Sunday, November 27, 2005

Discrimination

The sun has decided to shine again, and my world is quickly turning into a muddy slush. I'm not complaining. It's nice to have sun.
I went to church on Saturday and was invited to three people's houses for lunch. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for diplomacy's sake), I already had plans to go into Velingrad with Angel and buy a heater and a few other valuables (peanut butter! - we're out in Rakitovo, ramen!, and I found Reisen® chocolates!) Well, we found a heater, but they forgot to include one of the parts in the box. It's not doing such a bang-up job of heating my living room anyway, so I think I'm going to just take it back. I paid about $50 for it. It's nice and shiny, but I think it's a piece of junk. What do Bulgarians know about electric heaters anyway? They use woodburning stoves to make everything cozy. Peace Corps won't let us invest in anything that burns wood, or gas for that matter.
Last night, my organization hosted a parent's meeting. They wanted to talk about education and Roma integration in Bulgarian schools. About 15 said they would show. Only about four did. My organization even hosted a dinner afterwards at a restaurant here in town and footed the bill. I'm not exactly sure why the other parents didn't show. Maybe it was because there was a wedding in their neighboorhood (a 13-year-old girl married a 15/16-year-old boy), maybe it's because they were too busy doing other things, maybe they just don't want to hear what the organization has to say. I don't know how you turn down free dinner, but that's just me. Seeing as there was extra food, I ate three salads, some french fries, some cooked vegetables, and some bread. I drank a couple sodas on top of it. No reason to let good food go to waste. All the more for me, I say. And I taught Angel how to play Poker according to Apryl.
Today I pretty much laid low. Maria and Reneta (my supervisor's daughters who speak excellent English) came over today to hang out for a bit. I gave them each a doll yesterday because they both had a birthday this month. They have both decided to name their doll "Apryl." How cute is that?!?!?! So they came to my house with their dolls, and we watched "The Emperor's New Groove." If you haven't seen it, I recommend it highly. It's a classic. For those of you who have seen it, think of all the great lines I could quote to you right now! The girls brought me soda, cookies, and gummy worms 'cause you never show up for a "na gosti" empty-handed. After they left, I spent a few hours reading up on how to obtain grants and put together some other ideas for my service here. I'm starting to get idealistic again. I have my first English class on Thursday. Several people say they are going to show up. I hope I can live up to the hype and keep it going. Please pray for me. After getting all wound up about how much stuff I can probably never feasibly accomplish here, I decided to make pizza. It would have been super-fantabulous had my oven actually decided to COOK it!!! (sigh) After two hours, it wasn't the crunchy consistency I desired, but at least the dough was cooked through. Whatever. I talk about food so much on this blog, you must think I'm obsessed with eating. Well, it is one of my favorite pastimes.
Now, onto the title of this blog. I wanted to tell you all a little more about what it means to be Roma, and maybe a little about what it means to be Roma in the context of Bulgaria. I will start by sharing a couple things that happened to Angel and me yesterday:
I was sitting at the bus stop waiting for Angel to show up when I was approached by Brandy's landlady. The conversation went more or less like this:
Brandy's Landlady: Hi! What are you doing?
Apryl G.: Hi. I'm waiting for the bus to Velingrad.
BL: You're early.
AG: I know, but I'm waiting for a friend.
BL: Oh, is Brandy going with you?
AG: No, I'm going with another friend.
****Here I diverge to tell you a little about Bulgarian grammar. The word "friend" has masculine and feminine cognates: priatel - means a male friend. priatelka - means a female friend. In addition to this, these words can also mean boyfriend or girlfriend. I used "priatel," and this woman assumed I meant boyfriend.*********
BL: Oh, is he Bulgarian?
AG: Yes.
BL: Oooohh!!! That's great! What's his name? (and the conversation continues while she asks me all manner of questions about him... trying to figure out who he is - she thinks she knows him because everyone knows everyone in Rakitovo... except me, I know about 10 people). After this line of questioning, she goes on to ask about my salary.
BL: Who pays you for your work here?
AG: Peace Corps?
BL: And how much money do you make?
AG: (squirming) About 100 leva (I lie).
BL: But how do you live? I would think it'd be more than that.
So this conversation continues until Angel shows up.
AG: Ah, there's Angel
BL to Angel: Ooohh!! So you're Angel.
Angel is thrown for a minute. There's an interesting tone in her voice and she's looked him up and down, apparently surprised that he has dark skin that indicates he's Roma.
Angel: Yes, I'm Angel.
She then begins to question him about who he is, what his family does, and what he does for a living.
BL: Are you going to go to America with Apryl?
A: If I were a suitcase, she would take me, but I'm not, so no.
She talks to us for a few more minutes, and then takes her leave. She runs into someone she knows a few feet away, and they talk to each other with strange looks on their faces all the while looking at Angel and me. Angel and I laughed about it. She wasn't rude, per se. She was pretty pleasant, actually, in spite of the line of questioning. She was just transparent is all.

