Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Romania
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Revision as of 00:52, 23 November 2008
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Romania, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Romania.
Outside of Romania’s capital and other large cities, people have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Romania are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Romania, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
Overview of Diversity in Romania
The Peace Corps staff in Romania recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
As with other social matters, there are large differences in attitudes toward gender between smaller and bigger communities and between the older and younger generations.
Stereotypes concerning behavior toward women that exist in southern European cultures can be applied to Romanians as well. By tradition, women are expected to be able to cook and look after the needs of their husbands and children while having their own jobs. On the other hand, men are expected to open doors for women, to offer them seats on public transportation, and to kiss women’s hands when being introduced to them. At work, female Volunteers may feel that their skills are questioned in the predominantly male environment. Many Romanian men will intervene if a woman is performing a task that is considered difficult or demeaning. It is considered masculine to help a woman who seems confused by a minor mechanical or equipment-related problem. In addition, women may be honked at by drivers or yelled at by groups of young men in the streets. In such situations, it is generally best to continue walking and try not to get involved in any conversation.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
There are relatively few people of color in Romania. Most of them are African students and immigrants who live in Bucharest and a few other large cities. Even though there is no history of institutionalized discrimination or hatred directed at black people, African-American Volunteers may hear offensive remarks by younger people who have seen instances of racism in Western movies and think it is acceptable to act in a similar manner. Someone may utter an offensive term because he or she is not aware of the acceptable term in English and not because the person really means to be offensive.
Hispanic American Volunteers may encounter preferential treatment from some Romanians, many of whom are very proud of, and even defensive about, their Latin origins and view Hispanic Americans as kin. Romania has a small community of Asians, many of whom work in business. As a result of news stories about business irregularities in the past years, Asian Americans may be looked at with suspicion. The most common behavior that they encounter is being called “Chinese” or “Japanese” for no reason. Young people may irritate you by demanding that you demonstrate the martial arts skills that Asian Americans supposedly have. Residents of smaller communities may find it difficult to understand that a Volunteer is American, and may ask you when you immigrated to the United States.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Seniors receive great respect in Romanian culture. In Romanian folklore, the hero often seeks the counsel of the wise old man or woman. There are situations in which senior Volunteers will find themselves challenged, however. A senior who teaches English in a high school may face some disappointment from counterparts and students who wanted a younger teacher. It may take a little time for them to see that age does not have anything to do with a Volunteer’s energy and eagerness.
Older people in Romania generally are less active than seniors in the United States. A senior Volunteer’s Romanian friends might assume that the Volunteer does not want to socialize that much and that he or she would rather stay home and watch television. They may fail to include senior Volunteers in some of their social activities. Another stereotype about older Volunteers is that they have old-fashioned ideas and are not able to adapt to new trends.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Laws that discriminated against sexual minorities recently have been changed, but Romania still has a rather homophobic culture. The younger generation in large cities tends to be more accepting, having been exposed to Western culture through films, documentaries, and even gay people’s visibility. The gay scene has recently grown, but it is still small, underground, and confined mostly to the largest cities. In any event, it is advisable to be careful about revealing one’s sexual orientation in the workplace and the community.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
More than 85 percent of the population is Eastern (Romanian) Orthodox, with less than 5 percent Roman Catholic, 4 percent Protestant, 0.3 percent Muslim, and 0.2 percent Jewish. The Romanian Orthodox Church is hierarchical, dogmatic, and fairly well-to-do. New churches are being built even in poor villages to accommodate the growing membership. You may be asked about your religious affiliation and invited to attend an Orthodox church, but not likely in a pushy manner. It is possible to politely decline if the church or religious practice is not one of your choice. If you want to attend a church other than a Romanian Orthodox one, your options may be limited, especially in smaller towns and rural areas.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in Romania, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. As in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes toward people with disabilities, who are often institutionalized or kept out of public view in Romania. In addition, there is very little infrastructure to accommodate people with disabilities.
As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Romania without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Romania staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
Possible Issues for Married Volunteers
Married couples may face challenges in their relationships with Romanians resulting from gender role expectations specific to the Latin and male-centered culture. A Volunteer wife may be questioned—directly or as a source of gossip among older Romanian women—as to whether she is taking proper care of her husband, whether she can cook and preserve vegetables for the winter, and whether she spends too much time with other men. The independence demonstrated by the members of an American couple may be perceived as immoral. The wife may be expected to perform all the domestic chores, while the husband may be expected to assume an overtly dominant role in the household. Some Romanian men’s respect for a married male Volunteer may decrease if they learn that he performs domestic tasks. In some instances, a husband may be expected to make a decision without consulting his wife. Yet because of women’s increasing social and professional visibility, perceptions of gender roles in marriage have been changing toward a more Western way of thinking, at least in larger towns and cities.