The other

I am currently reading a series of books on nostalgia for what I hope will be a news story. On my way to the news, I’m finding some great nuggets of wisdom in books like Svetlana Boym‘s “Future of Nostalgia.” Here is one on how people from Eastern and Central Europe (who in the days before the Iron Curtain fell dreamt of the West and its openness) learn that their capitalist brothers are just as willing to divide people into various categories.

Boym quotes Dubravka Ugresic talking about her experience of being in Amsterdam with a Croatian passport:

“My problem is of a different nature,” writes Ugresic. “My problem consists in the fact that I am not and do not wish to be different. My difference and my identity are doggedly determined by others. Those at home and there outside.”

Boym continues:

Thus the border crossing to the West reinforces identity politics that one hoped to escape. Recognition of difference results in a nonrecognition of communality, of the other’s aspiration to be treated as an individual, not a member of a blood group or a nation state. (…) The Easterners end up being the most consistent liberals–not only political liberals but also existential and aesthetic ones. While writing about memory, East Central European writers refute the idea that a national community or a nation-state is the sole treasurer of memories.

I know Eastern and Central Europeans are far from this ideal description (we are plenty racist and well schooled in identity politics), but I quote it because it aptly reflects what I often felt in America. Trying to join in on conversations about the American present of politics, sports and entertainment, I was frequently labeled as “the Romanian,” some guy processing reality through his Romanian-self. I know this was done mostly out of courtesy, as if recognizing my origins would flatter me.

It didn’t flatter me, and it occasionally annoyed me (I did rant on similar issues before). I did not want to always be “the other,” I just wanted to be one of many. But this equality rarelly works well in practice, does it?

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