Bug-eyed fourth-graders looked at me like I am a space alien. "You are not Muslim?" they asked repeatedly. No, I said, I am a Christian. Their eyes grew bigger, their mouths agape. They touched their hands to their faces, saying "Oooooh." In a country that is more than 95 percent Muslim or secular, I am an anomaly and a curiosity.
A similar reaction of astonishment might occur in the American Bible Belt from school children who have never seen a Muslim before, I thought. But I wonder if a Muslim ex-pat would be so welcomed, accepted and respected as a teacher in an American school as I feel I am in this Turkish school?
When I walk into the classroom, the students leap to attention, and often applaud loudly. It may be they are simply eager to interact with a real, live, native English-speaker, since the daily English language drills from non-native speakers can probably seem dull and inauthentic to them, just as the French language drills from drawling Southerners struck me as inauthentic when I was in school.
But I suspect their friendliness has something to do with the fact that I am an American. I come from the country that strongly influences their country's economic and political choices, that sends them fantastical movies and superheroes like Harry Potter, Spiderman, and Batman. I come from the country that produces the I-Phone, that brings Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to their television sets, two symbols that African Americans and strong women can freely pursue their dreams without prejudice in America and rise to pre-eminent international leadership. I come from the country that produces the awesome musical power of Queen's "We Will We Will Rock You," which the Turkish students chant in full if asked, and the spectacle of Michael Jackson's "Moon Walk."
Would I receive such a friendly reception if I were from Great Britain? I doubt it. A half-Englishman, half-Turk I met on the train told me that he hasn't seen an American in Kayseri in three years. The rarity of Americans here makes us more interesting. First they stare at us, then they welcome us.
I did have a humorous encounter with a school psychologist regarding my nationality. When I introduced myself as an American, he immediately asked me my lineage. "Scot," I replied.
"I like the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, the Africans, the native Americans," he said with a smile on his face. "They were all run over by Britain, which is now trying to run over Iraq." To him, United States foreign policy is just an extension of the British Empire. He asked me when I left Scotland for America. "About 300 years ago," I answered. "That was when my ancestors left Scotland."
"You are still a Scot," he insisted, laughing. "You are Braveheart, seeking to overthrow English rule. Do not forget it."
Every time he sees me, he says, "Hello my Scottish friend." He likes me as a Scot because that means I am cheap like people from Kayseri, he explained. "You know how to hold onto your money and to stretch a dollar."
At that, we shared a big laugh.
The longer my wife, son and I stay and interact with the people of Kayseri, the less we feel like space aliens and strangers. The Turks have been incredibly hospitable, as I wrote earlier. I realize, in each new encounter, I am an ambassador for America, and they are ambassadors -- wonderful ambassadors -- for Turkey.