[TRADING PLACES] Over endless tea, the Turkish spirit is revealed

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[TRADING PLACES] Over endless tea, the Turkish spirit is revealed


From left, professor of Eurasian Turkic studies at Dongduk Women’s University Oh Eun-kyung, wife of the ambassador Pinar Okcal, Turkish Ambassador to Korea Arslan Hakan Okcal and professor of ceramics at Kyung Hee University Leman Kalay, pose together at the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul on April 26, with ceramics from Turkey that almost always contain the color turquoise, the Turkish national color. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Sipping tea from signature tulip-shaped glasses, the Turkish ambassador’s guests gathered at his residence in central Seoul on the afternoon of April 26 needed no prompts.

“Just like here, there are those in Turkey studying for the second or third time for the college entrance exam,” said Oh Eun-kyung, professor of Eurasian Turkic studies at Dongduk Women’s University, who had lived in Turkey for seven years. “Private cram schools exist there as they do here.”

Once the conversation began, there was no telling where it would lead next.

“Turkish youth also have the same pressure of getting old and not finding a spouse in time,” said Pinar Okcal, wife of the ambassador. “When they don’t marry until 35 or so then the family and even friends get involved in matchmaking, trying to find you the right candidate.”


The group enjoyed Turkish spinach and feta borek alongside unending cups of coffee and tea. Lokum, or Turkish delight, was served with linen napkins, white and embroidered on the edges.

“This reminds me of home,” said Leman Kalay, professor of ceramics at Kyung Hee University. “I didn’t expect to see this here. Even back home the younger generations have stopped using it.”

“I prefer the linen napkins to the paper ones,” said Mrs. Okcal. “But more people are switching to paper ones because it’s too much work ironing them.”

“Our mothers worked very hard - they used to cook three times a day, and do laundry, ironing and shopping in the street markets,” said Ambassador Arslan Hakan Okcal. “So like the traditional society here, the pressure was on the women. Back then, men would go to work and come and expect a perfect table.”

“A very luxurious table,” Oh added.

The conversation weaved around factors of life common to the people of the two countries: matchmaking and private cram schools to the power of the conglomerates, paying respect to the old and even smoking habits.

“Even though people smoke much less now, I’ll tell you about a time when I landed in Italy when I was in my 20s. I took a taxi and started smoking,” said the ambassador. “The taxi driver told me in Italian, ‘Don’t smoke like a Turk! Non fumare come un turco!’

“Well, what could I say?” said the ambassador. “I’m Turkish, man.”

Like father like daughter


Left: Oh Eun-kyung, right, and Turkish author Yashar Kemal, are sitting at Kemal’s office in 2011 in Istanbul as Kemal is signing some of his short stories and giving Oh, who has translated two of his works, the copyright to some of his novels. Right: Leman Kalay, center, and her landlord couple are posing together in front of their villa in Suwon, Gyeonggi, on May 1. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Oh Eun-kyung would often tell her students in class that she used to be a very shy person. None of them would have it, she said.

“I used to be very shy,” she said. “I would never be the first to speak to another person. My favorite activity was to sit down and read books. But I was in Turkey and needed to make friends or I wouldn’t have a social life.”

Oh landed in Turkey in 1989 despite her family’s opposition to having her study on her own in a country distant from home.

“I was one of the few Korean students studying in Turkey,” Oh said. “Many Turks would approach me in the streets to say hello, asking where I was from, and what I was doing alone in this country.

“So Turkey is where I learned how to make friends for the first time in my life.”

Oh Eun-kyung: I was often invited to my friends’ houses, and in one household I saw something special in a father-daughter relationship. The daughter of the family, who was around my age, seemed to share whatever that troubled her heart with her father, and they were very close. He would even buy her sanitary pads. This kind of closeness in the father-daughter relationship was not very common in Korea in my generation.

Oh: In my case, I grew up in a very patriarchal family of strong Confucian beliefs. At the time, many Korean fathers believed that they must be strong, and by their definition it often meant they must not show their emotions.

This belief came to a test when Oh returned home for vacation some three years since she had left home. Seeing her father at the Incheon Airport, Oh ran to him, meaning to hug him as she was so often hugged and kissed by her Turkish friends.

Oh: “Oh father,” I said and I was about to hug him, when he sort of froze on the spot and said, “Oh, let’s do it Korean style” (laughs). So I did the big bow at home, the Korean style bowing to pay respects to one’s parents. Come to think of it, I think my shy gene must be from my father.

Slow and loud

Leman Kalay, who resigned from a full-time job in Turkey to start fresh in a country that has always been close to her heart for its history of ceramics, found her own Korean family at Kyung Hee University. Kalay lives in an apartment in a villa near the university’s Yongin, Gyeonggi, campus where she teaches hand-painting and printing for the ceramics department.

“I have been living there four years now and I’m not moving out because I love my landlord couple,” she said. “You can see the love in their eyes when you speak to them.”

Leman Kalay: Everyone calls them halmeoni and harabeoji [grandma and grandpa]. They have a little garden and they try to push me to pick some vegetables from their garden to eat. Once, I went home and I saw a bag full of vegetables that halmeoni picked and left at my door. After they found out I love flowers, now I find flowers at my door from time to time. They are one of the reasons I love living here.

If there is one thing that Kalay dreads periodically, it is grading time.

Kalay: In my first year of teaching here, I received hundreds of text messages and emails from the students, asking to change their grades. And one student with a grade A-minus wrote to me asking why I didn’t give him an A-plus.

