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Time to reimagine our hyphenated cultural identity

Thirty years since the collapse of a totalitarian regime that manipulated the sentiment of national belonging and solidarity, we still need to understand and overcome our inherited aversion reflexes in asserting our cultural identity as Romanians and in promoting our common interests through apolitical, trust-based networks of cohesion. Living in free democratic societies on both sides of the Atlantic, experiencing unparalleled levels of mobility, forces us to question and redefine our ways to anchor ourselves within local and transnational environments.

Monocultures, or high cultures directed from on high by titular nation states, are increasingly illusory promises, mythical safe havens of conformity, concepts so far removed from the reality of our interconnected world. To what degree cultural identity can remain defined primarily by a contiguous territory is uncertain, though nostalgia is certainly a potent driver in times of uncertainty and anxiety caused by rapid technological advancements and afferent tectonic socio-political transformations.

It is up to each of us to define who we are, what we stand for, the social constructs and values we choose to uphold and shape as we pass them to our children. All human identity is a composite social construct in evolution shaped by our meaningful interactions and by our need for self-actualization in a community of our choosing, one in which we feel appreciated for who we present ourselves to be. It is a personal choice to define oneself as a Romanian-American and it is one far more complex than the passports one carries or the clear allegiance one holds to their adoptive country, often a country chosen as a discerning adult. It is a hyphenated identity, an affirmation that acknowledges the special affinity not only with the country of birth and host country but also with kindred people who chose to affirm that shared heritage wherever they are.

With the recent Romanian presidential elections behind us we are prone to see only a politicized face to the diaspora when in fact it is a far more complex community than its occasional political remittance might indicate. The seemingly monolithic vote is much more than an occasional expression of support for a certain politician or party, it is an aspiration and a mandate for a shift in governance values, one that might bring the country closer to our adjusted expectations of normality as American residents. Those still holding Romanian passports and expressing their views through the ballot box represent only a fraction of Romanian-Americans, a human capital that could be an asset to Romania as it seeks to redefine its centrality within the family of western democratic societies. It is an asset that should however be nurtured apolitically, beyond occasional electoral or foreign policy interests. Romanian-American organizations exist distinct and often historically apart from the social chasms and tribulations in the country of origin. Such organizations grow or fade and are necessarily responsive to their immediate environments, the needs and interests of the stakeholders they seek to serve locally. One such organization seeks to understand what such a hyphenated identity might mean today and if it is a viable vehicle for social cohesion.

The Immigration Research Forum (IRF) was established this year (2019) by a group of Romanian-Americans in Washington, DC as a platform that seeks an in-depth understanding of the factors which promote the successful integration and upward social mobility of immigrants within American society. This apolitical entity, currently funded by its members’ own donations, focuses on the composite identity of Romanian Americans and how this evolving social construct plays a role in the socialization of diaspora members within American communities. The organization intends to look at how community-based organizations and social entrepreneurs assist members in pursuing their potential and in asserting their unique contributions to the host society. It hopes to eventually serve as a platform for the exchange of ideas, experiences and projects of excellence among leading professionals and emerging community leaders within the diaspora in the belief that their vast array of accumulated expertise should be shared, and their achievements and efforts acknowledged.

IRF’s inaugural event, the first conference of Romanian-American professionals in the nation’s capital was hosted at the prestigious University Club of Washington, DC on November 21, 2019. It brought together some of the most accomplished professionals within the diaspora, calling on them to form advisory councils in the fields of medicine, public policy, exact sciences, litigation, arts and culture. The purpose of these councils within each professional field is to start mapping out already available resources, to identify influential stakeholders and engage them in assessing current grassroot needs and expectations for various types of social cohesion exercises. In the following months, the IRF seeks to partner with other local diaspora organizations in hosting events that promote Romanian-American identity in the United States. In June, the local group intends to join the “Immigrant Heritage Month” series of events under the patronage of the Washington DC Mayor’s office and later register for the first time diaspora members to march in the nation’s capital, in full Romanian folk costumes, within a community parade on the 4th of July National Independence Day.

One of the palpable outcomes of this inaugural event was the review of a proposal for an independent evaluation and mapping of Romanian-American community-based organizations and social entrepreneurs in order to assess the possibility of joint organizational capacity-building and the adaptative resilience of the diaspora in addressing its own evolving challenges and needs. The attempt to map organizational capacity is predicated on the belief that all collaborating entities of regional geographic reach or sectional topic-centric focus, would benefit from the sharing of expertise, joint trainings and the ability to respond with coherence, common operating methods and possible common strategies. This exercise of building trust among a network of community-based organizations holds the distinct possibility that it may enhance not just diaspora’s organizational capacity but also its positive image promotion within American society. Such mapping would increase the reciprocal ability to recommend trusted organizations across the American continent which could help established professionals relocating to other diasporic hubs as well as ensure that vulnerable newcomers are not exposed to unnecessary vulnerabilities in their personal adjustment and naturalization.

