Thursday, March 13, 2008

Teaching English Is Easy, Changing Minds Is Hard

Last week I was visited by the fellow who served as a volunteer in Lugoj before me. He had finished his service a few days before my arrival, so we never got the chance to meet face-to-face before last week. But he came back to Romania for a visit, and was passing through town.

Since he had been home for nearly 8 months, it was interesting to talk to him about what has changed in Lugoj since he left. Of course some minor things have changed--a restaurant closed, a new one opened, some buidings have been painted, etc--but basically things have stayed the same. In fact, this was his general impression of the whole country. He said that it felt like nearly nothing of substance had changed in Romania, and for him, this was somewhat disappointing.

Before he left Lugoj, he gave me a copy of a magazine about Romania called Vivid: Romania through international eyes. As the name implies, the publication contains commentary on Romania written by foreigners. I looked it over, and found a couple articles that echoed the very sentiment that my fellow volunteer had: change simply isn't happening quickly enough.

I photocopied one of the articles and brought it in to school to discuss with my students. The article was somewhat harsh on Romanian politicians, claiming their selfish greed is the cause of just about every problem in Romania. My students generally agreed with this position, saying that politicians always make promises, but nothing ever really gets done. They don't have the country's interests at heart; they're more concerned with making a quick buck (or Leu, as would be the case in Romania). I was surprised how accepting my students were of this fact. When I asked them, "How can we fix this?" some of them responded, "What can we do? We can't change anything, this is just the way it is."

'Asta e viata' (or, 'such is life') is a typical saying in Romania. It seems to reflect a broad cultural outlook, perhaps left over from communism. It also sums up the general sense of apathy and disillusionment. Everyone knows what their politicians are doing, but will it ever get any better? Many people I've talked to don't seem to have any reason to think so; it's just the way things are. This sort of thinking is especially common among the older generations who have seen governments and leaders come and go. However, sadly, this outlook is even spreading to the youth; ineffectual leadership is all they've ever known.

I can understand why many Romanians are frustrated with the way things are going in Romania. Its been nearly 20 years since the Revolution, and things have changed, but not enough. The Revolution was certainly a turning point, and it brought with it hope for the future. But, that future has come, and for many Romanians, things didn't turn out quite as expected.

As mentioned in the Vivid article, the corruption is certainly one part of the picture. For politicians, money seems to take priority over the real issues--like the ailing economy, crippled healthcare system, or grossly under-funded educational system. In this post-communist age, when it's possible to accumulate some money, these politicians are taking full advantage of the situation--even if it means cheating the system. Perhaps they're sort of like the kid who sneaks over to the neighbor's house to play Super Mario Brothers because his mom never let him play video games.

In any case, because politicians don't have their fingers on the pulse of the nation, and because nothing seems to change in their country, Romanians lack any considerable faith in their political system. Apathy is more common than activism because people feel that trying to enact change is futile. They do their part, they vote, and things remain the same. So, what else can they do? Trying to tackle this "what can I do?" attitude is one of the most challenging, and sometimes discouraging things about being a Peace Corps volunteer in a post-communist nation.

One question I used to get a lot was, "why did you come here???" As if to imply that no one in their right mind would leave the United States to come to a place as terrible as Romania; many think the place is a lost cause (which explains why a lot of young Romanians move abroad). This attitude is so commonplace. But I try to do what I can to chisel away the pessimism, even if it may be an uphill battle.

When one's goals are so intangible, it's hard to gauge results. Sometimes I wonder what sort of effect I'm having. I'm sure my presence here is doing something, it's just hard to tell sometimes. A Peace Corps volunteer in Africa may help build a latrine, and be able to look back and say, "I did that." In some ways, I envy that sort of 'instant gratification.' For volunteers in a place like Romania, instant, visible results aren't always the case. This can make one feel ineffectual at times. But, just because the results can't be seen doesn't mean they aren't there somewhere under the surface.

I'd argue that being an effective volunteer is made more complicated because of Romania's level of development. Some people jokingly call the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe the "Posh Corps." It's true that we have access to restaurants, grocery stores, trains, cinemas and many other western amenities. Romania is certainly further developed than just about every other Peace Corps country, but that doesn't mean that the job is any easier. In fact, the situation here implies a different set of responsibilities. We're dealing with more complicated problems, like the culturally-ingrained pessimism that I mentioned. Such 'intangibles' present the volunteer with a unique set of challenges, the solutions to which aren't always as straightforward as finding away to supply a village with clean water.

