared of her blonde daughter moving to a Muslim country imagined a scene from the movie “Taken” and warned me that they don’t like Americans. Just come home. A friend told me it was fate, there must be some karma here with the parents and to just ride it out. I was going to be on a tour of Japan with my boyfriend’s parents, just the three of us.
He, of course, had our rail tickets, travel itinerary, all of the details. We had no way of surviving the twelve days without him, but he was in a hotel in Malaysia waiting for the embassy to open.
Hours passed, what do I do? Am I going to get on this plane and fly to Japan to take a tour with complete strangers? What if his dad’s English isn’t that good and we can’t understand each other?
His parents must be upset as well. They can’t like the idea of their trip being overtaken by some foreign girl… If I was still in London, I could miss my flight and wait a day or two until he sorted out the travel arrangements, but I was in Istanbul. I took the earlier flight to make sure I didn’t have any visa or customs issues and miss my flight. I had no return ticket, only a flight to Osaka that would return me to Istanbul twelve days later.
Several hours later I received a message back; there was nothing that could be done. Birant needed a visa to enter Japan, or he’d need his other passport, no exceptions. My heart sank. We’d have to arrive in Japan without him. He would have to fly to Istanbul, go to the police station to exchange his passports, buy another ticket for Istanbul to Osaka and join us two days later. This was the only alternative to him just flying to Istanbul to wait for his parents and me to return from our Japanese vacation without him. Not much to do.
I sat at the Ataturk airport waiting for my shuttle, still shell shocked from the news that I would have to figure out how to make the best of this uncomfortable situation. I must have looked like a ghost paled with fear. I sat, lost in a world of thought, terrified of what was to come. I was awoken from my thoughts by the realization that my name was being called. I looked up to see this sweet couple looking back at me and realizing that it was his parents, wanting to say hello and were able to pick me out of the crowd easily. Later, I learned that they had been emailed a photo of me, but at the time I thought for sure, it was the fear they were able to recognize.
My mother had always taught me to be polite and respectful, but I had no idea what to do. Do I give them a hug? Shake their hands? Showing my complete lack of confidence we bumbled through an awkward greeting of half hugging, kissing on the cheeks (left first or right? Air kiss and touch cheeks or do you really kiss their cheeks?)
We made small talk about the dire situation we found ourselves in; Birant not with us, only hoping to join us in a day or two. We were emailed instructions on how to take the train from the airport to the subway and then transfer to get to our hotel’s stop and navigate the walk from the subway to the hotel. None of us knowing any Japanese, all of us tired and stressed not only from the long red-eye flight but also from the strangeness of our situation as travel companions.
“If we didn’t work out, I’d just be this weird American girl they were stuck with in Japan that they would have to crop out of their photos.”
Somehow, we purchased tickets for the train into Osaka where we would have to navigate the subway system. I was happy to learn that Birant’s father was a strong and confident leader who took over the role of the navigator as his wife and I followed along.
There were awkward moments of financial matters.
Should I give his father money for my ticket if he paid for three or should I offer to wait in line and buy my ticket separately? I had no idea as to customs, what would be rude or expected, and I only wanted to make sure that I didn’t become an expense to his parents who already had to tolerate my presence on their family vacation.
I felt fortunate; his father was friendly in a way that put me at ease. His sense of humor and ability to act as interpreter for his wife and I made it possible for us to have some semblance of a conversation together. Three weary travelers in the strange land of Japan. We agreed to retire for the night and to meet the following morning at 9 am for breakfast.
Being on London time, I awoke early and was able to find a cup of coffee and Skype with a friend while waiting in the lobby as we had no WiFi in our rooms. Nine a.m. came and went, no parents. Thirty minutes later, 9:30 am came and went, no parents. I sat in the lobby uncomfortable as to what happened. Surely, I couldn’t have missed them. Could they have gone on without me knowing that their son wouldn’t be joining us? Ten o’clock and still nothing. Surely they couldn’t still be sleeping. I had no idea what to do.
