BY: ALEXANDRA MADARAS, CONTRIBUTOR
As the daughter of Romanian immigrants, I’ve always bought into the “torn between two countries” narrative. But recent events have made me wonder whether my two mother countries are actually so wildly different.
It’s true that on the surface, Romania and America are anything but similar; one is a household name worldwide, the other, far from. Romania’s economy, trade status, and presence on the world stage stand at a fraction of that of the United States.
But outside of fame and fortune, Romania and America are both currently enduring a state of socio-political turmoil and a rather dramatic generational split. The youth of each country are growing up in a new world, with new advantages and new problems.
Recently, I began to wonder what young Americans could learn from young Romanians. Similar to us, the Romanian next generation is growing to face an ever-changing landscape of problems in their country. Maybe if we were given an inside look at a population learning to deal with their environment, we could learn from their mistakes and successes and better be able to improve our own surroundings.
To start that process, I set out to explore youth culture and politics in Romania through the eyes of the people experiencing it. Talking directly with teens in Romania, I decided to find out if our lives and ideas are really any different than our counterparts across the globe.
The Inside Scoop
I met my friends Mara Părău and Emilia (Emi) Cordoș in the summer of 2015 while visiting Romania. Mara’s mother, one of my mom’s friends from college, invited us to a party at her second home about 30 minutes outside of the city. As a 13-year-old, I was not excited to spend time with new people, much less people who spoke Romanian a hundred times better than me.
But Mara and Emi were a pleasant surprise. They asked me about my classes in fluent English and were excited to hear about my life in America. I distinctly remember Emi pulling up Snapchat to record me speaking English. (My lack of accent was a novelty). That was one of my first and only experiences with Romanian teenagers. It shocked me; learning about the country from the outside and hearing about my parents’ experience, I didn’t expect girls my age in a post-communist second world country to be so…cool.
Same City, New Life
During my trip to Romania this past summer, I spent a day with Mara in my parents’ hometown of Cluj-Napoca, or Cluj for short. Although I felt like I’d walked the city streets a thousand times before, exploring with someone my age helped me see it in a whole new light.
For her, the city isn’t the history of the old buildings or the explanation behind every church and plaque. It’s simply the park she frequents after school and the bus stop she waits at on the way back home from the mall. It’s just home.
For many of the young population of Romania, that is the case. Mara says that the young generation is often considered, “more relaxed.” “But,” she justifies, “that’s because we’re not facing the same problems as in the past.” She references the difficult recent history of the country. Although Romania has gone through extensive twists and turns, Mara and Emi tell me that Romanian history is barely brushed over in school. “The history of Romania is taught to us,” Emi mentions, “but very vaguely and abridged.”
A Widening Rift
The lack of thorough education about what their parents and grandparents have gone through has led to a distinct generational gap that I routinely spotted myself while walking the streets. Older men and women tend to wear simpler, more traditional clothes. They often complain that the youth are becoming too outrageous and straying from correct morals. Most noticeably, the older people are beginning to feel left behind in the new era of technology and youth culture, making references to the past and lamenting the loss of a simpler time.
In order to fully grasp why the elder perspective is so different, it’s important to understand the experience of the older generations.
Romania’s Difficult Past
Until December of 1989, Romania lived under a Communist dictatorship as a former satellite state of the Soviet Union. It was harshly ruled by Nicolae Ceaușescu from 1965 until his execution at the end of a swift anti-government revolution by the Romanian people. My parents effectively spent their whole lives under his regime until their mid-20s. They were lucky to immigrate to the U.S. in the early 90s for graduate school. Even more than a decade later, as I grew up, I heard stories of my mother waiting in line for bread and milk as a teenager, and my father being grateful to receive an orange for Christmas.
Romania’s rough history has clearly affected its people.
1989 was a long time ago. Just two years after the revolution, a democratic constitution was implemented. In 2004, the country joined NATO, and in 2007, the EU. Although economically, it was a slow recovery process for Romania post-communism and a good part of the population still lives in a rural setting, its major cities nowadays thrive with new life, primarily due to a new catalyst: the energetic next generation.
Cluj is a city that exemplifies the “new Romania.” The leading urban center in the region of Transylvania (yes, it’s a real place), Cluj is home to two theaters, two operas, four cultural houses, a philharmonic, and six museums.
When Mara and I wanted to go for a juice, she presented me with a dozen options. Each sounded far more interesting than your typical Jamba Juice. We ended up at “L’Alchimiste,” a modern style cafe with an outside patio where we sat and talked for an hour. It turns out that Romanian teenagers speak just as fast as American ones. As I struggled to make coherent Romanian sentences, Mara insisted I cross into English if I had to. “I watch a lot of American shows,” she told me. “It helps with English.”
Our conversation made me wonder later what interactions were like for Mara and Emi day-to-day. I realized that they were my first exposure to what I would have been like had I been born in Romania.