All I can hope is that my presence as a volunteer is having some impact, no matter how small. Even if I help to influence just one person, that's something. I suppose it all depends on one's definition of success. I certainly don't expect to single-handedly turn Romania into a nation of optimistic, politically-active citizens. However, if I can inspire a few people, maybe they'll go on to inspire others, and so on. I've noticed a lot of potential in Romania's youth, and that's why I think it's so important for them to take an active interest in their country's future. Some of them do have a genuine interest, but it'll take more. Many educated young Romanians leave the country in search of higher-paid jobs, causing a national "brain-drain." Working abroad may be a fine solution for the here-and-now. But if everyone left the country, who would be left behind to tackle the real issues? Romania's problems affect everyone, and require a collective response. There is no doubt that the process of building civil awareness takes time. I just hope that when it comes time for the post-communist generation to take the reigns they steer the country in a positive direction.


ionuka said...

Mike, I really enjoyed this post. Well, "enjoyed" may be the wrong word :)

I agree that Romanians lack collective self-efficacy. We don't think that we, as a group, can make a difference. This low efficacy feeling was instilled in us and our parents for many years during communist times. Sure, you may be able to enhance little pieces of your life (get more food for your family, go on a vacation), but not as a group. We do things for ourselves and for our families and close friends, but not for our country - it's a survival technique developed under years and years of opression.
I struggle with the same dilemma - should I come back to Romania after I get my PhD and try to change the academic system, without having the resources to do research and being paid less than I'm paid here as a grad student? Or should I continue my personal career here or at other universities in the world where I have the opportunities I've been working for? It's a tough question that I am sure most Romanian abroad are dealing with these days.

Anonymous said...

life sucks here

Anonymous said...

That is simplistic view. Emigration is positive for a country because emigrants gain know how which is transferred later to their country of birth. In the 19-th century, Romania turned from a sort of Middle East principality in a westernised, modern, unified country, when the young elite emigrated to France to get an education, and brought back what they learned there. The transfer of knowledge and know-how takes place again, with many Romanians immigrants helping their counterparts in Romania, and many other Romanians planning to return. These activities go unreported, because most of them are unofficial, private initiatives. All Romanians professionals I know living in UK are involved in it. Me included.

Ossicle said...

Emigration also results in huge capital flows from more developed economies to less developed ones as emigrants send home money. The money they send home does far, far more to directly benefit the citizens of less developed nations that any governmental aid program. Further, because they are distributed without organizational intermediaries there's no loss in transmission from donor to recipient: no corruption, no incompetence, no opportunity for the kind of structural economic manipulation the World Bank, IMF (&c.) and like institutions are often accused of. Of course emigrations isn't an unmitigated good (for anyone really), but it's certainly not a simple "brain drain."

And, as remarked above, social capital is also redistributed in this manner: whether or not Ionuka eventually returns home, you can be sure some Romanians will, and they will bring with them the skills and outlooks they acquired abroad.

In terms of changing minds, it's worth noting that Romania is traversing a set of stages often associated with countries emerging from dictatorship - e.g. Spain following Franco's death. Initial optimism gives way to corruption and apathy. What happened with Spain will probably happen with Romania - they'll implement essentially cosmetic reforms in order to join the EU, the EU will demand and get actual reforms (e.g. it's all built on the maintenance of a single market under the same laws and regulations, and Romania knows there's too much at stake to not implement those reforms), and then the EU will pump money into the country (both formally and informally) for a couple decades and dramatically raise standards of living. People are a lot more optimistic when they aren't poor - they have opportunities for reflection and self-fulfillment, etc.

I would worry less about changing minds than about giving your students the tools to pursue those goals they chose for themselves. Also, just as a pragmatic observation, it might be helpful to think of your job, insofar as it involves familiarizing students with alternate world views (&c) as "presenting alternatives" rather than "changing minds." Even if you could, it's not your job to tell them what to think, after all, and it'll probably reduce both your stress - e.g. "changing minds" sets you up to fail, "presenting alternatives" sets you up to succeed - and the resentment students might feel at essentially being told that other places in the world are better because people over there think about things better that they do at home.

