Thursday, November 23, 2006

America's What You Make of It

The Undergraduate Exchange Programme fall conference in Burlington, Vermont, definitely gave me some food for thought. For a couple of days, a bunch of Balkan-spirited people (coming from Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Mongolia) shared their experiences after roughly three months of living and studying in the US. It was amazing how fast we rediscovered one another, and how rapidly we readjusted and became overenthusiastically friendly with people whom we had met for seven days, once in our entire lifetime, in Budapest. Tons of fun, plenty of visits to the liquor store, but what struck me most was the tremendous difference between our feelings towards the US and towards Americans. People really had troubles adapting. Or at least this was my feeling.

We had this workshop conducted by a cultural anthropologist at University of Vermont, which looked more like a therapeutic debriefing session than a real workshop. He was trying to make us "spit out" everything we thought about living in America. Americans act fake, Americans smile dumb, everything is just facade, they build walls between themselves and the rest of the world, or even between themselves and themselves, they are friendly and at the same time suspicious towards migrants and internationals. This was pretty much the overall feeling that prevailed.

And then the question popped to me. How do I view Americans? Why have I adapted so smoothly? Have I adapted so smoothly indeed? What if I hadn't lived in New York, but in a traditional university campus in the South or in the Midwest? Is adaptation something related to oneself or to the place you live in? Had I been secluded somewhere in a genuine university campus, with nothing but schoolwork, some volunteer work and my on-campus job to be concerned about, I think I would have stretched my limits to the maximum. I would have had time for musing, for discovering myself, for critically assessing myself. I don't have time for that now. I've adapted to Big City life. I go with the flow. I flow... what's authentic in all these? I meet people, internationals, Americans, Romanians, students, employers. I meet them every day, I go clubbing in the weekends. It looks pretty much like "Sex and the City"... I always have tons of things to do, I don't have time to think any longer. Is this adaptation? Or is it just ignorace and self-sufficiency? Is this what I want of myself and my experience in the US?

It seems to me that all the Americans I've met are not really Americans. They like Dada and Trufaut, Europe and the non-American way of being. Or at least they claim they do. At the same time, I have plenty of international friends, as I assume most UEP-ers have. The common point that pops up constantly in all our conversations is "Americans are like this and that and this...". We've build our identity in opposition to the identity Americans allegedly have. Moreover, I talk really often with my friends and colleagues back home, and basically I'm busy running projects which take place couple of thousand miles away from me. I talk with my mother almost every day (thank you, Skype), and I've managed to maintain a pretty decent relationship with all my dear ones. Maybe that's not authentic either. I guess I'll figure that out in less than a month, when I'll see Alex again. And meet Coco and John and Gioco and see if we are still the same.

My biggest question right now is how has this experience changed me? Have I grown older and wiser? I was talking with my uncle on the phone couple of weeks ago and we kind of chatted for one hour; I was able to see him, and so was he, through our webcams. When we finished the conversation, he looked my mother in the eyes and told her: "Man, she's a grown-up now..."

I'm having doubts, I'm having doubts about lots of stuff, starting with what I'm gaining and - most importantly - what I'm losing out of all this. Maybe the "win and loss" assessment would be useful for all UEP-ers.

To conclude in a cheerful tone, here as some pics from Vermont. Just click on the image to see them all:

Here are some bonus ones. The really compromising displays of Balkan passion are for private consumption only! ;P

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