Finally, I resolved to walk to Starbucks for a latte and something to nibble since I had been up for hours at this point with nothing but a bleak cup of lobby coffee. As I returned to the hotel, I was still alone sitting in the lobby wondering what the heck I was to do alone on this vacation with my boyfriend’s parents missing in action for hours. Did they ditch me on purpose? Were they upset with the situation and trying to avoid me until their son arrived?
Finally, Birant’s dad appeared from the elevator with his apologies that they had overslept and were just waking up, his wife still not dressed. Relieved that I had not missed something or make some error I offered to run out and find coffee and snacks for them while they prepared for the day.
There is something strange about tagging along on someone else’s vacation. I had no idea what they were told about me, about my importance or unimportance, if I even had any importance at all, but I can say that despite the uncomfortableness of our situation, they remained polite and warm.
I was asked to take their photo and even had his father take a few photos of myself with his wife, something I found strange considering that we had a future uncertain. If we didn’t work out, I’d just be this weird American girl they were stuck with in Japan that they would have to crop out of their photos.
We finished our day sightseeing and trying to navigate our combined dietary issues in a polite, reserved manner customary of two parties observing and figuring each other out. Fortunately, Japan offers such beauty and exotic strangeness that making small talk is an easy task.
Every restaurant has a plastic display of their menu items to assist foreigners in deciding what and where to eat. For us, it meant meandering glass display cases of plastic menu items like a toddler would have in their dream play kitchen until we all decided on a place with plastic items we all could agree on.
Birant’s father took his usual position as the group leader and morale booster. He made jokes with the waiter and even let him know that even though it’s the Japanese tradition for men to be served first, that indeed women should be served first. He then gave his beer to his wife to demonstrate that a gentleman serves the lady.
“I was able to observe the ease of a marriage nearly forty years strong.”
My chopstick skills are basic at best, but in the interest of going local, I wanted to give it a chance and see if my skills could rapidly improve. Birant’s father, of course, had no difficulty at all whereas his mother often asked for proper cutlery. Not all restaurants have alternative options for tourists, especially the little local hole in the wall places, which meant whenever traveling and finding plastic utensils, such as my morning trip to Starbucks, we’d shove a few extra into our purses for emergency purposes. I still carry one in my purse and smile with the memory it brings. My teeny tiny spork wrapped in plastic was worth its weight in gold for those two weeks.
I think Birant’s mom and I bonded over the fact that we preferred dining in Starbucks to the restaurants we found in Japan. Later, we found ourselves at the mall for an afternoon coffee, and cake stop at Starbucks followed by wandering the mall while Birant’s mother shopped.
Dad carried the bags, and I was able to observe the ease of a marriage nearly forty years strong. Sitting on the benches as Birant’s mom tried on hats and browsed the shops, I realized that American and Turks weren’t all that different.
As we were spending the days in Osaka, my “Jacques” was jet setting around the world, Malaysia to Istanbul, seeing his sister for lunch as he switched his passports and then catching the redeye flight to Osaka. We arrived back at the hotel after 7 pm and sat anxiously on the round sofa bench waiting for his arrival. We sat in silence as we learned he was minutes away, it had only been five weeks since we last saw each other, but it felt much longer. The butterflies were growing in my stomach; I waited for his parents to greet and hug him first as he entered the hotel, then it was my turn. This was going to be the start of our forever.
A year later we married, and people are still shocked to hear the tale of our beginning. Nothing like an entire family going “all in” together. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this initiation style to other couples, but for us, it’s a beautiful tapestry we created, all of us.
Carrie Elizabeth Akarslan is an adventure loving fan of nature, history and all things mystic. Born in the USA with dreams of seeing the world she is a scuba diver, yogi, long distance jogger and pyramid enthusiast who now lives in Istanbul with her husband, daughter, and world-traveling chihuahua, Bruno.