New York City’s reputation exceeds itself. One mention that I grew up in Manhattan and everyone gives me the universal ‘wow’ face followed by “No way” and “That’s mental!” I’m starting to get the feeling that people think I live in a postcard of New York surrounded by flashing lights and high-end retail.
The reality of my upbringing is anything but. I know what it’s like to bear the responsibility of deconstructing stereotypes, to be a representative for one’s ethnic, economic, and social identity, but my travels have made me realize one thing: I have no idea how to appropriately face that challenge outside of the United States. It was difficult trying to avoid talking about going out or having dinner at restaurants back home, but it’s more tricky when you’re surrounded by a group of people who don’t know much about NYC besides Central Park and Fifth Avenue. These conversations have made me aware of how much American media affects our foreign image, and these conversations haven’t stopped since I crossed the Atlantic two months ago.
During July, I spent the entire month in Copenhagen, Denmark participating in an interdisciplinary fellowship, called Humanity in Action, that featured daily lectures and discussions with renowned academics, journalists, politicians, and activists, as well as site visits to government agencies, nonprofit and community organizations, museums, and memorials. The topics touched upon in the program ranged from economic and governmental structures to wealth inequality in the United States, power politics, social justice, and Denmark’s ineffective asylum system.
Without realizing it until now, this program truly changed who I am. It put into place a skill set necessary to complete cross cultural dialogue and self reflection. In thinking about how I should frame the United States to those who have never visited, I realized just how much of my country I didn’t know about. This realization set off an impassioned binge on books and articles relating to race, identity, American society, and politics that has followed me to Serbia. I truly hope that it never ends.
In Denmark, it was easy talking to academics and interested students about societal issues in the US. But when talking to the average Belgrader, how can I explain that each state is inherently different (and by traveling from NY to PA one might find themselves in a different country)? How about explaining the economic, political, and cultural divisions between the North and the South? How do I even begin to explain who Trayvon Martin was and why the extensive history of racial inequality in the United States matters or even exists at all?
It’s really been putting me to work as an International Affairs major and I’m loving every second of it. Each part of society views the world within a different context, or a different lens, and trying on each culture’s pair of glasses has been an interesting journey. Every conversation is different, and every approach I make to a topic must be different as well.
I have unknowingly become an ambassador of the United States of America just by getting my passport stamped and being told “Dobrodošli u Srbiju.” [Welcome to Serbia.] Project BOMA has provided me with the opportunity of a lifetime, and with bearing this new found responsibility I have become aware of the incredible metamorphosis that I am currently undertaking. Just ask Djordje how many hours I spend reading the news in the morning, how many books I’ve added to my reading list, how many times I question my identity and purpose, how many times I wish that I could travel across the United States, or how many situations I find myself in that I could never have predicted just six months ago.
These past two months have pushed me to grow up, and the growing pains of it have run through every fiber of my being. I know my non-stop traveling during this summer into next year will leave me with stretch marks, but I will wear them with pride. They will say more about me and where I’ve been than any postcard ever could.