Second incident.
After coming back from Velingrad with the dolls for Maria and Reneta, Angel suggested we go to a shop here in town to get them gift-wrapped. Here's what happened at the first store we went to.
Lady with an unpleasant look on her face: What do you want?
Angel: We'd like to have some presents gift-wrapped.
Lady: We don't have any giftwrap here.
Meanwhile, we can both see through the window that there's giftwrap inside the shop.
Whatever. So we go to the second shop. Same thing happens. The lady at the counter says there's none available, but as we walk out Angel tells me he saw some.
I'm muttering under my breath, and Angel's asking me why I think they've turned us away in spite of having wrapping paper. We both know the reason, but I don't say anything.
At the third shop, Angel suggests that I ask. And I get my presents wrapped. Now, that's not to say that the third shop would have turned us away had Angel asked, but I find (as a fairly consistent pattern) that people are colder towards me when Angel is by my side. When I'm alone, people are generally more friendly. Then there's my Bulgarian language tutor who told me: "I like the Roma you work with. They're a special kind of Roma. They like to work. Do you understand what I'm saying?" To those of you who have experienced discrimination, I almost feel as though I should apologize for my naïvity. Thanks to a genetic inability to tan, I have never dealt with this before - unless it was "reverse discrimination" where I didn't get a scholarship because I wasn't a minority. Anyway, I'm not going to stop going places with Angel, so I'm trying to think of ways to "Rosa Parks" the town.

As I believe I've mentioned before, the Roma marry young as a general rule. It's a bit of a scandal if you're still single at 18 - and more so for girls than for boys. If you're around 16 and you're still single, people point to the examples of "old maids" in town and ask you if you want to turn out like them.
Women are supposed to remain virgins until marriage. Actually, there are two weddings. The first takes place shortly after the couple decides to marry. There may be no money for a wedding right away, but they will live together in the meantime. After their first night together, the groom takes blood (a symbol of his bride's purity) to his mother. If he does this, there is celebration in the town. Musicians and people gather in the street. They drink and do the "hora." The rakia runs red and just about everyone gets tipsy. I haven't seen what happens if there's no blood, but I know it's a huge scandal, and no one turns the rakia red. If the girl is not a virgin, but the boy still loves her very much, he may cut his finger to trick his mother. As there's no visible indication to show whether a male is a virgin or not, it's really not a concern of the town. When asked if they would like to marry a virgin, many boys say that it's not important to them, but their mother would flip out (i.e. cut him out of the family or something) if the girl weren't "clean." When asked if they would like to marry a virgin, girls usually respond that they'd rather find a boy with "opit," meaning "experience." I will spare you my diatribe about how unfair it is and how silly it is that young people who might not be able to control their passions must opt for marriage. What does a thirteen-year-old know about providing for a family and raising children? I didn't know which way was up when I was thirteen! Good gravy. Moving on.

Education isn't generally community-supported. There is a Roma school in the Mahala (Roma neighborhood) that goes up until the 8th grade. My colleagues, Ani and Valia, have described it to me in this way: At the Bulgarian school, if you don't know where the Mississippi River is, you get a "2" - meaning you fail. At the Roma school, they'll give you a "6" - which means excellent. There is a serious dicotomy between educational standards. The Roma people have reasons that genuinely make sense to them as to why they don't send their kids to the Bulgarian school. I happen to disagree with these reasons, but I must remember that I'm not Roma and I didn't grow up in that environment. Here are some possible reasons:
1. It's too far away. (I don't think it's really that far away, but by the time you get the kid dressed, fed, and ready to go, you might be late for work, and it's just easier to take him to the school that's close-by.)
2. The Bulgarian kids will beat up my kid. (Bullying does take place, and there was an incident where kids from a school in the next town came and beat up a Roma boy - it was awful, inexcusable, and I'm not downplaying it, but the school still insists that it's a safe place to be, and there are some Roma that attend there and can look out for each other. Angel tells me that violence against Roma is nowhere near what it was several years ago.)
3. My kid needs to help with my business, or look after other kids. (This is a reality in the Mahala. There are grandmothers who watch after their grandkids because parents ahve to work or who knows where the parents are? A lot of the children learn to be self-sufficient at an early age. Maybe that's why they can marry young.)
So, there isn't a whole lot of community support for education. Many kids (including our own volunteers at the club) ditch out on school and don't ask for help realizing their dreams because they can't fathom how anyone could possibly help them. At least this is what I think.
So now you know a little more about what I'm battling against. On that depressing note, I take my leave. Count your blessings, people. Count your blessings. Be thankful for all the times someone told you (with or without words) that you were worth something - that your education was important - that you were a capable human being worth waiting for - that you mattered and your existence makes a difference. I believe that, as a child and a teenager you don't know this, and you need someone else to show/tell you until you're able to know it for yourself.

1 comment:

Frankie said...

It's amazing how wherever one turns, discrimination, racism, sexism, etc. continue to exist. :(

It sounds like you're fighting a lot of tradition and relunctance to change. I hope that things may improve slightly through your efforts.

I applaude you for what you are doing! I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving!