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Cultural Differences Between Belgium and Turkey

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We are all born into a certain culture. This culture is mostly defined by the community we belong to and is also influenced by the human nature and personality, according to Hofstede. I am raised between two cultures, due to the fact that I am born in Belgium with parents of Turkish roots. My father is born and raised in Belgium while my mother is born in Turkey. She moved to Belgium when she was 24 years old. I believe this is why at home there exists a mixture of Turkish and Belgian culture. Because my father was born here, he was already more or less adapted to the Belgian culture. For my mother, on the other hand, the Belgian culture was new and foreign and she still needed to adapt to it. She brought home the Turkish culture, the language, the food, etc. and she learned us everything about her home country. I can’t recall any major cultural differences I experienced regarding Belgian culture, mainly due to the fact that my parents were already more or less ‘integrated’ and me and my siblings were born into it. In fact, it shocked me that I experienced cultural differences when I went on holiday to Turkey and got in touch with the Turkish community. Therefore, in this paper, I will discuss the cultural differences between Belgium and Turkey that I have experienced and observed over the years.

Turkish people are known for their hospitality and being hot-blooded and loud. They are very proud of their country and of being Turkish and they are also very nationalistic. They are very fond of their own culture and believe that there is no better culture or country than Turkey. To explain what I mean by saying that they are nationalistic, I will give an example of my own. From my Moroccan friends I often hear that Turkish people are very nationalistic, compared to them. When I ask them what they mean by it, they tell me that compared to Moroccans, Turkish people tend to speak their native language more often than Moroccans do and that they love to speak and even brag about their country. They also noticed that for us, Turkish people, there is no better culture on the planet than the Turkish culture. I believe that Belgian people on the contrary, are less nationalistic and would rather criticize than promote their country. What Belgians also differentiates from the Turkish is their natural ability to be self-disciplined, to be a good planner and to be well-organized. Don’t come looking for these qualities in Turkey.

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As for kindness, I believe that in Belgium, the level of friendliness depends on the province. I believe that in Flanders for example, drivers are more likely to give way to pedestrians in traffic than in Brussels. In Turkey, don’t expect this to happen anywhere. Therefore I believe that Belgians living in Flanders are more friendly than those living in Brussels. Belgians are also rather modest than loud and hot tempered, compared to Turkish people. I will explain this by giving another example of Flemish people in traffic. In Flanders, people will wait patiently at the traffic lights and will just continue driving at ease when the lights turn green. In Turkey, traffic means chaos, angry taxi drivers, frustrated bus drivers and pedestrians all over the streets. Do not expect the car behind you to wait until you have noticed the green light. Turkish people are hot tempered and cannot tolerate this. The horns of the cars behind you will let you know just in time that the lights have turned green. This is something I have experienced myself in Turkey. You really just hear horns all the time.

As far as I have been able to observe, Belgians are more focussed on their own as an individual, rather than on others, which Hofstede calls ‘the group’. Thus this can be linked with one of the dimensions defined by Hofstede, namely the dimension of individualism versus collectivism. These two cultures seem to be on the opposite side regarding this dimension. I believe that Belgium is more on the side of individualism and they value privacy more whereas Turkey is more on the side of collectivism. In Turkey, it is important to not only take care of your immediate family, which is the case for individualism, but also of the extended family. In Turkey, for example, it’s a shame to send your parents to a care house. It is your duty to take care of your parents unconditionally. In Belgium, as far as I know, this is considered to be a normal thing. For Turkish people, privacy of the individual is considered to be less important than it is for Belgians. Turkish people believe they can rely on friends and family (the group) when it comes to the domain of security whereas Belgian people would rather consider relying on security through insurance (Canvas). This reminds me of a slight difference in behaviour I often notice between my parents when it comes to obeying the rules. It often strikes me that my father, including my siblings and I, are more likely to follow the rules than my mother. Whenever we behave too strictly in a certain situation, my mother always remarks our behaviour and says it’s because we’re used to the Belgian way of living and being strict. In Turkey, people are more flexible when it comes to obeying the rules.

