Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Conversations with Bulgarian students

Here in Veliko Turnovo, there seems to be a lot of interest in the Japanese language among young people. I'm not sure why this is, as I don't think there is much of a connection between Japan and Bulgaria aside from some Japanese organizations buying property in Plovdiv, renovating it, and turning it into museums, at least that is what I have been told. Many university students in Turnovo take Japanese courses which seemingly have no practical use for them, so I've been trying to come up with theories as to why this language is so popular. Most of the students don't have much exposure to Japanese people, which is why a Japanese guy, Hero, who is living in the hostel is something of a celebrity in town. I'm simply hypothesizing, perhaps wrongly, but I think the interest in Japanese has something to do with the lack of diversity in the town and in Bulgaria as a whole, and a Japanese guy is seen as sort of exotic.

Coming from a country in which nearly everyone's ancestors have come from other countries, diversity is normal to me. Indeed, as a white person, I was a minority in Washington, DC. A friend of mine from Austria who came to visit in September remarked about the diversity as we rode a DC bus - he seemed to be in awe of the fact that we were the only two ethnic European types on the bus, which was filled with black Americans, Ethiopians, Latinos, and Asians.

I guess diversity is a pretty tough concept to grasp when everyone around you is the same, which is why I think many of the Bulgarian university students here continue to bring up the issue of slavery in the US as if they think nobody of different colors can get along because of it. If they were to visit an American city and see the rainbow of people who live in America, it would throw their whole stereotyped world out of order. Indeed, if those who claim to hate America would set foot in my country, they would be confused by the contrast between what they perceive America to be and how we actually live. Sure we have our race relation problems, but in a country of 300 million people, how can we not? We're human. One of the leading candidates for president is a black man - does this not say something about our country?

I'm not saying all Bulgarians hate America, not at all. Many of them simply hate American politics, and well, we're kindred spirits in that regard. It's a shame that so many of the university students I have come to know and have had several discussions with have grown up knowing only Bush as the US leader, as they have no other reference point to base their ideas on. It's just a shame that there aren't more people who can help these students see that there is more to America than Bush's follies, that we aren't simply a nation who loves to be at war.

I guess that's my job. As an American in small town Bulgaria, I am something of an oddity myself, as many of these students have never encountered a real-life American, and certainly not one who has taken such an interest in them. This is why the topic of America and American politics comes up on a daily basis and I find myself on the defensive side of things quite often. At first it really upset me, as I did not come here to be insulted, but I've come to realize that these students have an insatiable curiosity about this thing in the media called America and they don't know much about it aside from what they hear in the news. I try to make them see that America should not be defined by its bombs, but by its ideas. I want them to know that not all of us came from wealthy slaveholding ancestors but that most of us came from poor or persecuted families who left their homelands to seek better lives in the "Land of Opportunity." I tell them that the Statue of Liberty, which used to greet sea traveling immigrants with open arms, has at its base "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." But the greatest difficulty I have is trying to explain how big America is and how 300 million people are spread over fifty states with fifty separate governments and not everyone thinks the same, that indeed, parts of the US have such vastly different cultures that it is easier to think of them as separate countries.

It's something new to me, and I'm learning quite a lot from these kids (and some people my age as well!) I'm also learning a lot about my own country and its place in the world, which is one of the reasons I wanted to get away in the first place. Sometimes it's easier looking at things from the outside instead of trying to navigate your way through a labyrinth of what seems to be circular logic. (Look at my screen name!) I'm not sure if I will find any answers in three months, but at least I feel I'm getting a bit closer to them.

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