I just returned from a week in Istanbul, Turkey, speaking at a conference, meeting with families, and doing some sightseeing. And I was struck by the similarities of issues that exist half away around the world, within cultures that have incredible differences.
First, I need to let you know that Istanbul is a beautiful, beautiful city with incredible history, architecture, and stunning visual images. It is the only city that spans two continents — Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus river (a salt-water river that joins the Black sea to the north and the Aegean Sea to the south). The metropolitan area is larger than you might guess — at least 15 million people (it reportedly had 400,000 people in 1970 and 10 million in 2000.) And it has a unique blend of numerous ethnic groups and nationalities — Turkish, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, French, Italian, German, British and more. You might remember that it was the capital of the Emperor Constantine (Constantinople) and the seat of the of the Orthodox church, and then became the capital as well as the trading and economic center for the Ottoman Empire from the 1300s through the early 1900s.
So the themes I noted that are similar across cultures, and seemingly across time, include:
Entrepreneurial spirit (when freedom of competition is allowed).
Both the modern Turkish economy (textiles, agrarian commodities, shipping industry) and the small shopkeepers in the markets (the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, and individuals selling goods on the streets) demonstrate the vibrancy of the desire to make one’s life better through business. I was amazed at the energy and creativity I observed in individual’s and small businesses; and I appreciated their humor as well: “How can I convince you to leave some of your money with me?” “What would you like to buy that you don’t really need”? And, “Step into my shop and let me show you some genuine fake watches!”
The importance of family relationships.
Individuals and families repeatedly reported their personal stories of how important their families are to them. Young adults shared the dilemma they face of wanting to pursue career opportunities in other parts of Europe but also wanting to be near their parents, siblings and extended family members. Older adults discussed their desires for their children to join them in the family business, but also wanting their family members to pursue their career interest in a different area. And I got to see the joy of families enjoying time together — with their grandchildren, with the extended families of their siblings’ children and cousins.
The high value of education.
Time and time again, parents told me how proud they were that their children were doing well in the schools they attended (often private schools, at great personal expense to their parents). I believe that when individuals are faced in their day-to-day lives with the mass of humanity — in traffic, on the streets walking, in the marketplaces — they realize more intensely the need to “get ahead” through training and education. And the issue is not lost on the youth — they are quite committed to studying hard to do well in school, and appreciate the sacrifice their parents are making so they can get a good education.
The tension between governmental support and governmental interference.
Similar to the challenges our own country and economy are facing, countries worldwide are battling the tension of how much the government should set economic policies (both internally and regarding international trade) and how much they should “stay out of the way” and let the forces of capitalism lead the way. In Turkey currently, there is the additional tension of “being in the middle” of connecting with western Europe and the West economically, and remaining close to its neighbors and historical partners (Iran, Russia, Syria, Greece). In both the United States and Turkey, the answers are neither simple nor agreed upon by their citizens.
So what are the differences I see? Mainly small ones — size, shape and the differences in appearance that are the result of differing ethnic backgrounds; clothing styles and preferences; types of food eaten on a daily basis; languages used to communicate with others; and historical heritages that bring different traditions to daily life and life’s events.
But underneath these surface variations, I still see people who love, who want to accomplish something in their lives, who learn and try to capitalize on available opportunities, and who are intrigued by those who are different than they are — but who try to be kind and helpful to strangers in need. Finally, life seems to be both enjoyable and difficult for individuals, families, and businesses on all sides of the world. Most of us experience both the wonderful aspects of daily life (the beauty of nature, loving relationships), along with the pain (illness, physical pain, death) that accompanies life in this world.