Turkish mystery theater

how much do we understand? 

Does it matter? 

How much of a story do you even need to understand? Last night was the first “Mystery Turkish Theater”. We watched classic Turk comedy movie in Turkish, with Turkish subsite titles.


language learning advisory


What struck me was the frustration of understanding only bits and pieces of the dialog. My significant other was able to help fill in some gaps, but it reminded me of watching annoying television my parents and old siblings growing up. When I was a kid, their programs didn’t make any sense. Why did they want to stare at two people talking about nothing?


Setting week-night programming aside, my big television day was Saturday. Saturday Morning Cartoons was a vital ritual for kids in the 80s. There was a conspiracy to draw us kids out of our parents’ hair on their first morning off from the work week. Our parents knew we were occupied and sitting in one place doing nothing dangerous. Although I have no testimony to support this suspicion, I do suspect this provided time for parents to enjoy each other’s company.

So hot they’re cooool!

This suspicion is further supported by the ritual breakfast that accompanied Saturday Morning Cartoons: Pop Tarts(tm)—the one meal a child of four could safely make on their own, which means parents didn’t need to even get out of bed.


But there was more to this conspiracy. It went beyond the parents. Advertisers knew exactly when a captive audience of children were staring at their media. In the post-Star Wars, age, every children’s television show was effectively one long advertisement for merchandise that accompanied that show, be it, Transformers, GI Joe, or My Little Pony. Each show was explicitly created not to entertain, but to create backstories for toys that children would demand their parents buy, so we kids could enact the stories.


What we kids want most is to be in the story. Stories are how we learn—they lead to understanding and meaning. For a child, understanding is our purpose. The common world is a very confusing place with many layers of cultural complexity. Stories are how we learned about all that complexity. The most powerful learning mode is to do, to act out the story.


This is the big difference between play centered on fantasy and play focused on physical activity. The latter is activating the body in a laborious way, and it just feels good to be alive to dance, to run, tumble, to be in your body. Pleasure is rooted in the body by its very nature.

Fantasy play is another kind of pleasure. Both kinds of play trigger neurochemical rewards in the brain. This is why people will read the news incessantly, or watch TED talks into the wee hours each night.









But round about noon, when mom and dad emerge groggily from their private chambers with plates of sandwiches and glasses of Tang, the television suddenly shifted its programming. The older siblings would emerge from their comas and plunk down next to you on the couch. There were only four channels, so there was no arguing over what channel to watch. The programming would become increasingly mature, starting with reruns of M*A*S*H and classic Star Trek. These were incomprehensible to us kids, but there was still guys in army clothes (telling unfunny jokes) and spaceships floating around planets (with adults occasionally wrestling with ugly muppets.) But we kids could not understand the story plot or the character motivations.

We didn’t get the dopamine hit from the same as the cartoons. By the time the Saturday afternoon movie came on, we were restless and headed outside or to our rooms. 

Later, the family would reconvene in the night for shows like Dallas, Magnum PI, and Murder She Wrote. All of these shows were confusing, even frustrating as a kid. We knew many of the words, but we only knew to laugh when the left track on the show, told us to be mirthful. We wanted our siblings and parents to like us, so we try to understand what they saw in all these talkie-talkie shows. 


I don’t know when I toasted my last Saturday morning Pop Tart™. It was probably when I moved to Canada in the late 80s. I was dismayed to learn that this backward country didn’t have proper cartoons (WTF is Astroboy?!) They didn’t flood Saturday mornings with children’s programming (never really thought how insidious the term children programming really is, chills,) and no Pop Tarts! They had some cardboard substitute for Pop Tarts filled with carob. The horror—the root—of that shock in moving to Canada was that all of my pleasure rituals had been taken away at once.


My sister got me into knights and dragons fantasy novels and friends got me into Dungeons and Dragons. So my entertainment/product/acting out paradigm was reestablished. I started to learn to tell stories, got new friends, new rituals, and new brand loyalties (stupid GURPS.)


Last night I reexperienced the frustration of a child trying to watch adult programming (again, chilling.) My new self-programming and entertainment is to learn the Turkish language by watching old Turkish films. Now, I’ve taken steps to enhance the pleasure potential of this programming. I grilled şeftali, and made a kabob feast, complete with two generous servings of rakı. We put on Üç Kağitçi with native subtitles 3/4 speed and ate and drank the strange scenes as they unfolded before us.

We’ve studied enough Turkish to recognize past and present tense, ownership, which word is the verb, and we have a small Turkish vocabulary. We got all the way to the end and gleaned a glimmer of the plot, the gist of some of the side stories, and some insight into 70s Turk culture.

Many second language speakers have told me that it was television that really made the difference, and I believe it. The ritual consumption of media, the multi sensory experience is what made Saturday Morning Cartoons such a defining part of growing up in the 80s.


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