Young Turks

A gathering of students from around the world aims to foster understanding

Once the Myanmar women finished applying tanaka powder on the cheeks of some young Turkish girls, they began to laugh among themselves at the new, unusual look. More boys and girls stood behind, waiting for their turn to get the new look. And still more were waiting in another line nearby to try on Mongolia's national costume.

The students having fun applying the strange powder or trying on the thick, heavy Mongolian gown were among those learning about different cultures at the "Turkce Olimpiyatlari, Kultur Soleni", or the "International Turkish Olympiad".

Held by the Turkish Education Association at Kulturpark Fuar Alani, a cultural exhibition centre in Izmir city, the Olympiad promotes Turkish culture and language to the world. It also serves as a platform for the country's students, and those studying under the Turkish school network around the world, to learn about cultural differences.

There are currently four schools under the Turkish network in Thailand: Siriwat Wittaya School, Chindamanee School and Pan-Asia International School in Bangkok, and Wichai Wittaya School in Chiang Mai.

When the Olympiad was first held in 2003, there was a small group of students from 17 countries. This year, the three-day festival drew about 2,000 students from 140 countries, including Thailand, and about three million visitors, most from around Izmir.

After the festival, the Olympiad continued for about two weeks as participating foreign students showcased cultural performances in different cities around Turkey.

"Culture is the only solution to peace," said Ahmet Ozdemir, head of Turkish Olympics of Thailand. Most of the riots around the world were rooted in ignorance, he said, adding that if someone was educated about different cultures, he or she wouldn't offend other people.

If the children could learn at a younger age that there were people with differences, Ozdemir said "they would learn to respect the differences".

There was also fun to be had learning about the physical differences among Asians. The young Turks would take anybody with almond eyes as Japanese and greet them with a "konnichi wa". But visitors to the festival learned that Korean, Chinese, Lao, Filipino, and Thai people also had almond eyes.

The festival moved from the capital Istanbul, where it was held last year, to Izmir, Turkey's third-largest city, to give students around the country a chance to learn about the cultural differences. In the years ahead it will move to new cities.

For young children who may not have travelled outside their home town, the three-day language and culture festival in a huge exhibition centre opens up the world for them. Schools from Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia under the Turkish school network had booths that kept the children busy all day.

It was a common to see Turkish children pitching a lot of questions to the students from other countries about the costumes, objects, or food from other cultures they had never seen before. They loved getting on a tuk-tuk displayed in front of Thailand's booth, enjoyed taking photographs of themselves with Chiang Mai umbrellas, and taking photos of the Thai people whose Asian faces were exotic to the Turkish children.

The children managed to communicate with each other, either in English or in the Turkish which the foreign students had just started to learn.

Ozdemir said that despite an increasing number of Turkish-speaking people around the world since the Olympiad was first held 11 years ago, spreading language wasn't the only goal.

Language could be a tool to break the cultural barrier, but he said "it needs thoughtfulness to understand the cultural differences".

But language wasn't especially a problem for the foreign students who stayed on for another two weeks for performances elsewhere in the country, according to Thai Turkish Business Association cultural affairs director Engin Yasmun.

"They are kids. They will manage to communicate, even through their body gestures."

Staying together for two weeks would certainly help them learn about differences and adjust themselves to others, said Yasmun.

The Olympiad was hopefully a lesson for both Turkish and foreign students.

Ozdemir said: "Someday these children will grow up and become businesspeople, and they won't offend other people when they go on in the world."

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About the author

Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Position: Reporter