Pinar Okcal: Isn’t A-minus a good grade?

Kalay: Yes, isn’t A-minus a good grade here? The university told me that I have a day to give out grades and then a couple weeks later a day for students to change their grades! I mean, why would I want to change the grades? If I have given it, then that’s it. That’s how it was when I was a student.

Oh: Many Koreans are perfectionists and fear making mistakes, so it’s always difficult to get my students to talk and participate in the beginning of the semester. But Turkish students are more open, and not only the students, but Turks I met in the streets would always be open to talk.

Pinar Okcal: They’re very helpful, especially when you’re in need

Kalay: But the funny thing is, even if they cannot speak English, I know my parents do this, they speak Turkish to the foreigners thinking that if they speak it loudly...

Pinar Okcal: Slowly and loudly...

Kalay: Then somehow the foreigners will understand. So they’re saying something like, “You should go right,” really loudly in Turkish, thinking the meaning would be conveyed.

Oh: On the other hand, a foreign friend of mine had some difficulty living in Korea because when she asked for directions here, Koreans would be very shy, repeating, “I no English, I no English.”


The couple arrived in their new posting in Seoul in late December 2013. It was to be the first posting without their two daughters and son, all grown up after they were raised across postings in eight countries.

The couple always had an affinity toward Korea, and in their early days here, they experienced typical Korean warmth towards foreigners who were new to the culture and even the surroundings of their own neighborhood. Mrs. Okcal had another reason to be excited about life in Korea - she had a close Korean friend in her youth.

She was 12 when she met Lim Hye-young at the Ankara College. Lim was the daughter of a Korean diplomat stationed in Turkey.

“We learned English together and we were in the same class for four years,” said Pinar Okcal. “We were a class of some 25 to 30, and Lim and I grew rather close.”

Mrs. Okcal, Lim and their group of friends shared a diary, scribbling in daily incidents together. But this was in the 1960s, in the pre-email era, and they lost touch when Lim followed her father to another posting.

Pinar Okcal: Once I found out that I was going to Korea, all of my friends said you have to go find Hye-young. So when we came here Hakan rang up Mr. Paek.

Hakan Okcal: Mr. Paek is a Korean War veteran who used to be the translator for the Turkish Brigade. When the war was over, he got a scholarship in Turkey, graduated from Ankara University and worked as a counsellor in the Korean Embassy, the same time as Lim’s father.

Mr. Paek turned out to be the right person to call.

Pinar Okcal: Getting Lim’s number from Mr. Paek, I phoned her, but Mr. Paek only knows my last name, which usually changes when you marry. So Hye-young was probably wondering who could be this Mrs. Okcal?

Pinar Okcal: She picked up the phone and I said, “Hello Hye-young,” and she responded, “Hello Pinar.” I was shocked, I said, “How did you know it was me, did Mr. Paek tell you my first name?” She said, “No, no, he didn’t and I didn’t recognize the name Okcal, but when I heard you on the phone, I knew immediately it was you.”

Hakan Okcal: Intuition.

Pinar Okcal: Intuition. That week we got together, and ever since, we are meeting almost every week. She helped me a lot because we speak the same language still - she understands the questions I ask, and why I ask them, because she more or less knows Turkey from those times.

Pinar Okcal: Well that’s that. So, would you like another cup of tea?

Mrs. Okcal filled up the tea glasses, saying that though coffee has long been a national drink of Turkey, a guest at a Turkish home can expect to be served tea before coffee nowadays.

“Don’t hold the glass by the middle, by the way, it is hot,” said the ambassador, holding up his tulip-shaped glass by its upper edge. “Or you’ll end up with scalded fingers.”

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Turkish Ambassador

Arslan Hakan Okcal and Pinar Okcal

Arslan Hakan Okcal was appointed the Turkish ambassador to Korea in January 2014. The top envoy was previously stationed in Libya, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Nigeria and Macedonia. The ambassador’s spouse, Pinar Okcal, has worked as an urban planning expert for the Turkish Ministry of Urbanization and Public Works, currently serves as the president of the Garden Club of Seoul and teaches on global leadership and networking at Sookmyung Women’s University. The Okcals have two daughters and a son.

Leman Kalay

Born in Izmir, Leman Kalay completed her Ph.D. at Hacettepe University in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Specializing in printing techniques and minimalist installations in contemporary ceramic art, Kalay lectured at Ordu University from 2010 to 2013, when she came for a ceramics workshop in Yeoju, Gyeonggi, and found an opportunity to teach in Korea for one year at Kyung Hee University. The sudden decision has turned into four years, and may continue, as Kalay says she loves Korea more every day.

Oh Eun-kyung

The professor of Eurasian Turkic studies at Dongduk Women’s University was first drawn to Turkey through a university thesis on Turkish literature that she came across in high school. Oh completed her Ph.D. on feminism in Korean and Turkish novels at Hacettepe University in 1999, and taught at the Ankara University in Turkey and Nizami Pedagogical University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She has written more than 20 books, and has translated Turkish and Korean works, including the sequels of “Memed, My Hawk” by Yashar Kemal and poet Ko Un’s “Maninbo” and “Anthology of Poetry.”

Our latest series about the diplomatic community in Seoul, “Trading Places,” focuses on the experience of living in a foreign land. In each installment, an ambassador invites to his or her home a compatriot living in Korea and a Korean who lived in the ambassador’s country. They swap memories - good, bad and amusing - and describe how a distant country that was once an abstraction, a colored patch on a map, became a part of their lives. - Ed.
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