My Perceptions of Otherness

I have struggled much with how to wrap up this experience. Many things caught my attention throughout the past ten weeks, like why do Romanians love Reggeaton and seem to be able to dance Salsa way better than me? What’s up with the graffiti? Why do the streets feel so quiet? How is it that the city blossomed with tulips and suddenly there are none? Are the youth as religious as the elder folk who cross their hears-hope-not-to-die every time they pass a church? I could go on, as many of you could as well. But for our final project, Prof. Mihaela’s assignment for this had very little to do with interests, but with our perceptions, our bias, and misconceptions.

To answer this question it stands to order that I retrace my steps to the time before the now, to a time when Romania was just a plan and trip abroad to look forward to after an intense winter term. During this time, I got into the habit of watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, a character I admired so much I applied for a large grant to do and eat as the guy does around the world (but that’s a story for another time). Naturally, I dug up his episode on Romania. Now look, I love the guy and normally stan for most of his work. But his Romania episode was bad. I mean, really bad. I mean, so bad that he was castrated by the entire Romanian media for how awful of a representation of Romania he gave. Indeed, his episode didn’t leave old town, and when it did, it portrayed the dull, known, and rarely loved the narrative of Dracula, as well as a very staged image of a rural Romania featuring traditional garments that were a little too clean for authenticity. In an interview with Seth Mayers, he addresses train-wreck of an episode that it was.



I promise this presentation won’t be all about Anthony Bourdain, but I think this example reflects a couple important aspects of our experience. For one, seeing how much the government tried to paint a picture Romania for the outside public that was so “sanitized” and void of our reality reflects many of the things we learned in our earlier courses. Bourdain was specifically instructed to not shoot “the gypsies” or the “stray dogs” and to only show the “Hilton and Cadillacs”. In an attempt to show “the best of Romania”, the viewer was left with a performance… a deliberate construction of the political that performs and entertains without substantiating the reality of what makes Romania… Romania. This isn’t new. The Roma were whitewashed from the country’s history, the Jews were killed, the queer were imprisoned, the women lost agency over their reproductive rights, the poor kept on starving, etc… Throughout the past couple of centuries, the construction of Romania has sat in the hands of the few who chose for many what the outsider should see and appreciate, much like Bourdain’s episode.

I expected “why Romania?” questions from my peers. But I hardly imagined Romanians would find it so strange that we were here. On a recent Uber ride, our driver had a hard time believing we chose Romania as our European destination. He said he has no problem with the gypsies because they’re all leaving and they’re sending money back. “Our technology industry is strong, everyone can work hard and study and do okay here… but the Gypsies gotta go”. In reference to, again my choice to study here;  “Don’t you know so many of us are trying to leave?” said another driver. “Bucharest is a shit hole mate, why didn’t you go to London?” said my barber as he reminded me I was the first person of my kind of hair to walk through his doors. To be clear, I’ve found many people to be very proud of their country, as they should be. But aside from the professors, tour guides, and essentially people paid to hang with us, the overwhelming response to being here has been one of (a) surprise and (b) attempt to frame what Romania should be… which has more often than not been a little different than the history we’ve studied.

Now you see, I come from a country that thrives on students, young, old, black, white, European, Asian, and other flooding our beaches and drinking our alcohol. Except we box them inside resorts, with private airports, private catering, private rooms, and a private window to a Dominican life void of Haitians, poverty, and staunch inequality. Indeed, there is nothing more Dominican than complaining about our country, but we accept any and everyone who arrives for whatever intention because we feel so sure that they’ll walk away with the image that we construct for them. We allow them to perceive the other, but an “other” that has been filtered through our superimposed lens.

I am curious about what my perception of Romania would have been if I came as a visitor. If I hadn’t read for 2,000 years or the Hooligan’s return, would I have grasped the extent to which Eastern Europe, by and large, hated Jewss? Would I have learned about one of the largest slavery institutions whose legacies still persist today, about a diaspora that has been so largely stereotyped through a whitewashed history? Or the refugees, the queers, the addicts, the poor, the rural, the humble. I fancy myself a naturally curious person so who knows, but I am still trying to understand why I have felt that many Romanians try to hide the very things that have fascinated me about this country. Maybe this is how Bourdain felt, but I am walking away feeling like it is too much more for me to explore and learn about Romania, Romanians, and everything that is not Romania that exists within the borders of Romania.

I came with little perceptions, expectations, or imaginaries of what this country is or could be, and to be honest… I am walking away just as ignorant, increasingly aware of how little I know within the multitude of things I’ve learned.

Here is a link to the Romania episode of Anthony’s bourdain No Reservations (now known as “Parts Unkown” on CNN).

Here is a blogpost that details a little bit the reaction of Romanians.

My Perceptions of Otherness

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