Beyond inherently blurry statistics about how many and where Romanian-Americans are, or who represents their interest, there is a far more important lack of qualitative data about their social values and needs, about the diversity of socio-political profiles they represent within their host American society. In an age of poorly vetted information and superfluous media treatment of immigrant integration challenges, lasting branding consequences may arise and get conflated with misconceptions possibly affecting Romanian cultural affinity in ways difficult to foresee. The presence or absence of recognized, trusted, apolitical, civil society pulpits from which to provide credible rebuttals is something that this exercise intends to address. The proposed project is envisioned as a baseline assessment of actual current needs of the diaspora and as a vetting process for possible projects of excellence that could be replicated throughout the country as recognizable means of affiliation and mutual support. At its core this first voluntary self-assessment hopes to improve adaptability, accountability and transparency as pre-requirements of trust and authenticity in representative leadership within the diaspora. The follow-up steps to be taken in each field are to be drafted by the advisory councils of the organization made up by participants in the event and volunteers they seek to attract.

H.E. ambassador of Romania to the United States, George Maior and Mrs. Ana-Maria Maior attended the meeting as honored guests extending the embassy’s full support for the initiatives of the organization. Ambassador Maior intervened suggesting that the diaspora mapping be developed in such a way as to reach out to the large number of Romanian citizens migrating to the United States from Moldova, individuals who affirm their Romanian identity and who should be part of such a diaspora network. He noted that the large number of dual Moldovan and Romanian citizens applying for visas to the United States might be one of the reasons why Romania has not yet reached the appropriate low rate of visa refusals required to be included in the Visa Waver program. He encouraged participants to extend the scope of the Romanian American diaspora effort for cohesion so as to include those of Romanian heritage and descent hailing from territories outside Romania’s current borders, people who have integrated in American society and who bring positive contributions of their own. Such inclusive efforts may eventually alleviate some of the consular burdens in providing legal counseling. He touched on the incomplete data on various diaspora hubs estimating that that total number is somewhere over eight hundred and that the logistic limitations of accounting for the size of diaspora hubs, that estimates are based on the distribution of the approximately half a million Romanians who have kept active citizenship documentation while declaring residency in the US. Statistics are only one aspect of the real “weight of the community” which Ambassador Maior quantified as based on the impressive influence members exercise locally through various organization he visited and interacted with throughout the continent during his mandate.

One of the most important aspects of the event was to act as a safe venue in which participants could start a genuine discussion about the need to reconcile their often traumatic personal experiences of emigrating with the persistent need to positively affirm their unique cultural heritage within the diversity of the host country. Setting the stage for later discussions, the keynote speaker at the event was Romanian historian and currently Georgetown University Professor Dennis Deletant. His speech centered on Romanians’ legacy of distorted political socialization and values as evidenced in his recently published study “Romania under Communism: Paradox and Degeneration.” He outlined precise historical circumstances for the learnt behaviors of social atomization and alienation that still have a ripple effect, plaguing the formation of strong civic associative platforms.

Discussing the repressive nature of the totalitarian communist regime in Romania, Professor Deletant touched on the evisceration of the pre-communist progressive intelligentsia and its discreditation through far-right affiliation. He pointed to the scale of unrelenting collectivization, the resistance and imprisonment of eighty thousand peasants and the uprooting of whole communities through massive relocation of people, the systematization of villages. He reminded us of the dismantlement of another pillar of social cohesion, the suppression of minority religious confessions and the conversion of the dominant orthodox church institution into an extension of the repressive regime’s information gathering apparatus, all of which robbed society of their trust in institutions beyond their family or other restrictive personal networks. The intent inculcation of fear and suspicion of the other during communism, combined with complete control over access to and manipulation of information, allowed the sanitizing and delaying of information on descent to the point of irrelevance.

These effective tools in containing social unrest and inculcating a sense of isolation for any individual with dissonant views from the official narrative were not just targeted interventions, they became pervasive, a paradigm permeating all formal and informal means of socialization. It forced individuals to develop duplicity as a coping strategy, one of ingenuine social association, an institutionalization of the lie, of accepting the abnormal as normal.

Professor Deletant concluded that “it is my view that the legacy of that experience impacts to a certain degree attitudes displayed today both by Romanians in the motherland and those outside. By recognizing this fact, initiatives to address it can only be to the benefit individually and collectively to Romanians everywhere including those in the diaspora here in the United States.”

