01.26.2017

01.26.2017

“My dream to visit America was ruined by Donald Trump.” – Overheard in a cafe during a dinner conversation in Arad, Romania.

Now that I’ve attained dual citizenship in Romania, many here have jokingly asked me, “So, do you think Trump will let you back in your own country now?” I laugh it off, but the reality is that its difficult to combat the image that has been perpetuated following the wake of Trump’s vitriolic and divisive candidacy. It’s difficult being an American abroad, seeing the turmoil and massive protests back home. It’s all the more difficult being a Fulbrighter, serving as a cultural ambassador for the US, and facing the series of questions from locals and students here. Many worry about the racism, religious discrimination, misogyny, and creeping isolationism that America seems to be heading towards. Others have asked me if I even want to go back after this.

Here in Romania, people have their own (arguably worse) worries, as only 27 years ago, Romania was still a Communist country. Many here have looked to the US as a beacon of freedom, justice, and equality. One friend told me “The jokes about American politics will write themselves for the next four years.”I only hope he will not be proven right. I can only hope that Americans will continue to rise and demonstrably defend the values that define us.

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The beginning of the end in Arad

The beginning of the end in Arad

As my semester in Arad draws to a close, I find myself constantly asking myself: have I made the most of my time here? The answer, despite all my second-guesses and mental meandering is simply, yes.

My semester in Arad was often interrupted by trips to Bucuresti to sort out my Romanian citizenship issues, because as it turns out, I had to obtain my Romanian citizenship in order to remain here legally (there will be a proper post dedicated to this whole process here). Nevertheless, while I wish I could have had more of a consistent time in Arad, I don’t regret a bit of the experience, as my trips to Bucuresti resulted in an internship with Romania TV, which, disheartening as it often was to watch the mess of politics and rampant corruption firsthand, I gained deep insight into Romania’s media and news reporting. All the more, I was relatively grateful to return to the quieter life that awaited me in Arad.

After all the unceasing bouts of activity and going to and fro, this week marked the beginning of it end, as it were.

On Tuesday, I had an interview with Vasile Goldis University television that covered my experience here. I was rather caught off-guard as the interview was done completely in Romanian. This was both daunting and challenging, for as much as my proficiency in Romanian has progressed, I found it quite difficult to articulate as expressively as I would have liked. (The link to the interview will be shared once it’s complete).

By Wednesday morning, the panic had started to settle as the mid-week marker arrived, and anxious thoughts milled about my mind. Moments such as those call for a large cup of coffee and a long chat with a dear friend, which I was extremely grateful to have. It’s remarkable how some people can fill up your life in such short spaces of time, and I’m amazed at the depth of friendships that I’ve made in this relatively short period here. If anything, this whole experience in Romania has been teaching me that it’s all about people. I never really thought I would experience culture shock to the extent that I have: Romania’s culture is highly people-oriented, and oddly enough, I realize that I’m yet in the process of making a noticeable transition from American individualism.

Wednesday evening’s English Conversation Club was certainly the most lively session I’ve had to date with my students, as we discussed questions on “What Would You Do If…” and covered topics on leadership and corruption. The conversation could have continued for many more hours, and I was humored by the frank and candid manner in which students approached these issues.

Thursday morning, I assisted at examination sessions. After a semester-long average of 15-20 students in attendance at our course, 52 students showed up for the exam. I was rather stunned, to say the least. I still haven’t quite grasped how flexible the attendance policy is here in Romania, but when students have schedules are made for them with 8-11 different classes per week (compared to our U.S. average of 3-6), it’s nearly understandable. All the same, it was quite disconcerting to be administering an exam to students who had never once attended the course before. This disconcerted feeling didn’t last too long, as our second session of students included a group of second-year Economics students that had consistently attended the class throughout the semester, and with whom we had shared some truly encouraging moments.

