I take a drag off the last inch of my cigarette as I turn left on Balmoral Terrace with slow, calculated steps. The snow has just begun to thaw, and although some cobbled streets remain covered in crystal clear patches of ice, there is still plenty of that brown sleet drenching my boots, seeping in through the stitch holes. Having accidentally missed a few turns hence deviating from my daily route, I realise I'd been lost in thought for a few hundred yards. Not to worry though, a mistake easy to rectify in these uniform streets all leading to one another. I’m usually more aware of my surroundings. I really am. Although, I do need to make a confession here: It has been a strange day. My mind has hardly functioned at all, and neither have I been able to think straight. I feel utterly distraught over a question I was asked yesterday evening by a drunken woman at a late-night takeaway restaurant. Little did I know, this absurd encounter would end up shaking the ground beneath me ever-so-sinisterly.
Recognisable from a distance by its particular smell of blended vegetable oils, The Chip Inn is not only popular amongst most night-owls, but it also sells the chunkiest chips in town. Joyous matrimony of tastes and textures with only the right amount of crunch; precisely what I was looking forward to last night. As soon as I put the change from my order back in my purse, in came a woman, rather throwing herself over the doorstep. She was sporting a colour coordinated - sparkling pink to be exact - two-piece outfit paired with brown, peep toe high heels. Shortly after entering the restaurant she began showering the staff on duty with compliments; a young man with large, almond eyes, dark, prominent eyebrows and a round nose. She was apparently taken by his tanned skin; "gorgeous" was the way she described it with a heavy Northern English accent. "A bit out of line," I thought to myself while the man was blushing profusely, yet it wasn't my place to stop anyone from flirting. She was drunk, hence felt uninhibited in expressing her admiration. I foolishly didn't make much of this petulant woman. She continued on with questions about the young man’s background, dangerously on the verge of fetishising the colour of his skin.
Staying fixated on the run-down vinyl floor, covering the restaurant from wall to wall, I began tracing its stains with my eyes. She, then, suddenly turned to me and said “What are you? You look like a half of something?” She almost sounded confrontational which left me puzzled for a moment as I was doing nothing but minding my own business the whole time. I gave her a subtle, disingenuous smile as I slowly tiptoed over the counter, half lifting my eyebrows to better see if my chips were ready to come out. I made sure to brush this question off as ramblings of a curious drunk. Yes, I did, quite uncharacteristically, ignore that woman. Not because I didn’t want to engage in midnight antics with a stranger at a bustling, city centre take away - oh, how fun would have that been? - but because I didn’t have an answer, not an entirely satisfying one that is. An answer as real as the prickling cold outside. "Such utter nonsense", I mumbled to myself as I reached for my steaming hot chips, thanking the poor man whose forced-smile was now permanently stuck to his face. What the hell is half of something? Half of what? At that moment, it didn’t occur to me that she meant my ethnicity.
The wind picking up in speed makes me regret leaving my gloves at home. I wish it was spring already. As I approach the neighbourhood elementary school, dozens of small kids wearing thick, fluffy coats spill onto the zebra crossing like a flock of starlings with smooth, synchronised movements. Somehow they all seem to have the same height. Some of the boys are playing tricks on a few girls whose fair hair made into thin plaits that glisten like the frosty pavement under the scanty winter sun. All holding hands in groups, they swiftly cross the road and vanish into the side streets leaving behind but a murmur in the air. As I watch the wave of small, delicate bodies pass by, I put out my cigarette on a brick wall and drop the stub inside my coat pocket.
Terrace houses, zebra crossings, inches, yards...... such is the vocabulary which has been dominating my everyday life, yet it only dawns on me now that I am merely spewing out terms haphazardly internalised; a part of a language once was so alien to me. Since when do I use inches instead of centimetres? That woman has really messed me up, I think to myself. All I asked for was a portion of chips with vinegar. “Vinegar? On chips?” I remember my little brother crying out to me with his face all scrunched up that one time he found out we eat chips in the U.K. with vinegar - sometimes with curry sauce. “Someone call the culinary police?” He’d said, “You need to make them eat an Acili Adana.”
Who I am indeed had been a case of incessant internal scrutiny since I emigrated to this country a decade ago. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped sneakily converting inches to centimetres, stones to kilos, miles to kilometres so as not to give away the fact that this system doesn't come naturally to me. Look, I can prove to you, just how well I now know your measurements. It’s simple. An inch is 2.54 centimetres, and a foot is 30 centimetres. There is no other way for me to comprehend this. I can hear you say “well, a foot is a foot long, that’s why it's called a foot, get it?” A sudden sense of sadness washes over me as I realise I have always, in one way or another, experienced your culture only through converting it into more familiar terms. I am a human unit conversion mediating two opposing cultures, often getting lost in your indiscernible touches of sarcasm and your baffling regional slang.