The intent of delving into this tenebrous past was not to litigate the litany of wrongs so many exiles and immigrants experienced at the time of their departure prior to the collapse of the totalitarian regime. Rather it was meant as an attempt to have a frank discussion and begin to truly understand how those experiences still inform current instinctive behavioral patterns of reticence in associating and affirming group belonging beyond immediate circles of trust. Participants shared their personal journeys of resilience that led them to the successful career they built. Their personal sagas against difficult odds, the circumstances of their settlement in the United States, the challenges they experienced in their naturalization process, the values and friendships that helped them overcome critical situations, all uniquely shaped their self-perception as Romanian-Americans and the role this identity might play in their lives. Listening to those personal stories was vital to acknowledging that, at least within the diaspora, the reconciliation with past traumas remains incomplete, explaining in part why many Americans of Romanian descent remain reluctant to affirm their heritage and why many choose to socialize in discreet private circles of trust, often replicating persistent reflexes of suspicion with regards to the potential manipulation of associative platforms for political ends.

The discussion sought to define what Romanian-American identity might mean to successful professionals who left at various times. There are yet poorly understood distinctive waves of immigration to the United States and the circumstances of those departures define individual attitudes towards both the country of origin as well as attitudes towards assimilation.

Successful professionals that left the country during the totalitarian regime, expressed their challenge with their forced-upon roles as exiles and the appreciation they held for the opportunities they were afforded. For the younger professionals who emigrated in more recent decades there seems to be less of a conceptualized rupture with the native homeland. Their Romanian cultural identity is more readily taken as a natural part of their individuality within a multicultural mosaic, something only marginally related to their professional desire for self-actualization. Taking for granted the freedom of movement they have experienced most of their adult life, they tend to support social entrepreneurship ventures that would help Romania prosper, help it adopt values and governance expectations aligned to those readily available in their adoptive social settings abroad.

A whole new generation of now young professionals have arrived in the United States with full scholarships and prospects of meaningful careers that might not have been readily accessible in Romania. Their positive attitudes towards the country of origin and host country are intrinsically linked to professional opportunities throughout the United States and globally, feeling better adjusted to a labor market that often incentivizes a transnational mindset, constant relocation and a level of mobility that is not always kind to traditional patterns of family formation. Rather than thinking of the country of origin as place left behind, it becomes one of the optional places of comfort and belonging. Diasporic communities outside the country’s borders may also become such spaces, though in restrictive circles and fitting within overlapping circles of affiliation within the diversity of the host nation.

What seems to transcend generational profiles from the stories recounted in the meeting is the gratitude felt for the solid education and work ethic that Romania offered them all. Some emigrants voice the feeling of returning to their places of birth in Romania experiencing it as nostalgic tourists, seeing places that store childhood memories and realizing that the country has moved on, that the cultural progression of the country is dissonant with both their memories of the place as well as with the persons they have evolved to be in foreign settings. That realization is at the very core of why there is a hyphenated identity tributary to the host nation, one that substantially altered their worldviews and perceptions. Shifting cultural markers evolving in such distinct milieus might appear diluted but these experiences only help churn out the obvious reduction of cultural identity, that of being a social construct only as relevant as it is constantly reaffirmed, actively expressed through meaningful socializations that remain relevant to the present needs of the individual.

We often speak of diaspora as this given body of people but fail to notice how it is constantly being shaped by competing overlaying perceptions of belonging, how it is not simply a statistic on who holds what paperwork, but subject to exclusionary definitions and subgroupings. The panel discussions tried to inclusively define Romanian-American membership based on asserted Romanian descent, mindful that even a linguistic definition may leave out many of diaspora’s children. After all, few if any Irish-Americans speak any gallic but many remain so strongly tied to their extended kin in Ireland and their multi-cultural make-up does not preclude Ireland to assume them or assert that twenty two of US American presidents are of Irish descent, former president Barak Obama included.

The personal stories shared during the meeting highlighted the confluence of multi-ethnic identities individuals can opt to assume, their multiple options in defining their social standing based on their contributions to academic or professional circles and their mixed attitudes towards belonging to a certain religious confession that may or may not be a vehicle for their self-expression as belonging to a distinguishable Romanian cultural space. The discussion avoided cultural relativism but highlighted the often-overlooked reality that “the diaspora” is a highly heterogenous social construct exposed to a great degree of fluidity in membership and presenting multiple options for hyphenation.

In the words of Dadaist Jewish-Romanian poet Ilarie Voronca, “Of all NATIONS I choose imagi-NATION.” (Ilarie Voronca în revista "Unu", nr. 6/1928, Ora 10 dimineaţa 1928). We should take that verse not as an utterance of transnationalism but as a provocation to redefine the basis of our belonging to a common Romanian cultural space. While for first generation emigrants the hyphenated definition is composed of first-hand childhood experiences and adult decisions, for second generation descendants “being Romanian” is a vague optional notion that requires nurturing. If the concept of a Romanian-American community is inclusive and tolerant enough to accommodate a diversity of values and family-honored traditions, if it actively incorporates a wide array of positive role models, it will survive and sustain a broad human capital of great potential influence in bringing Romanian and American societies ever closer in their evolution.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 English edition of Revista Cultura:

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