“What is the young generation like?” I asked them. “What do they like to do?”
“Do you talk about politics?”
I was almost completely in the dark.
Emi describes her pastimes as mainly watching TV shows (her favorites on Netflix line up well with mine) and hanging out with friends, but sometimes as she puts it,
“ I don’t feel like doing anything, so I just sleep.”
Mara adds that she loves to hang hammocks and relax in the central park and attend the music festivals that swing through Cluj annually. A marker of strong youth culture, both Untold and Electric Castle, large electronic music festivals, take place in July and August, drawing huge crowds and big names in music.
But all fun aside, Mara says that young people still put full effort into the subjects they’re interested in. She feels that her generation is often misunderstood.
“Everyone says that our generation is lost, that there is no hope for us. Yes, we are different, but that doesn’t mean that everything we’re doing is wrong.”
However, she does admit that their more laid-back attitude isn’t always helpful.
She remarks, “We could try to pay more attention to the world.”
A New Experience
Leaving the cafe with Mara, we headed to the mall for some quality teenage girl time. She was on the hunt for some flowy, belted pants. “They’re so fashionable!” she told me. “Plus, we can’t wear shorts to school.”
When we left hours later, we met a group of Mara’s schoolmates at the bus stop. The relaxed normality of their interactions struck me. Once again, the difference in the culture of young Romanians and their parents stood out. The group of 4 or 5 girls was dressed exceptionally well in clothes my friends would wear at home. They greeted me warmly but with handshakes as opposed to the kisses on the cheek I was used to. Speaking quickly and expressively, they threw out slang my parents wouldn’t dream of using. When I told them I lived in America and was just there to visit, they were surprised.
“Your accent is so good!”
I was grateful to be accepted by people my age and thrilled to be part of a dynamic I’d never experience before.
When I visited at the end of May, Mara and Emi were still in school, with exams coming up. The Romanian education system fascinated me. Mara took me with her into their school, Colegiul Naţional George Coşbuc, to leave some things in her locker. The building looked fairly modern, sandwiched between apartment-like buildings near the center of the city. There are no school buses, Mara told me. Kids mostly use the city bus system or walk if they’re close.
In Romania, many “national colleges,” or prestigious general high schools, offer multiple course specializations. Mara and Emi take part in the “Profil Real” sector which centers on science, math, logic in higher concentrations and less on history and language. There is also “Profilul Uman,” which emphasizes humanities and languages. Each “major” has sub-specializations, and although it is widely considered more strenuous, the Maths and Sciences course is more popular, due to higher chance of admission into university. To me, this whole system sounded like a lot of pressure. When I asked Mara and Emi about their stress levels, though, I got very different answers.
“I’m usually really not that stressed,” Emi told me.
“I used to make a habit of stressing about school, but I’ve noticed that there are other activities that are more important in my life.”
Mara, on the other hand, feels the pressure.
“We all know how stressful school can be, and combined with other factors in our daily life, that could lead to much bigger issues.”
She told me she’s worried about mental illness among her peers and the lack of faith the young generation seems to have in itself.
All of this seems not dissimilar to what goes on in America. Although on average, our high school experience is rather less structured and collegiate, we still face enormous amounts of pressure to succeed academically. But as Mara and Emi exemplify, it’s up to each individual student to make the best of their situation.
“The interests of our generation are very diverse,” Emi pointed out. “Each person chooses the subjects that interest them.”
Silence Where Discourse Should Be
Aside from academic rigor, the girls have other issues with their school system. Both of them lament the lack of real-world education about politics and government.
“Democracy is a topic we don’t discuss,” Mara puts it bluntly. Emi adds that there is no class or subject dedicated to politics.
“Most of the [political] information we get is from TV or our parents.”
According to them, politics is a highly sensitive subject that is avoided by teachers for the most part; however, they say the topic is fairly prevalent in their conversations with friends.
“I talk about politics with my friends pretty often,” says Emi, “especially due to the recent happenings in Parliament.”
She’s referring to the turmoil surrounding the current Romanian government.
Government and Politics: Double Trouble
A multi-party system is supposed to maintain balance and democracy within Parliament and the administration, but as of late, corruption has reigned supreme.
In the past few years, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) has slowly gained control of the legislature by appealing to older voters and the peasantry and creating a coalition with another party, ALDE. As a result of the legislative election in 2016, PSD and ALDE won a majority in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.
In January of 2017, the PSD government made changes to the Penal Code that essentially made abuse of power and political corruption legal for damages under $48,000.
The Romanian public exploded in opposition.
In the three nights after the bill was publicly announced, protesters took to the streets in the thousands, the numbers ultimately reaching 500,000 people, making it the largest demonstration since the fall of communism.
