I have been watching Project Runway every day ever since I returned from Minnesota in late August. First, it was Season Three. Then Season Two, and yesterday I finished watching Season One (I watched Seasons Four through Eight when they aired). At the same time, I am keeping up with Season Nine, broadcast in the States every Thursday night. Sankar and I watch it on Saturdays (he actually likes it, too), when we can stream it from the renegade WatchVideo website.I enjoy this program more than any television program in my recent memory. And I have started to wonder why this is the case.
First, I guess I simply need a dose of my own culture. I spend each day teaching Turkish students, correcting their work and planning how best to motivate and inspire them. I eat lunch with my very pleasant Turkish colleagues. When I get home in the evening, I simply want to retreat into something familiar.
A reality show is good for this because it involves more or less authentic interactions. I chose Project Runway because the challenges are real and career-related. Also, I am fascinated by people’s ability to take an idea and some fabric and turn it into lovely apparel.
So: a retreat to my own culture. What else? Well, each weekday for me here is a four-hour teaching performance that requires comfortable, good-looking clothing. Thus fashion is more in my mind than it has been since high school. My Turkish colleagues dress beautifully. Although you don’t see as much evidence of this on Istanbul streets as you would in Paris or Rome, a significant segment of Turkish women are quite fashionable. This compels me to try a little harder, to attempt to pull my “look” together. I wear accessories here—bracelets, scarves, necklaces—that I wouldn’t think of in the States. I try to adapt the fashion trends that flatter me (turtlenecks seem to be the thing for winter here, and I’m considering getting a pair of the knee-high leather boots that every Turkish woman seems to have). Project Runway critiques have actually helped me understand which fashions flatter and which do not.
There is also a third reason. News from the States is often discouraging, for me a continuation of negative and worrisome events since 2001. I am concerned about the economy, and about divisions in our country, made deeper by profit-seeking networks that could not be less patriotic. Here in Turkey, the economy is growing and, although the country also has divisions, there is a feeling of promise, a fresh breeze of optimism in this old country. After a year and a half here, I’ve realized that much of what I love in America—confidence, leadership, authenticity—is part of this country’s traditions as well.
But one uniquely American characteristic remains. And that is our ability to live with people very different from us. A learned, developing, growing skill, it is something I believe my country does better than any other nation on earth.
I can begin to explain this by introducing you to one of my new teaching colleagues, Burak Senel, a Turk who lived in New Jersey for ten years and married a woman from Alabama. (Burak is the Turkish version of Barack, and also means blessing.) Burak loves America completely and unreasonably—just as my immigrant husband does. The other day, in a discussion with me and several Turkish teachers, he proclaimed that Americans are free of prejudice, completely open-minded toward foreigners. I sat quietly, not really agreeing, but delighted to hear such love for my country. He went on with an example:
“When I was new in America, I was a college freshman,” he said. “One day in history class, I was asked to read a passage out loud. I was embarrassed because I knew I had a thick Turkish accent. But I started to read. And you know what?” He paused and looked at each of us. “Nobody laughed!” “Here in Turkey,” he went on, I have a student whose father is Turkish and mother is Russian. She grew up in Russia. When she had to read aloud in class one day, her pronunciation was different and everyone laughed at her.”
We Americans are used to living with people from other countries, but Turks are not; this country is basically composed of white people. While our “strength in diversity” messages have sometimes seemed hokey, and we’re hardly strangers to cultural clashes, we do a pretty good job of something few other nations have even attempted.
What does this have to do with Project Runway? Well, it turns out that the show’s participants are a microcosm of modern America. We see this the most at the beginning of each season, when the sixteen participants always appear highly unusual. They are different sizes and colors and their artistic outfits are often downright weird. But as the episodes progress, the strangeness disappears. By the end of the season (I know this sounds corny and clichéd) contestants simply look like ordinary Americans, generally ones I’d love to know.
This season (spoiler alert), the competition has come down to a Chinese woman from Trinidad, an African American woman, a gay man, and Mexican immigrant. Yesterday, as I watched these folks stand on the runway, intent on winning but also supportive of their colleagues, I was riveted. By the end of the show, sitting here more than five thousand miles from home, I had tears streaming down my face. I am so proud of my country.