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Raluca Grigoras: Traces of neo-colonialism in Romanian identity

Romania was never explicitly colonized. We’ve had our conquerors, our Ottomans, Russians, and Austro-Hungarians, but never an outside force with the goal of eliminating the Romanian national identity or assimilating it into its own culture.

However, today we see a widespread sense of inferiority compared to any European country towards the West. This is further reflected in the millions of people who have emigrated to Western countries in recent years, in pursuit of a better quality of life. And more often than not, they reinforce the idea that the West does everything better than us: better wages, better working conditions, better schools, healthcare, and more active citizens. They are more civilized, you always hear, unlike us.

I always wondered where this idea comes from. As a kid, the idea of traveling and learning more about other cultures fascinated me, and that has definitely shaped my path up until today – a curiosity to learn more about the world and its diverse people. But hearing people around me say things like: “Romania is a beautiful country. Too bad it is inhabited (by Romanians)” made me feel sad and frustrated. Why do we look down upon our own people, our families, neighbors, and communities? As I grew up I became more and more aware of how corruption hinders all meaningful contributions to Romania’s development and I kept on trying to devise strategies to beat it. I would imagine myself, one day, forming my own party, listening to the concerns of the people, and putting in place systems that serve all of us, not the interests of the elite. I’ve still not come to one straightforward solution, but I believe there’s a lot we can do to change small aspects of it. But the most harmful aspect of corruption pervasive at every layer of society is that it kills hope. That’s what I saw in the adults around me. Their greatest ambitions were to one day leave the country, or hope that at least me and my brother could do so, in order to have a better life. Clearly, many parents and young people across the country think this way, since many go to get a college degree abroad, with no intention of ever returning. People looked at me like crazy when I said I hope I’ll be able to come back one day and make a change: Pff.. you’ll see, you’ll change your mind once you see the difference in money, attitude and respect of the “civilized world”.

So, how did this happen? I think somewhere in our history we lost our identity as a nation. The trend of betraying our own identity and traditions in order to fit in with the elites that we saw as superior can be seen from the 1800s until today. It originated during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Transylvania, a region that both Romania and Hungary considered a core part of their nation. The elites were ethnically Hungarian or German, while Romanians were mostly peasants. Why, you might ask? There is evidence that as soon as Hungarians took power, Romanian nobles and respectable merchants quickly converted to Catholicism and changed their names to Hungarian, in order to fit in and keep their privileges. This already showcases the mindset I talked about: the feelings of inferiority that motivate people to betray their identity and blend in a nation they consider superior, in order to achieve the “better life” that they promise. But the real proxy colonialism took place after that. A small minority of Romanian leaders, academia, and philosophers, who studied in the most prestigious institutions in Paris, Berlin or Vienna at the time, started an initiative called the “Transylvanian school” – a movement aimed to “educate” rural Romanians and bring them at the same status with the Hungarians and Germans. They got to be the first ones to formally teach Romania’s history to the Romanian people – they could choose how to frame it, and what to emphasize as core aspects of the Romanian identity. They understood that in order to gain rights and the respect of the foreign elites, they could not form Romanian identity around the real rural culture that was passed through oral tradition from generation to generation. They needed to seem noble, and respectable – so they modeled Romanian identity around its Latin heritage, from the Roman Empire, and attempted to emulate Western values, labeling the wisdom of the peasants as superstitions.

How does this manifest today? Well, since the Revolution of 1989 that marked the end of communism in Romania, we try to imitate successful capitalist economies, forgetting that our cultural contexts are different. Romanians used to be people that value their connection to nature and their communities. That is supported by poems, legends, myths, and all the gatherings and events that marked rural social life until recently. But now, our villages are empty, as younger generations have all moved to the cities, with the most ambitious among them moving abroad. There is no real sense of community, as families become more and more fragmented, all of us going where money calls us. I believe we need to find a way to make the community a core aspect of our lives again since we are in a very unstable transition period being in between a developing and developed country.

Until recently, we had what most developing countries have in terms of community: people working, living, laughing, praying, crying, and chatting together in their villages, helping each other, and having a role to play in the well-being of the community. There was a sense of belonging to something greater than yourself, and society was structured in such a way that it brought people together. Now, where are we headed, what is the modern balance between community and freedom, high standards of living? Towards a society like Denmark for example: yes, people are more alone and independent, but they use their freedom to explore what brings them fulfilment, and usually, that results in finding a way to best serve their community. They have high rates of civic engagement, people volunteer to improve the lives of others, and there are many opportunities for people with similar interests to come together. Romania is starting to create such organizations, but we’re definitely stuck in between – not together like before, but also not like these more developed countries.

But the solution is not to imitate “more civilized” nations once again. It is to get in touch with our roots, our values, and our people. Listen more to each other and our stories, and then let’s come together and help each other in every way we can. Small actions can go a long way. What if we taught our kids the games we used to play in our childhood and used that to bring the neighborhood together every weekend? What if we offered to buy groceries for the elderly lady living alone in our apartment building? What if we started a community garden with our neighbors? It’s in our power to create a more united community.

Image: Mircea Brs, Pexels

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