Moving forward: Benay Aykin prevails old traditions

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Born and bred as a Turkish-Australian who grew up in Auburn, Benay Aykin’s one mission in her job as a Flavours of Auburn cultural walking food tour guide is to help diffuse any negative impressions Sydneysiders have about the city’s very own little Turkish community.

“I want to help bring people closer together, by letting others know that they shouldn’t be too scared to step foot into Auburn,” she said.

“There’s so much fear and thought that it’s a dangerous area, but I want to show them how giving and welcoming the Auburn-Turkish community is. I also love uplifting people and I feel like food can help bring people together.”

But what has driven Aykin to do this didn’t happen overnight; it was her own struggles with cultural identity that have led her to this point.

On one side, growing up in Auburn for Aykin, who is also an aged care carer by day, meant spending time with her dad and watching him go from store to store mingling with other locals, who eventually became – and still are – close family friends.

“I grew up in every single persons’ hands here. I know if I ever needed help they would protect me like a brother, sister, or father. I’ve never felt a sense of isolation,” she said. “And I feel like I’m a bit like Dad now; I feel like I emulate him, and that makes me proud.”

But on the other side, growing up in a traditional Turkish household in Australia was also difficult, admitted Aykin. For one, despite being exposed to an abundance of Turkish food, Aykin said it wasn’t always her favourite cuisine, especially during her school days.

“I was always really embarrassed back then by the Turkish food I use to take to school, like this red lentil soup. The kids would say, “Yuck, what’s that?’ or ‘You eat leaves?’ but now everybody loves it,” she said.

“I realised growing up mum cooked a lot of Turkish meals, obviously, but it was always hard to come back from school and eat Turkish food.”

“My brothers always wanted to stick to potatoes and chicken, and mum always had food that we weren’t really sure of, but gradually we have come to love the food.”

Aykin was also married, as part of an arranged marriage, organised by her parents, to her now-husband – who is 14 years her senior – by the age of 16.

“I was never asked; just because my mum and dad consented, they thought I was ready for marriage,” Aykin said.

She admits to resenting her parents for a long time for the arranged marriage before she forgave them, saying it was important for them to maintain traditional values after migrating to Australia. But since visiting Turkey, she realised it was very much a progressive country where such practices no longer occur. It was also a realisation her parents came to when they returned for a visit.

“I still love my mum and I have forgiven her. I get the previous generation like my mum might have been isolated when she came to Australia because she didn’t interact or socialise, and so they didn’t get to know the other cultures; they were so behind compared to the people living in Turkey. My parents saw Turkey as the old Turkey,” she said. “But the newer arrivals [of Turkish migrants] are assimilating better.”

Now at the age of 36, Aykin said she tries to educate her two children about their heritage. She said she does this by bringing them up eating a mix of traditional Turkish food, such as kesme egg noodles and fasulye, a bean soup – some of their favourites – and other cuisines. At the same time, she finds it important to teach them how to speak Turkish, much similar in the way she grew up learning the language.

“I’m not as good of a cook as my mum but I do enough to satisfy their background and where they’re from,” she said.

“I don’t want them to feel like they have to ask, ‘who are we?’ and ‘where are we from’. I also try teach them Turkish, so they can communicate when they go overseas.

“It’s also important for me to talk to them. For example my daughter is 17, and I haven’t married her off, and did what my mum did to me. So I say to her, ‘Jasmin, do you have a problem because we can talk about it?’; it’s important to have a bonding connection.”

Disclosure: Community Table attended Flavours of Auburn cultural walking food tour courtesy of Auburn Council.

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