I will continue with the differences regarding food. In Belgium, a regular breakfast consists of bread with slices of cheese, jam, Nutella etc., often with a cup of coffee. On special days of the week, for example on Sundays, Belgians like to go to the bakeries to buy croissants and so on. Children also like to eat cornflakes with milk in the morning. For breakfast, the Turkish people must drink well prepared Turkish tea. The basic elements of Turkish breakfast are (white) bread, simit (Turkish bagel), butter, jam, honey, Turkish feta, yellow cheese, green and black olives, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers and boiled eggs or an omelette. Besides these basic elements you can choose to have sucuklu yumurta, börek, and even lahmacun (Turkish pizza). Sucuklu yumurta is a simple breakfast dish that consists of scrambled eggs mixed with Turkish beef. You can also eat börek, which is made of thin sheets of dough. It’s filled with either cheese, vegetables or meat. A couple of years ago when I was in Turkey for the first time as an adult, I remember staying at my aunt’s place and there were guests coming over for breakfast. A few days before that I went to the grocery store to buy cornflakes, since I couldn’t have breakfast without it at the time. The table was filled with all the aforementioned food and the guests were enjoying their breakfast. I started my breakfast with a bowl of cornflakes and then I noticed the whole table was looking at me wondering what I was eating. They asked why I was eating cornflakes while there were many other things to eat. They found it unnecessary that I would eat cornflakes instead of all the delicious, fresh food on the table. When I explained them that this is a habit of mine and also a regular form of breakfast in Belgium and that I often eat it, they found it rather weird. Apparently in Turkey it’s not that popular and it’s not a very common thing to have for breakfast. However, since that day, my aunt has never forgotten to buy and put cornflakes on the table next to all the other food whenever I visit her.

As for the gender equality (one of the dimensions of Hofstede), I believe the expected roles for the genders are more or less equal between Belgium and the big cities of Turkey. I mention only the big cities because in less developed areas, there still exists a greater inequality where men have the final say. In general, Turkey is a patriarchal society with in big cities existing a more balanced allocation of roles dedicated to each gender. For example, in these less developed areas, women still take full responsibility of the domestic tasks and males are considered to be the main provider of money. In the big cities, this is rarely how it goes nowadays. In big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and especially in Izmir, the standards are in line with those of Europe. Both men and women are supposed to work and divide the domestic tasks. Women aim to be independent and have a successful career. When it comes to marriage, women are not obliged to take their spouse’s last name, it’s optional. Though it’s a very common thing and it happens often. In Belgium, modern families make decisions together concerning mutual interests.

In Turkey, when it comes to social inequality (Hofstede) as to social position of an individual in society, there are many things to say and lots of examples to give. The gap between the middle class (poor) and the rich shows itself in various ways. I remember being in Istanbul with my family and we had to go to the hospital for a little emergency concerning my sister. We went to the closest hospital of the area, and that turned out to be a public hospital. We went to the information desk and they gave us a number between 100 and 150 and told us we had to wait in line. We were shocked. It was a very big waiting hall, with people lying on the floor because there weren’t enough seats available and some of them were moaning of pain, screaming, crying. We were shocked by seeing all of this but we didn’t want to lose time by going to another (private) hospital so we went to one of the nurses and offered money so we could be treated immediately. It was an awful experience. This is unfortunately the way it often goes. Istanbul is a wonderful city, for those who can afford it. In a private hospital, things are a lot different of course. You get the treatment you pay for and you are treated well.

This social inequality also exists between private and public schools. Everyone wants to go to a private school because there you are educated well. Public schools are attended by the poor and the middle class who cannot afford to pay for a private school. Middle class students who earn scholarships that pay up to half or more of their tuition fees also can attend private schools. A cousin of mine living in Istanbul first went to a public school, then earned a scholarship to attend a private school. Her parents still needed to pay the amount that wasn’t covered by the scholarship and I remember them working very hard for it, just so their child could attend private school so she could be friends with children from a higher social class. They often say that they can’t imagine doing this for two children, since it’s already so hard with just one child. Another cousin of mine, who is actually very rich, didn’t face these problems. She went to school with a chauffeur-driven car and attended one of the most luxurious and expensive universities of Istanbul. A big difference between Universities of Belgium and Turkey is that in Belgium there doesn’t exist a university entrance exam. You can choose what you want to study and which university you want to attend. In Turkey, what you will study and where you will study is determined by the entrance exam, which takes a year of study and attending courses that prepare you for it. If you fail to obtain the grades you wished for (for example to study medicine), you can choose to either accept it (and study law) or you can study for another year and take the entrance exams again to hopefully score a higher grade that is necessary to study what you want. A friend of mine living in Istanbul wanted to be a vet all of her life, but due to these entrance exams she was obliged to study space science.

To avoid this exam, rich people often choose to study abroad (often in the US). First of all because it’s very prestigious to say that you’ve studied in the US, and also because they just can afford to do so. Students who cannot afford to study abroad, are obliged to take these exams. In the course of their studies they often try to go abroad for an internship or with exchange programs. During a work interview it’s very important to talk about your experiences abroad and about the foreign languages you have acquired. Students often try to go for at least one month, just so they can say that they’ve been abroad. When I tell my Turkish friends that we don’t have an entrance exam to attend university, they say that we are very lucky. This division also exists when it comes to student accommodation, or ‘kot’ as we call it in Belgium. There are private and public student houses and it’s obvious to say that the private ones are the most desirable ones.

To conclude, I can say that the main differences lay between the division of the social classes between these two countries. These differences are remarkably big when it comes to health care, education and many other domains. As for the gender equality, there are no big differences between Belgium and Turkey (mainly regarding the big cities).

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