(Beyond) Identity and Division: Romania and I

Where Are You From?

“Where are you from?” The souvenir seller at Sighisoara asked me.
“United States.”
He sniffed. “No. Where are you really from?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Well I’ve lived in Spain for 6 years, but my blood is still Romanian.”
“If you have to know, I consider myself a world citizen.”
He frowned. I tried to leave him as politely as possible. When I was about to turn, he stopped me with yet another line.
“You know, you shouldn’t be ashamed of your blood.”
“I am not. I just don’t want to be defined by it.”

I bonded with Anc the moment I entered Meşteshukar ButiQ. With her neat short hair, statement earrings combining wool and brass and a large bright smile, she has a cheerful and stylish presence. She referred to the jewelries in the shop as her babies, and talked about their designers and makers as if they were her family. I complimented her earrings. She complimented my shirt. An hour later, we found ourselves smoking cigarettes outside of the shop. She talked about her decision to go vegetarian and her distaste for eggplants (“They are so ugly — they are purple!”). I talked about living with my mother who avoided eating pork fat at all costs. Then we discussed cities in the region: Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara — Belgrade was both our favorites.

The topic of my origin country arrived way later, when our conversation moved on to our shared love for collecting shot glasses and mugs. “I’m addicted to these porcelain stuffs,” Anc said, “it is huge in China right. Is that where you are from?” I nodded instantly, suddenly reminded of one cup in China that was on my wish list for long, one that combines porcelain with bamboo lacing. Only later, after we gasped at the pictures we found online (“Why are you showing me this! I’m going to dream about them cos I can’t have them!”) did I realize what had happened.

 

 

For those interested,
this is what Anc and I gasped at.

 
 
 

Besides my conversation with Tanja Brzaković, the director of The Chinese Will Come, this is my most comfortable experience admitting my nationality. Days later, especially as I looked back at my post on Brzaković’s documentary, I continue to wonder why. It would be easy to stop at the conclusion that Anc didn’t put me in a set of stereotype, that instead of labelling me with some nationality, she cared about who I truly was. I appreciate the fact that she didn’t define me with my nationality, that we talked about China through a topic that sparked both of our interest. However, I couldn’t help but think back to my exchange with the souvenir seller in Sighisoara. Must it be so that effective conversations regarding my identity can only happen with people who are already open-minded and have a more profound interest in my culture?

It would be easy to conclude that my so-called “Chinese blood” has nothing to do with who I am, but I would be lying to myself. I decided to challenge his assumption that I was from Asia, but he wasn’t totally wrong. I wanted to tell him that my full identity is rather a long answer to the question “where are you from” and “where did you start your journey,” that it involves such complex layers of experiences and self-exploration. I couldn’t find a way to do so and left the conversation feeling frustrated and hurt. Granted, I could tell myself that it wasn’t a good time and place to start that conversation, that the man had hardly any interest in it — if anything similar happened to a friend, that would be my exact position. I have the right not to be defined by a label, but I’ve started to wonder if my complex sense of belonging also implies a certain responsibility  — I wonder, for my own sake, what I could and should do in future days to turn similar conversations into a learning experience.

What Is Your Agenda?

Dear Sir/Madam,
My name is Amanda Jin, and I’m an exchange student at University of Bucharest who major in Political Science. In my days studying in Bucharest, I have become interested in the citizen movement organized by Coaliția pentru Familie to change the definition of family in Romanian constitution – more specifically, I want to further understand the individual voices behind the movement, who devoted their time and effort to gather so much support from the citizens of Romania. Thus, I have decided to conduct a course project on Coaliția pentru Familie and its campaign.
As a member organization of the Coaliția pentru Familie campaign, I wonder if you might put me in touch with anyone who is actively involved with the movement to talk about their personal experience and views of the movement? I am willing to conduct the interview either by phone, via Skype or in person in Bucharest. Ideally, it would be great if that person can speak English.
Thank you in advance for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon!
Best,
Amanda

Identities work in tricky ways. During this program, for example, I can hardly avoid being labelled as an Asian woman. On the other hand, however, I have to actively work on making my sexuality and political opinions salient. At times, this becomes useful. For example, when I talk to members of the Coalition for Family, they don’t need to know that I am a bisexual feminist and an active supporter for many liberal values they most vehemently disagree with.

