I was born with ten fingers and ten toes. My mother was so relieved when she counted them, that she failed to notice that I was born without a national identity.
I don’t remember when I first learned that I belonged to a country, but I do remember when I learned that my language was one among many. One day I asked my mother if she noticed that our thoughts didn’t float like clouds inside our heads, but were made out of words and it took us time to think them through. Of course, she said, people in other countries think in their languages as well.
In 1984, while in second grade, I wrote a composition about my love for Romania. It ended with an exclamation point. I loved my country, and why wouldn’t I? It was wonderful there in the wintertime when we children could play for hours in the snow outside the grocery store while our parents waited in line for our food rations. It was wonderful there in the summertime too, when we could stay out late for hours before electricity was turned on for the evening.
In third grade, I made sense of that love for my country. I was supposed to love everything between the Danube, the Carpathians, and the Black Sea, but my affection had to go cold at the Hungarian and Yugoslavian borders. I was encouraged to extend my love toward USSR, our eastern neighbor.
I finally put all the pieces together in fourth grade, when we started learning the history of Romania from the Romans on. For the first time it was “us” and “them.” Romanians were always the good people, and no matter what, they seemed to succeed in their historical endeavors. I was so happy to be on their side; any other country was pitiful, always being defeated, or, in the best case, ignored by us.
In our Literature class, we read stories about the proletariat fighting the bourgeoisie, the peasantry fighting the landowners, and the children helping their struggling families to fight against exploitation and injustice. Rich people never had kids. We read stories about the victories we had in WWII, where, for whatever reason, we fought alongside the Germans, but then we helped the Russian army win the war when we realized that the Nazis were bad.
When we had electricity, I would watch the TV shows about the capitalist world on Thursday evenings. I knew that we were socialists, which meant that everybody was equal. But the poor people in capitalism: they lived under bridges, they were in black-and white, they had drugs and guns, they were exploited. I asked my mother what she thought about the poor people in capitalism, and she told me we would talk about it when I grew up.
By then, I knew what it meant to be Romanian and I was proud of my people.
Things changed in seventh grade, after the revolution of December 1989. We had cartoons on TV every evening and no more electricity shortages. The poor people in capitalism brought us humanitarian aid: blankets, medicine, and chocolate. Then they brought us their movies, their music, their clothes, and, soon enough, their dreams.
We could buy things now, we didn’t need to wait in line, but it seemed that we never had enough money for buying anymore. The people who had been in power before were still in power now because the grownups didn’t know for whom to vote: the old and the corrupt or the new and the corruptible. They wanted things to stay pretty much the same as before, just with more freedom and with more TV.
Things became confusing. In ninth grade, I wanted to become a spy so I could travel the world. In twelfth grade, I wanted to become a NASA pilot so I could travel on board the Starship Enterprise to new worlds and new civilizations. Romania had democracy and horoscopes, but I wanted to go to America and beyond.
So I came to America, where most people barely know anything about Romania, my country, the one that goes back 2000 years, the one that has the bravest and the most virtuous people in the history of humankind—except for the last two generations or so. However, in America, I learned that I came from the land of Dracula. I have been trying ever since to pop out of the stereotype.
Here many people believe that the Americans are the best and most important people in the world—which means that the Romanians are not. Maybe I should go back and tell the Romanians that they have been mistaken all along. And while at it, maybe I should stop by France, and England, and Indonesia, and Rwanda, and South Korea, and Iran, and…
Thus spoke I more than ten years ago (plus a few edits now, for clarity and context), in the April 2006 issue of the (now defunct) European Weekly, in a piece named Finding One’s National Identity. At the time, I was in possession of some wisdom I felt the need to share with the rest of the world. But of course it was partial wisdom, because I was missing a critical aspect about the life of an immigrant, an aspect that would’ve sucked the glibness out of my words back then—had I grasped it.
And it took a long, long time for me to understand what my picture was missing. A long time, in which I lived with the absurd idea that HOME was in two places at once, as though I could physically live on the two different sides of Planet Earth at the same time, with two different families to take care of. There were clues of the impossibility, such as that when the sun was shining in the US, it was nighttime in Romania, and vice versa, but why would I question my worldview based on something as basic as the color of the sky? Why would I question anything based on the tears in my mother’s eyes? I knew better: I had phones, and cameras, and Skype and airplanes. I could make it all work without giving up on anyone. And then I could shower the world with more of my wisdom.
When I finally accepted that I can only be in one country at a time, with one family, while the other half of me was out of reach, life became simpler, but the sense of loss is still raw while the breezy wisdom of young age is gone.