Peace Corps Romania Quarterly Newsletter Excerpt
What is an American?
It seems so long ago, I was sitting in a classroom on the other side of the ocean, having recited the “Pledge of Allegiance” to our flag then opening up a battered hardcover book of World Geography on another Thursday morning at Veazie Street School in Providence, Rhode Island. Back then, I thought about what other kids were doing all the way over in places like, Egypt, Panama, Fiji, or Nigeria. Did they have to study every week for those stupid spelling bees, had they learned how to make ice forts, and did they get up really early on Saturday morning to go over to their friends’ and play hopscotch? Did they hate the peas that their Mom always added to the meatloaf dinner plate? Or did they even see peas at all over there? The answers to those questions and more would elude me for years until these eventful days in service with the Peace Corps.
Here in Romania, there have been countless opportunities to ask these questions, observe people at work and at play, and get some of the answers which were the impetus and the reason for my own necessity to take the road of the Peace Corps. What I’ve learned has not been concrete or definitive. Much like the borders and boundaries of every city, state, country or continent on earth, the lines on the map are fluid, they change and change again. Maybe not so frequently or with obvious imagery, yet they do change and transform. They have real or imaginary lines, because of war or governments, elections, weather, natural disasters, individuals and simply time.
The country of Romania is one of those places which continues to transform. Its people are ready to embrace many of the freedoms and amenities which were absent during the decades of communism and in the first few decades post-communist rule, they hold onto traditions born centuries ago
with simultaneous fervor. I’ve been lucky to be sent here where the old meets the new and as a teacher, it’s especially gratifying to see how my students grow by leaps and bounds into the 21
century as part of the European Union. They are eager to know all about my life in South Carolina as an American and I always ask them this “million, gazillion” dollar question: “What IS an American?”
Usually they’ll respond by saying, “You, Miss Natalie” or “Barack Obama” or “The American Idol” or “rich people” or “somebody who eats a lot of hamburgers”. Yes, it’s that varied and that amusing. But the truth is…it’s a hard question to answer and one that is as complex as our own biology. In order to help them understand, the conversation in my class turns to the things that I can share—our similarities. Yes, some of us love baseball and apple pie, but who invented those things and are you not a true American if you prefer to eat Sushi and play rugby? It’s a tough call and one that I sincerely hope to explain a bit at a time to everyone who will come to know me along this journey. I do know now that they see me as not the different teacher, but “a” teacher who has come from far away to instill some of what I know while learning about them and their world.
And teaching itself is more amusing each day. Between the lessons about history and the lessons about grammar and the lessons about culture, there’s always some little interjection or comment that sends me into big grins and chuckles and some days outright laughing out loud. For example, during an assignment on cinquain five-line poetry, one of the little girls asked me to come over as she had a question. I thought she needed some help selecting an adjective or two for her National Geographic photograph which she was instructed to describe using the poetry model. Heck no! During the intense workout on paper for all the rest of the class, she asked me if I knew Justin Bieber. I said, “Well not personally, but I bet
did his work in class to get on YouTube!” Fifth grade, you know how they are…
We have plenty of time in class for the kids to get opinionated and so when we have discussions about anything, even though you can try to rein them in, at the end of the day, it always comes down to the kids expressing their own personal tastes for music, clothes, games, travel, food, movies, etc. Gee, what do you know? Kids are after all kids, right? Well, not a
By Natalie Montanaro
Continued on page 10
PCV Natalie Montanaro
Who am I in the Blackboard Jungle:
Michael Jackson and Cristoforo Columbo
week goes by without hearing the words “Michael Jackson” or “pizza” or “Harry Potter”.
It also gets really funny when they go on tangents during activities in class. Like during Jeopardy game in the eighth grade when one guy screamed “Mexico” for every question in the
Cities of the Globe
category. And in the fourth grade, one of the boys quipped, “Money in the bank!”, when I said the word money during a lesson on plurals. They just crack me up.