Sorry for the excessively long comment.

Oh hey -
I'm going to Romania with the PC in May. Can pick your brain about some things?
I already checked out your packing list and it was super helpful, so thanks for that.

Mike Nork said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. I'm glad that you're coming to Romania. You'll see these things for yourself and be able to form your own opinion.

As for 'changing minds,' you're right. Perhaps it was a poor choice in phrasing. Of course I don't believe I should be telling anyone what to think. As you said, my role is, more or less, to 'present alternatives.' However, what sometimes frustrates me is that I often encounter people who aren't open to those alternatives. I suppose that's to be expected; I certainly can't force anyone to accept what I say or do. All I can do is simply present my perspective. And, I hope that after two years here my presence will have had some effect.

I'm learning to adapt my expectations, to be more realistic about my role and to be perhaps a little less results-oriented.

I look forward to meeting you when you come in May. If you have any questions in the meantime, you can email me at mike-at-nork-dot-com

amallia said...

Mike, changing minds is hard everywhere, not only in Romania. You came to a country where 25 years ago, let's say, people were not allowed to have a passport. Can you imagine? Try.

In a short period of time Romanian people went thru dictatorship, transition, some kind of capitalism and so on, while in other countries, like US, people were born and raised and live and work in generally the same settings like their parents, maybe grandparents and so on.

Agentia said...

Hi Mike.
I've read some of your posts on this closed blog.
It's funny that I also read a blog of a Romanian who settled in NYC. He has the same complaints as you. Except that he complains about the bad roads in NYC, about the bureaucracy in US and so on. You can read here:
I believe that you realize that Lugoj is in one of the poorest parts of Romania.
Have you been to Brasov, Sibiu or Cluj? We don't have bad roads here... at least are better than in the most parts of the US.
I've traveled through all the Europe and my family lives in US and I realized that Romania is not as bad as the foreigners picture it! The quality of life is pretty good. Most of us own a house... the food is good. The roads are as everywhere. Corruption is the same as in US or any other country. The salaries are not as bad and for a college graduate is quite easy to get a good job and climb the corporate ladder faster that in any western country!
I had to travel to Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and UK to realize that the things are pretty good here!

Most of the Romanians believe that western Europe and the US are like in the movies. That's why they think that the life here is not as good.

I remember how things were 10 years ago or 20 and trust me that everything is completely changed now! And the things are changing. Maybe you did't see the change in Lugoj and other backward city but in Bucharest, Brasov, Cluj or Iasi we have iPhones too, we tweet too, we have Facebook too, we go to restaurants too, we have good salaries too, we have good roads too, we have cleaned streets too, and so on.
There are a lot of poor regions in the US too. A lot of them poorer than our poor regions!

How is your life now? Did you find a job?

PS: Sorry for my bad english... it will improve!

Mike Nork said...

Agentia, sorry for taking so long to publicly publish your comment! You're certainly right that life in Romania isn't as bad as many foreigners imagine it. Most foreigners don't know enough about Romania to have a clear picture. After being in Lugoj for over two years, I learned a lot and fell in love with the city, and indeed the whole country. Of course, that's not to say I wasn't frustrated at times...

I've traveled all over Romania, from Cluj to Bucuresti, to Sibiu and the Black Sea, and I certainly noticed changes happening. I admit that you've probably noticed a greater level of change, since you've spent far more time in Romania and you know what things were like 'before.'

However, the issues I was referring to have roots that stretch far deeper than changes in infrastructure or superficial indicators of quality of life (like iPhones). What I was referring to was more fundamental and psychological--ie conceptions of one's place in a democratic society. Like you said, corruption and bad roads exist everywhere, however, what it different from one place to another is the attitudes and actions people take toward such things. One thing of which I always tried to make my students aware was that they are members of a community, and their actions can have an impact, even if it happens slowly. Ultimately, I think what I was referring to (and also what my friend, the previous volunteer, was referring to) is that 'asta e viata' mentality. Be it a remnant from communism or just part of the Romanian worldview, it's one thing that I noticed throughout the whole country (whether it be in the villages or larger cities such as Bucuresti). It's these sort of deeply-ingrained cultural attitudes that take the most time to change. I did what I could to show my students that there are alternative ways of thinking...Sper ca ceva s-a lipit cumva