Soon after the exams, I was off to Cluj Napoca to attend my uncle’s wedding on Saturday, thanks to a dear friend that happened to be in town and offered to give me a ride all the way across the country. I find that instances such as these truly reaffirm that you’ve made real friends. Our 5-hour ride flew by (on one of Romania’s few proper highways) as we chatted about Romania’s culture, educational system, and issues that the youth face here – a lot of it stemmed from my conversation with my students the previous evening. For those that don’t know, 1 out of 7 Romanians have left the country. Romania’s diaspora around the world totals around 6-8 million (around 600,000 in the US alone). For a country of 19 million people, that’s quite a significant proportion. Many here are frustrated by stagnant internal reforms and endemic corruption. And they have every right to be. However, many Romanians have succumbed to the gneral expression “Asta e – This is what it is.” Understandably, they’re overwhelmed by the numerous issues that they face to the point where they feel apathetic.

But as Dr. Seuss once said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The feeling of being overhelmed mustn’t give way to futility and apathy, but unfortunately in many people, it has. Hope lies with those who despite the challenges, rise to address what they can, given the circumstances. Hope particularly lies with the youth who believe in their voices, causes, and are equipped to address the myriad of issues that their generation faces. That has been one of the many takeaways I’ve gained from this semester.

As the first Fulbrighter to Arad, there was no precedent for my experience here. In these past three months, I have been reminded that it is not the quantity of things that I have checked off that counts, but rather the quality of the investment in the people and relationships that I have encountered that matters most.

Some of these smaller but significant victories include helping high school students successfully apply for university studies in the UK, creating a safe space for students to practice English on a weekly basis – a space where we learn together, and developing friendships and relations that will endure far beyond this semester. Beyond getting to know the city through cultural events, museum visits and researches into its history, attending city hall meetings and meandering down unexplored corners – to know that I have created lasting relationships and impressions is truly the most valuable thing I will take away from this experience.

Saturday Classes in Sebis

Saturday Classes in Sebis

Today, I accompanied my professor to Saturday English courses for university students in Sebis, a town about 50 miles northeast of Arad. Our day began at 8am with a pleasant drive through village after village in the wine region of Arad County – villages with names like Sâmbateni, Ghioroc, Cuvin, Covăsânț, Siria, Pâncota, and on towards Ineu. The vibrant summer landscapes of golden wheat and sunflower fields were replaced by a layer of snow, and a fresher layer began to lightly cover the old as we drove.

We had low expectations of student attendance – perhaps 3 or 4 students at most. We were pleasantly surprised to have 15 1st and 2nd year students of Business and Economics show up. Over the course of the hour, we discussed and dissected concepts found the TEDx video on “3 Ways to (usefully) lose control of your brand” by Tim Leberecht. Most of the students were at least 30 years of age and held a variety of professional positions in the region, both in the private and public sector. They had no shortage of insight to offer, which testified to their veritable acquired professional experience in Romania. It was markedly different compared to our weekly experiences with mostly 18-year old students, whose relatively meager experiences had given them little substantive opinions to proffer.

As we spent the hours discussing the applicability of the concepts shared in the video in Romania, it was certainly a lesson where I felt like I learned more than the students.

Here were the business people, managers, and entrepreneurs of the region providing a looking-glass into Romanian workplace culture. I learned and reaffirmed several truths about the business environment here, most especially, that in Romania, small business is all about close personal relationships. Indeed, because it’s all more personal, it requires a high degree of honesty and transparency, because one’s name is on the line. This works well for small businesses; however, large organizations by nature tend to be impersonal and give workers a certain degree of anonymity and license to hide or excuse their personal (morally deficient) behavior behind the mask of an impersonal institution. Personal relationships are important for larger business as well, particularly among the well-networked elites. One of the students shared their own experience of owning a car wash business. In their town, their neighbors and friends – their customers – knew them by name not by brand. When their neighbors would go to get their cars washed, they would say “Merg la Nicu si la Dinu, nu la Spalatoria ABC Srl.” – I’m going to Dinu and Nicu, not Carwash ABC Co. If they did a lousy job, their professional, and more importantly, their personal reputations were at stake.