When I first decided to focus my final project on the voices inside the Coalition for Family, a non-governmental campaign to ban same-sex marriage on a constitutional level, the decision to omit my sexuality and political views made sense. I wanted to learn about the movement, why these people have decided to devote their time and energy to preemptively suppress the rights of a marginalized group I belong to, and how it became so popular. I didn’t want to argue or to be denied a conversation due to the very prejudice I intend to investigate into. I crafted my email carefully — I didn’t intend to lie, but some information was better left out. Within the limited time frame of the program, I managed to get two interviews.

Surprisingly, both conversations are rewarding and enjoyable. I found my interviewees surprising friendly and talkative after I expressed my interest to listen to their story — their experiences and thoughts. I learned about their anxiety to “the imposing Western ideology,” to the increasing secularism in Romania that threatens the traditional and religious values they cherish, to the “demographic problem” and the “corruption of children”. I started to understand why. For the record, empathy doesn’t equal sympathy. While I will never support their cause and action, their decision to engage in the campaign started to make more sense.
An equally surprising discovery, though, is how they were unable to make sense of the needs and sufferings of the LGBTQIA community in Romania. When explaining his decision to support the Coalition for Family, one of the interviewees said that he wanted to represent and fight for the underdogs — for some reason, the oppressed and marginalized LGBTQIA people were excluded from this concept, and instead understood as an abstract, corrupting force to be fight against. I wanted to tell him that these people are also human and deserve to be recognized as one, that I myself — a human being that he was talking to and seemed to enjoy talking to — belonged to that very group. Nevertheless, I hesitated. Would I rather be understood as a hypocritical liberal with a hidden agenda to exploit his experience? Am I?
So again, I’m stuck in a dilemma. Quite possibly, the omission of my sexuality was what made my conversation with the interviewee possible. At the same time, it became a lie that prevented a deeper engagement between us. I confronted the interviewee with liberal ideas and possible objections, but somehow it felt off that I didn’t fully own my identity and position in this conversation. Should I accept it for what it is and be satisfied with the opportunity to know more about the Coalition? Is it the limit of our conversation, a dimension of division and stereotyping that I can hardly transcend?
Not surprisingly, my conversation with MozaiQ, a grass-root LGBTQIA+ organization was easier. While I didn’t intentionally reveal my position and sexuality, I didn’t have to worry about it. It was natural, just as when I admitted my nationality to Anc. Unfortunately, not all meaningful exchanges are neutral. More often than not, they are difficult. Thanks to my days in Romania, I’ve confronted this difficulty and seen it even more clearly. An even longer journey is required to try and tackle them, or perhaps just to come to terms with them.

The plane has landed. Passengers stepped out of the plane one-by-one, as the flight assistants, with their American, Minnesotan niceness, thanked them and bid them goodbye. “Thank you” was given to the old lady with a suitcase, the man in a grey sweater, and some unidentified individual right behind me — everyone except me. A year ago, I would have considered it a mere coincidence. Perhaps, it is on me that the shop assistant didn’t wish me a nice day, that the waitress didn’t smile at me and thank me for my visit, that more often than not, flight assistants would joke with every white passenger around me and gave me their professional face. I wouldn’t have known why, until an Asian friend talked about her similar experience. I’m back to the States, and a familiar kind of discrimination that I can never get used to.
Is it the same? The missing “thank you” in the States, the random “nihao” in Romania, and the fact that nobody would approach me and ask if I want to participate in some tour around Shanghai because I look too local? A lot of people make intentional and unintentional assumptions about me and base their attitudes on them, and maybe I’m starting to get used to it. Or maybe, I prefer the Romanian way. At least, I had the chance to talk: “why nihao?” “No I’m not who you think I am” and “yes I’d like to learn more”. After all, how can anyone start a conversation with “why did you refrain from saying ‘Have a nice day’ to me”?

(Beyond) Identity and Division: Romania and I

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