The Stories They Told: Kaan’s America, Diversity from Disneyland to D.C.

By THO Team Member, Caelan Elliot

What does it mean to find unity in diversity? Maybe a Turkish student’s insights can show us that it means forming bonds without and not merely within.

A self-declared “political junkie” who woke up in the middle of the night in Turkey to watch America’s 2008 election, Kaan Ulgen first visited America as a six-year-old, on a family trip to Disneyland. “It’s not exactly a representative introduction [to the country],” he says laughing, “but it makes you want to come back!” He eventually decided to return to the U.S. because he wanted to get “the best education I could get.” Especially as a Political Science major, Kaan saw the wisdom in getting as many different perspectives, backgrounds, and ways of thinking as possible. “The U.S. is the most international education you can get. I wanted to form those friendships and get that perspective.” Having gone from the University of Chicago to law school at Duke, Kaan is now packing in preparation to move to Washington D.C., where he will begin work at a law firm.

Despite having visited the country for several summer vacations, some things came as a surprise to Kaan when he first began studies in the U.S. One day he ordered sushi to eat at his dorm, and a friend came up and asked if they could have a piece. Kaan said sure, but was quite confused when his friend put a dollar on the table! “I was like ‘no,’ and they put another dollar on the table. I said ‘no.’” Eventually another guy explained that Kaan wanted his friend to just take a piece without paying him. “That’s exactly what I’m saying, I’m not going to take money for it! I don’t look at relationships that way.” Kaan saw this difference between the U.S. and Turkey—while in America it is fairly easy to make many friends to “hang out” with, in Turkey it can be hard to form those relationships immediately. But in Turkey, once you are friends, it is a deep friendship, less concerned with material things like paying for your portion of a meal. 

As an international student, Kaan struggled initially with both regular tasks—like doing his own laundry and cooking for the first time—and traveler’s difficulties—like filling out American legal forms and getting a phone line. But he was also pleasantly surprised by “how easy it is to fit in in the U.S. If you have lived here a couple years and have a basic command of the culture, you fit in. You become American to them.” Of course, he admits that when he came, he realized that his knowledge of American pop culture was about three years behind!

It didn’t long for Kaan to catch up, at least in some areas. “One thing I never thought I would like is college basketball…No where else in the world do college sports matter so much. No Turkish person cares about their college team.” But now Kaan has become a big supporter, going to every game. “The sport that matters is Duke versus UNC,” he says with firm commitment. “It builds community, a shared experience.” He also greatly enjoys badminton and being on the water—“I just love kayaking on the Potomac. I spent a couple summers in D.C., and that was my favorite part.” Kaan is also well-versed in food diversity in the U.S. As a “big food guy,” he relishes the opportunity to try all kinds of foods, even in the small town of Durham, North Carolina. “You could have a different cuisine every day of the year, and that’s a unique thing. I miss that eclectic, diverse atmosphere when I go back to Turkey.”

When asked what he wanted friends or family from Turkey to know about the U.S., Kaan became thoughtful. “One thing is that I think in the U.S., the people who are interested in Turkey have a deep love for Turkey. They might criticize it from time to time or have different readings on historical affairs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like it.” 

Kaan also emphasizes that the U.S. and Turkey “share many things, whether we notice it or not.” Ruminating over history, he notes that the Ottoman Empire’s attitude to minorities was more liberal than many others of the day; there was a time when many minorities lived together in harmony on Turkey’s land. “We have a bit of a shared history. Turkey has questions about identity—are we Western? Eastern? Unique? We can have all these components together. We have all these diversities in who we are right now, and I think Americans actually understand that a lot and go through that process each day because the country is so diverse. If you look deep down we share a lot of values, and we should remember that.

What a beautiful reminder that is to us! Even amidst the struggles and questions that diversity can bring, the U.S. is not alone in wondering, in striving for clarity of identity and for harmony among its people. We share this with others, and that shared journey can forge solidarity across oceans.