Some of the vocalized sentiments reflected the more jaded cynicism shared by many Romanians: “Daca esti bun esti luat de prost.” Translated, that is to say that “if you are good you are taken as a simpleton.” This feeling resonates among many Romanians, who feel that hard work and being good at something simply isn’t enough to succeed. Moreover, you might end up being used and abused by your colleagues for your industriousness, and you can be seen as overzealous, officious, or even impertinent in some cases. The Romanian system of PCR still thrives (the former initials of the Communist Party, now derisively referred to as Pile, Cunostinte, si Relatii – acquaintances, relations, and intercessions), in which one can succeed in life through the people they know: to bypass bureaucratic procedures; to gain entrance to schools, workplaces, and high-level positions; etc. It ultimately affirms the power of networking for survival here. It’s not what you know, but rather who you know that will ultimately allow one to succeed. Nepotism, plagiarism, corruption all run rampant in the private and public spheres. I use the term survival specifically, because it’s the survivalist mentality that has caused Romania to remain so morally depraved from a professional perspective.

As one student said, “The level of poverty must drop so that the level of morality can rise.”

In a country where the minimum salary is expected to rise from 1,250 to 1,450 lei per month (from $300 to $350 dollars roughly), it’s not difficult to see why one might feel compelled to seek devious means to augment their income or simply get a leg up in life. With a survivalist mentality comes a certain degree of unprediactability: rules and laws are numerous and tedious to follow, while ethical norms are absent in organizational culture. To quote another student, “[giving people less control] might be applicable in other countries, but not in Romania. It could be so in Germany, because people are more or less standardized there,” in reference to their well-planned, structured, and orderly professional attributes. Meanwhile, Romanians tend to see less control as an invitation to shirk their work. “The Romanian mentality is the problem,” he stated.

While the students were concerned that they left me a negative impression, they assured me that they would rather have me “see things for how they are,” rather than give off a false impression. I was grateful for their open honesty, for I have witnessed enough of these truths for myself during my 5 months here so far.

Afterwards, we were endlessly entreated by Radu, a doctoral student aged around 50-some years old to come over to his place. Once we arrived, he took us straight upstairs to his office, where he had prepared a small table upon which he brought endless rounds of meats. The room was decorated with Moroccan rugs, tapestries from the Sahara hung on a wall, and books upon books sat aligned in a bookcase along the other wall, which also contained memorabilia from throughout Europe. Radu was himself was quite the character.

His classic look seemed to have remained unchanged throughout the years, his angular face framed by a thick set of square glasses and a Magnum PI mustache.

His words came faster than I could comprehend. He was undoubtedly brilliant: having finished over 5 university degrees from civil engineering, medical school, international relations, and now history, he jumped from story to story in his life. One moment he spoke of how in 1975, he visited Napoleon’s tomb at the

Dôme des Invalideswhile the next, he spoke of his palinca-making escapades as a boy living in Morocco. (Note: palinca is a home-made fruit brandy typical in the Ardeal region of Romania.) Amongst other things, he hadn’t eaten a piece of cake in over 20 years and runs at least 17 kilometers a day, sometimes at odd hours of the night. A few years ago, he also participated in a marathon. He noted that two things disappointed him most: firstly, that he only signed up for the 2km race rather than the 6km race, and secondly, that no one was waiting in support for him at the finish line. Radu seemed to have a lot in life, and he was eager to share to it with others. Moreover, he was especially eager to share his food with us, as he kept imploring us to eat more. When we announced that we had better get on, he jumped to ensure that we take food with us, as we had eaten a disappointingly small portion of the feast he had spread before us. Even on our way out, his 82 year old aunt chimed “nu-ii lasa sa plece” (don’t let them leave) as she packed boxes of meats and cake to take with us. Such is the old-style generous Romanian hospitality, that urges you to imbibe with food and drink until you can’t move and then sends you off with more for the road.

We started on the road toward Moneasa, a mountain resort 19km away, but the snowfall became more and more dense. Rather than risk being snowed in on the mountain, we decided to turn back towards home. On the way, we stopped at Moara cu Noroc, a large and well-known traditional restaurant in the area with an amusingly written menu in the local country slang. After another (relatively light) 3-course meal, we waddled back to the car for the journey back toward Arad. By this time, the snowfall had abated and the sun had broken through the grey, making for a most wondrous golden pink sunset, which we just had to stop and capture on the way.

There truly is no “ordinary” day here. All that to say, it was a most unexpected and wonderful day. Thank you to Profs. Cristi and Laura for making it all happen.