Turning yet another corner in this meandering neighbourhood, I run my fingers through my windswept hair, trying to detangle it. Thick, dark, and unruly; I twist it into a little tail at the back of my head and tuck inside my coat, lifting my collar up in a James Dean sort of way. I catch my mind beginning to drift again, though I quickly manage to collect myself. Still agitated and disturbed by my recent realisation that I am half of something, I’m determined to figure out what this half is. I stop on Church Lane to pull up my woollen socks sliding down on top of my nude stockings. I don't ever remember an instance in which my socks stayed up all day. There is always a stubborn one out of a pair that gradually rolls to my ankles as though being pulled down by a mischievous djinn, forever causing me to walk with a broken, Alla Turca rhythm; two steps forward, one step back, that is called the Janissary stop. I crouch down giving my back to a shoulder-height wall over which hang a bunch of loose bushes which had completely shed their foliage except a few unyielding crimson berries.
Upon lifting my head up from my socks, I feel a sudden rush, a slight dizziness. Inadvertently fixing my gaze on a series of blue household bins neatly placed on the left side of the street, I begin reading out the numbers written on them. Eighty, eighty-two, eighty-four… In a flashing instant, the wind dies down, the background noise of the kids abruptly stops and I lose all sense of time; becoming only a sharp tingle, a wave of electricity running between the frozen ground and the clouded sky. Slowly, after a brief second which felt like a lifetime, I regain the feeling of my body. With the trusting awareness of a monk who had just come out of a trance, it suddenly becomes as clear as day to me what that woman meant last night. In this bizarre, hallucinatory moment, I feel, with every fibre of my being, the crushing weight of her blundering words. I now know "you look like a half of something" can only mean “although you look a little like us, you’re not really like us, not quite one of us.” Finding myself adjacent to the same wall I leant on earlier, I readjust the waist belt of my coat and squeeze my belly underneath a tight knot to make sure that I am still here, on this piece of earth.
What was the question again? "What are you?" Not 'who'; I must remember this detail, but 'what'! Because, of course, I do know who I am. Who I am is a survivor of a broken home riddled with religious dogmas, an oppressed runaway, a product of displacement, social integration, hard work and rigorous self-critique, a hybrid of denial and acceptance, countless mistakes, heartbreaks, apologies and radical forgiveness! "Isn’t it enough for you, lady, that I’m all these things I have built for myself over the years? What else do you want of me?" I am still strung out, trembling like a soul settling into a new body. The sun peeps its head out for a quick second, then almost mockingly, retreats behind the clouds as if it doesn't quite like what it sees. I concentrate on my steps, looking at the tip of my salt-stained leather boots to make sure I put one foot after another. "Walk natural", I mutter to myself. I should have confronted that insolent woman, alas, I'm rather slow at comebacks. “I think you're being rude to the man who’s wrapping up your chicken donner.” Is it possible, perhaps, that I don't know myself all that well, or perhaps what I am is another thing altogether to those around me?
I smile at a young woman across the street whose slender frame obscured by a full-length, duck down jacket. Onto her left, a pre-teen boy with a milky white complexion is slowly dragging a scooter beside the pavement. On her right, steadily hopping along to catch up with the two, is a small girl tightly wrapped in a bright red scarf; her body looks as miniature as a matryoshka doll. Trying to hide my escalating hypochondria which assures me I'd just had a silent stroke right there by the wall, I make sure my smile seems as casual as possible. I'm thankful we are not made out of a transparent material; what would have this family thought, were they to read the contents of my mind at this weakest moment in my life.
"How strange is life?" I think to myself as I shift my gaze towards a pale brown French Bulldog whose funny stride I recognise from the other day. How unpredictable is the course of this seemingly routine commute back home? Everything is familiar as one would expect; this is my neighbourhood after all. Yet how uneasy I am at this moment, how unwelcome I feel in this body as I fail to control my jumbled steps. Last night, a perfect stranger in a sassy mood nonchalantly triggered a chain reaction of doubts inside my soul. Befittingly like an aftershock, this chance encounter began to chip away at my sense of identity, inch by inch. At precisely 5.20 pm on this frosted Friday evening, ten minutes into my daily walk from work, an existential wormhole crack opened, spilling out all sorts of mysteries which had been fermenting in its depths. I'm in disbelief! How could this be? In a blink of an eye, I was overthrown, defeated, no longer confident in who or what the hell I am. I clumsily cross the road at the junction next to the local metro station, then slow down to give way to a group of commuters running towards the platform. The night is about to fall. My hands inside my pockets, though still shaking with unceasing jerky movements, are cold and numb. Lingering over the street is a faint scent of toasted cumin coming from a nearby Lebanese restaurant. "You look like us, but you will never be one of us." The sentence rattles inside my brain as I push my key into the front lock of my British suburban home.
SHEYDA A. KHAYMAZ