With all the fun and games, teaching is serious stuff. It’s my duty each and every class to inform, guide, help, enlighten and otherwise prepare them, not only with knowledge of the English language but of other facets of our big and interesting planet. I really don’t miss any chance to share some aspect or other of the diversity of my own country and allow them to realize that that which seemed so strange is really not so at all.
Do they love to sleep late when they can? Is it really fun to see the monkeys and lions at the zoo? Would they want to have their birthday surprise party last an entire weekend? Is winning a game with your volleyball team exciting? On holidays isn’t it great to be spending time with our family and friends? Don’t you think that you have wonderful towns and charming country-sides and beautiful places and a unique history here? Usually, as you might expect, the answers are not so foreign. It’s my cue then to open up the book of experiences in my own head and come up with entertaining and solid ways to make those comparisons and parallels stick. That’s why I continue to pose the questions, allow for honest answers, take it all in with a bit of humor when necessary and feel great at the end of the day that these students of mine, whether or not they ever do visit the U. S. (Which I hope and pray that they will someday…I’ve given them all open invitations) will be able to see America and Americans as diverse, complex, interesting, different, similar in a host of ways, and people who they’d like to get to know. I hope that they hereafter will not think that all Americans are cut from the same mold and that all of them are so different than they are, because we’re not. Yes, not all of our heritage, customs, traditions, and preferences are the same, but whose are? I am pleased as punch that I’ve gotten the chance through the Peace Corps to meet them and I know for a fact that after I’ve left, they’ll be able to answer that “million/gazillion” dollar question a bit better.
Regarding those general impressions of Americans, a Romanian friend of mine told me this:
“When I was a child, we were craving the American movies, songs, but we had them just here and there, everything was censored. In American movies, the love scenes were cut, you did not see them in the theaters. Therefore, some movies did not make sense…We all looked up to the Americans, considering them as FREE people, COOL
people, not necessarily rich, even though we all had the chance to see DALLAS, with its few hundreds episodes.”
She also said that her impressions changed once she met different people and traveled outside of Romania. Then she told me this: “
Now, I know only one thing: we are all human beings, we are all alike and the differences which might exist, due to the circumstances, places we grow up and live, make us just more interesting and beautiful.”
My point exactly.
I wonder how the question will be answered one day, or if it will ever be answered completely at all. Being an American, even though we have a common geographical location, our U. S. Constitution, and our “stars and stripes” flag which represents all of our American pride and young but gloried history, I still think it seems kind of impossible what with 50 states, 57 different dialects of English, (not to mention all the other languages spoken in the U.S.), and scores of people of different ethnic origins to think about with their own traditions, customs, likes, dislikes, dreams, plans and routines which come to us from places all around this earth I had immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who came to America from Eastern and Western Europe. They came there not to blend in or to lose what their own values or heritage was. No, they came to be part of a country which accepted those things and more. I’d like to think that in the future, our humanness will trump the distance between the countries we were born in. And in the end, when someone asks the question,“What is an American?”, it will no longer just be about popular culture, old stereotypes or artificialities on television commercials. And by the same token, when someone asks me what is a Romanian, well, they’ll hear a mouthful of things that I know which have amazed, comforted, held me in their grasp, and been the some of the most informative and incredible revelations and remembrances of my life because of the people here who shared them with me.
Now getting back to a few of those other questions I wanted answered back in grammar school…Eventually I found out that a lot of us hate peas, it’s harder to learn the difference between
gheata, ceata, and inghetata
in Romanian than it is to spell mellifluous, hopscotch is played exactly the same, and they can make the coolest ice forts and snow castles around in Romania. Now if I could just get to Fiji to see how they make theirs. I think that Lady Gaga, David Beckham, the Energizer Bunny and even George Forman who sells those great hamburger grills would love to know.
Natalie Montanaro is a
Teaching English as A Foreign Language Volunteer serving in Romania
Continued from page 9
Nothing Like an Oreo Cookie from the Good Old US