A China “Specialist” in Istanbul


If I may start this piece with a problematic generalization, I’d say that we Turkish people appreciate education and knowledge but are not big on expertise. Whereas division of labor is a fundamental requirement in a high-tech society, it is considered a bit extravagant, or perhaps even useless in Turkey. I suspect that this is relevant for most developing countries, which had not entered the advanced stage of capitalism in the twentieth century.

When I think about specialization, I’m reminded of the story of Germany’s first Turkish immigrants. Back in the 1960s, Turkish workers were invited to West Germany to alleviate the country’s labor shortage. Initially called gastarbeiter (guest workers) because they were supposed to stay for only a short time, these immigrants went through a culture shock which eventually bred many sad stories. One of the few flattering stories from their otherwise bitter experience concerns the specialization of labor in an automobile factory: whereas German workers were only able to perform highly specific tasks on the assembly line, Turks—who had previously been employed as mechanics in small shops—could assemble a car from head to toe. Needless to say, their German bosses were both shocked and impressed.

Developing countries need “generalists” because they can’t afford “specialists.” This very idea shaped the mind-set of Turkish educators during the twentieth century. Back in the 1980s, a couple of my friends accompanied their parents to the US, enduring no small amount of anxiety over their schooling prospects. Despite their relatively poor English skills, they all became top students as they gladly discovered that the American school curriculum was much lighter than its Turkish counterpart. Little did they know that Turkey’s unusually heavy curriculum had been designed by early republican educators convinced that most students couldn’t afford school after five years of compulsory education. It was best, therefore, for Turks to learn as much math, geography, or grammar before they hit 12 years of age. There is no doubt that Turkey has come a long way in economic and human development since then—still, the urge to “know a little bit of everything” seems to have stayed with us. This ideal has certain ramifications in the Turkish social sciences academia today.

The Turkish public cherishes the ideal of a generalist as something of a Renaissance intellectual (without naming it as such). Our newspaper columnists write three times a week, on almost any topic. Academics in the field of political science and international relations are also expected to comment on a wide range of issues. In the past year, a select group of academics talked about domestic politics, the Egyptian coup, the street protests in Brazil, and the history of the Pakistani civil war—all on live TV. The “generalist” scholar, commentator, or journalist is constantly chased by the Turkish media, think tanks, and student organizations.

We have few country/region specialists in Turkey. Social scientists who specialize in a specific country or region are often advised by their well-meaning colleagues to not “get fixated” on their topic. Whenever someone asks me if I “only” work on China, I always feel like explaining—in a long, patronizing, and boring fashion—how many years it takes somebody to become a specialist on China: acquiring fundamental language skills, having a modest grasp of a huge literature which expands every second of the day, getting a sense of daily culture and people, etc… But defusing such comments is easier than changing the structure of the overly-centralized Turkish higher education system. Take the criteria for academic promotion. To become an associate professor in Turkey, which is roughly the equivalent of a tenure track position in the US, you are supposed to publish articles on themes completely unrelated to your Ph.D. dissertation. This is the main reason many Turkish academics, including myself, say goodbye to their doctoral dissertation right after graduation. In order to survive in Turkish academia, you have to expand your horizons to the extent that you are not a specialist anymore.

But being a China observer poses additional problems. Soon after I arrived in Istanbul (in 2009), I designed my own elective course on East Asia. I was planning to give lectures on China, Japan, the Koreas, and Taiwan, but a senior colleague reminded me that “Asia” refers to a much broader landscape in Turkey. In later years, I was asked to include India in my course syllabus and to teach an additional course on Central Asian republics. Suffice it to say that accommodating India was much easier for me and I had to decline the latter offer. But Turkey kept pushing me to become a generalist. Only last week, I refereed a journal article on Indian foreign policy. I am not a trained expert on India, but I feel like I have to fill in until we have South Asia or Southeast Asia experts in Turkey.

The first day I set foot in Istanbul, I knew that my work on the Chinese foreign propaganda establishment during the Mao Zedong era would be of little interest to the scholarly community in Turkey. So I reframed my field of interest as “twentieth century Chinese history.” But even this broader topic was an unrealistic goal, because all the primary and secondary sources necessary for this type of research were beyond my reach. So I made another adjustment, and now I am interested in Chinese domestic politics and foreign policy, as well as Sino-Turkish relations (my students are only interested in contemporary topics anyway). Now, I know my American colleagues have the opposite problem. They need to specify their field of expertise further and further in order to get published or to have a favorable position in the job market. I don’t know which one is better.

Having said all this, I don’t want to give the impression that I regret my big career decision. I love living and teaching in Istanbul. Our small group of China/East Asia observers is expanding by the day, and young Turkish scholars, most of whom are fluent in both English and Mandarin, are bringing new insights into the field. We also have an emerging Chinese diaspora in Istanbul, though still no Chinatown in sight. I do miss eating Chinese food—Sichuan cuisine in particular—which is an expensive, hard-to-find delicacy in Istanbul. What I actually yearn for, however, is the CNKI database. Apparently, university libraries won’t buy it when they know it would be used only by a handful of people. Frankly speaking, an American-style inter-library loan would be handy right now!

Çağdaş Üngör
Department of Political Science & International Relations
Marmara University

Image: Photograph by author.

  1. Çağdaş hocam Türkiye’deki akademisyenlerin en büyük sorununa değinmişsiniz bu yazıda. Aslında sadece bu alanda değil, bence genel olarak bizim millet “generalist” olmayı seviyor. Sanırım bu yüzden Çinli dostlarım Türkiye’de hiçbir şeyin profesyoneli olmadığını düşünüyorlar. Ne yalan söyleyeyim, onlara hak veriyorum ben de.

  2. The above comment is translated as: “Modern teacher, with this article you touch on one of the greatest issues of Turkish academics. I believe that generally, and not only in this field, the Turks love to be ‘experts on everything’. I believe that’s why Chinese friends believe that nothing is professional in Turkey. To tell you my sin as well: I agree with them.” [Translation courtesy of our Ottoman and Turkish Studies Field Editor, Nikos Christofis]

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