What’s the difference between me and you?
You talk a good one but you don’t do what you supposed to do!
Since the top of this website perennially screams I’m more Romanian than you! and yet my passport continues to remain blue, I’ve spent a lot of time (perhaps too much) thinking about exactly what is the difference between being Romanian and American.
Of course I’m not referring to the legal sense – that’s for embassies and governments to fuss over. Nor am I thinking about languages spoken or physical characteristics or clothing fashions or sports or music or anything else that’s either superficial or purely biological.
No. I’m talking about the fundamental dividing line between cultures, between mentalities, between attitude and perspective and yes, even spirit. What makes me American even when I’m eating mamaliga and humming dulce-i vinul while washing out my clothes in a lighean? And what makes my neighbor still Romanian while he’s watching Jay-Z on MTV and eating bites of KFC chicken in between talking on his iPhone?
Thanks to Google Books and a few other resources, I actually have read a great deal of Romanian literature – and philosophy – and I’ve certainly had many years now to sit and talk and – more importantly – listen to people and mull this question over and over in my mind.
Here’s what I think: as a society, I look at America and Romania as two young adults who had wildly different childhoods. And you can dress them in the same clothes and they can speak the same language but deep down inside, the mark of their past is forever imprinted on their hearts and their souls.
American had a very difficult childhood in terms of physical suffering. Yet this was combined with almost universal psychological encouragement. You might be cold, you might be hungry, you might live in a neighborhood devastated with violence and death but there’s always someone there to say, “You can do it! You’re still worthy! We support you! There’s always another chance to make this better and by gum, you can do it!”
Romania’s childhood, on the other hand, is almost out of a fairy-tale in terms of lack of physical suffering. Hunger is unknown. Walking the streets are safe. Almost nobody owns a gun and hearing shots fired is rarer than a lightning strike. If you get ill, you can go to the doctor, for goodness’ sake! And the likelihood of the police kicking in your door and dragging you off to butt-raping prison is virtually nil.
But there’s suffering a’plenty in Romania’s childhood and it’s all psychological – it’s all of the spirit. It’s the endless nagging and chiding to blend in, to do what’s corect, to not cause a fuss, to not ask questions, to never ask why or to disobey or act out. And over and over and over again, there’s always a chorus of “Life sucks, it’s terrible, everyone is your enemy, they’re all out to get you, poverty and woe is your lot in life and the wolf is always at the door.”
Physically speaking, there aren’t many obese people in Romania. Yet almost every Romanian I know is soft and flabby in spirit. At my old (American) job we used to joke that it wasn’t the first 40 hours of the work week that were tough but the last 40. Yet here in Romania it’s actually illegal to work more than 48 hours per week and yet Romanians still complain.
I don’t know a single Romanian who’s ever been hungry in the last 20 years – not desirous of food with stomach rumbling but 24 hours with nothing to eat, 48 hours, perhaps more, ravenously, almost murderously hungry. I don’t know a single Romanian who’s ever been involuntarily homeless, who’s slept in a car, who’s carried that demonic monkey on their back named heroin or crystal meth, who’s had their head slammed into the concrete by the police, who’s sat around drinking boiled coffee while going through the 12 steps in some shitty church basement, who’s seen the unblinking eye of a loaded gun pointed in their face, who’s had to pawn their wedding ring to buy diapers for their child, who’s had to work three jobs, who’s had to drive on a suspended license to get to work, fearful of a police checkpoint. Not a single one.
And yet every American I know has had to do these things or else knows someone who has.
A lot of Romanians get confused about America because they see those bright, shiny people on the TV and think that’s real life. But when Americans watch those same programs, they know it for what it is – a fantasy, no different than the plumber who gets invited in by the lusty housewife with silicone implants for some quick sex in a porno movie. It’s a nice story perhaps but in no way do you confuse it for reality.
And yet despite all of this – despite the hunger and the violence and the desperation, morale in America is (almost always) high. No matter how bad things get, an American will still have a gleam in their eye and tell you, “This year I’m going to turn my life around! This year I’m gonna make it big, I tell you!” They can laugh even in the hardest times because they were raised by many voices that always told them that they can do it, they can make it, they can succeed, that any little kid can grow up to be an astronaut, a doctor, a fighter pilot, a princess, a ballerina or heck, even the president of the United States.
That’s why I’m always (still!) so dumbfounded as I walk the streets of Romania. Here is the land of plenty, where food is abundant and healthy and nutritious, where old ladies and children can walk the streets in safety, where police have to fire off a “warning shot” before even attempting to shoot you, where not even the bank teller is behind bulletproof glass, where the private guards are fat, old men, where fish from the rivers are (largely) safe to eat, where cows can roam placidly without fences, where people can leave their dogs or baby strollers (UK: prams) outside a store as they dash inside, where everyone gets weeks of paid vacation and always has time during the workday for a coffee and a chat.
And yet Romanians are glum, morose, surly and laconic. They grumble and complain and are invariably suspicious, withdrawn and hostile to anyone they don’t know, and even to some that they do know. And, most surprising to me, they’re fearful, perpetually afraid of being taken advantage of, of being attacked in some way, being defrauded or cheated or of having their heart broken. They sing lines like cand ai bani ai si dusmani (when you get money, you also acquire enemies) or viata trece vrei nu vrei (you get old whether you like it or not) and countless hundreds and thousands more in this vein.
If you were a visitor from outer space you’d never guess it would be the Romanians who would be the ones who live in fear and cynical pessimism. You’d look at their soft, easy lives and imagine them to be the happy ones, the ones who laugh and smile with the shine of hope in their eyes as they tackle life’s problems with optimism and enthusiasm.
But no, it’s the opposite. America is the land of “rags to riches”, of abandoned, neglected, abused children who rise up against the odds to succeed. It’s America that’s the land where a teenager and a university dropout collaborate to form the company that ultimate designs that beloved iPhone. It’s America that’s the land where another university dropout became one of the richest people on the planet. It’s America where a child who was severely abused by his alcoholic coal-mining father, a child who grew up poor as dirt and then at age 65 went around the country, facing constant rejection until finally, finally he met with success and now it’s his iconic bow tie and glasses peering out all those Romanians in line at the mall. It’s in America that a young black kid grew up in one of the most violent projects in New York City, a kid at age 12 who shot his own brother, who is now shining forth from my neighbor’s TV.
And on and on and on. I may be wrong but I think this is exactly what the difference is between being Romanian and American. It has nothing to do with flags or languages or what kind of clothes you wear. It has to do with whether you look at little and see plenty, or look at plenty and see little. It has to do with whether you look at that glass and see it with just a few drops at the bottom and imagine it soon to be full again, or cry with despair at how little is left. It has to do with coming face to face with problems and saying, “What can I do about this?” or throwing up your hands and lamenting that nothing will ever change.
In this sense – and in this sense only – all I can say is that I wish more of my neighbors would be American. I wish they’d laugh along with me as I leave my muddy footprints on the windscreens of illegally parked X5’s, as I tell the bank that my mother and father’s names are Angelina and Brad, as I stand in the crowded aisles of the piata and talk about vegetables, as I do battle with the Draft Police and dance in the aisles of the train with total strangers, as I pick up garbage on the side of the road and as I read a funny poem on stage.
Truly, I do wish it. Because it gets mighty lonely being the only one who wakes up every morning in this beautiful land with a smile on my face, glad to be alive. Mighty lonely indeed.