Mara and Emi say the protests have continued against the government and are a point of both severity and pride.
“I’ve been to protests,” Emi recounts. “If certain rules are respected and it’s peaceful, it’s really something to be admired.”
Both she and Mara told me about the most recent protest, in Bucharest on August 10th.
“People from all around the world came back to their home country with the hope in their hearts that they were going to change something,” Mara said.
But instead, disaster ensued.
Tear gas was used, which according to Emi was “unnecessary in most cases,” and landed 400 people in the hospital.
She thinks that the government used violent tactics on purpose to discourage people from taking the streets.
Incompetence and Complacency
But the government’s response to protests isn’t what the girls are most worried about. When I asked them what they think Romania’s biggest problem was, Mara named the incompetence of the new Prime Minister, Viorica Dăncila.
“She was put in charge by Liviu Dragnea, the leader of PSD.” In June, Dragnea was sentenced to nearly four years in prison… but continues to rule the party and call the shots.
“But why is this actually one of the biggest problems?” Mara says.
“Because Dăncila has nothing to do with politics.
She used to be a technology teacher and out of nowhere she became the Prime Minister.”
Emi says it’s a big problem that many people don’t go out and vote. According to her, the people who do vote tend to be older and buy into the message of the PSD with no regard for their actions. She wishes the young generation would show up to vote for their interests.
Much of this should sound eerily familiar.
Within all the complicated politics and turmoil, the root cause of corruption and a complacent population is not so different than our situation here in the U.S.
While many people do take to the streets with the internet of check the government on immoral action, many still stick to the sidelines, both here and in Romania.
Youth and Politics
According to a 2014 study, Mara and Emi were reasonably correct about youth disinterest in politics in their country, at least before major protests erupted. The Center for Urban and Regional Sociology reported that although 65% of young Romanians though that the country was going the “wrong way,” 63% considered being active in politics to be either “not really fashionable” or “totally outdated.”
Unfortunately, it also looks like many young people aren’t around to participate in politics.
Some, like Mara, care deeply about Romania’s situation but still plan to study or work outside of Romania due to better opportunities. In recent years, the emigration rate of young people aged 15-29 has skyrocketed, their population dropping 28% since 2008. Not only does this decrease the number of young people able to be involved in activism in the country, but it also increases the ratio of older and rural populations, keeping the core voting block of the PSD solidly in place. But others are choosing to stay it out. Many are like Emi who told me,
“I plan on staying in Romania, so I can change something, even just a little.”
Mara says it’s likely that due to recent political crises, young people who stay in the country are taking an interest in politics more and more.
“In the latest period of time, politics has become a huge concern for our future.”
Fighting the Good Fight
All hope is not lost.
There are many young Romanians like Mara and Emi who do talk about politics with each other and have formed solid opinions. They truly believe that the change is in their hands. They make up much of the demographic that regularly protest government corruption.
The generation is clearly torn, as ours is, between people who see the future of their country as their responsibility and an opportunity for betterment and those who are unconcerned or pessimistic. Some still believe that they can’t make much of an impact, but the people who do believe in taking an interest are fully invested in improving the future of their country.
The disarray in their nation has inspired them to move towards change, rather than shy away from it.
As Emi puts best,
“If we make rational decisions and we want to change something in this country, Romania’s future will be better.”
Youth in Romania recognize the importance of their impact and awareness.
The Strength of a Nation
Clearly, drawing parallels between the situation in Romania and in America may be easier than I thought.
It’s true that the young generation in Romania isn’t any more wholly active than Gen Z in America. However, the conviction and dedication of involved young Romanians is ultimately inspiring. In a society where older voters continue to elect corrupt officials and vote against their own interests, young people remain resilient and outspoken about their rights and opinions. They take the injustice against them and use it to fuel their fire of protest and progress.
As well, through the generational gap, they show their independence as a young generation rather than follow in the footsteps of their parents.
Commonality Across Borders
We’ve seen that Romanians are, for the most part, just like us. With the same pastimes, same school stress, and similar surrounding conflict, we have plenty in common with this other next generation. But something about the dedication and awareness they have about their civic responsibility is inspiring. Their willingness to question authority they see as immoral and to persist when an abusive power tries to silence them is the core of what it takes for young people to create change in a flawed democracy. From their example, we can take that persistence and strength of will and apply it to our own predicaments.
In solidarity, I truly believe that the best way for the next generation to become a true force of strength and positive change is by educating ourselves about the world around us.
There is no better way to achieve that than to learn something from different people in a similar situation someplace else in the world.
By sharing the views and lives of my friends in my mother country, I hope to have exposed the experience of young people in a new democracy as an example we can learn from. From the failings of Romanians, we can learn not to make the same mistakes. From their strength, we can take inspiration.
Navigating our world is always going to be difficult.
But by learning from each other, it can become easier than we ever thought possible.