Table of Contents
This is just a quick trip down memory lane, but I do feel that first-gen immigrants who grew up in unstable countries might find some relatable tidbits in there.
I didn’t always have the life I do now.
My family lost everything but our home in the ‘89 Romanian Revolution. With the rampant inflation that followed, all the money my parents had saved up became worthless almost overnight. Food and other necessities, which were already scarce under the ceaușescu dynasty’s communist dictatorship1, became even harder to come by when the supply chains broke down.
I remember my Dad driving up to the gas station to fill up the tiny tank of our Dacia 500. The queue of people waiting to do the same was a couple kilometers long. He slept in the car that night.
The country took years to recover. My family took much longer.
My parents were school teachers, so their jobs were inexorably tied to the whims of the many, many governments that followed (many of whom were boht incompetent and corrupt to boot). We weren’t the poorest family on the block, but we weren’t anywhere near the “middle” in “middle class,” either.
When you grow up like that, it stays with you. Like a good friend once told me: you can take the girl out of poverty, but you can’t take poverty out of the girl.
Greater forces #
Being poor in a developing country that had just had its social order upended was a vastly different experience from being poor in the West (however much some people would like to argue otherwise).
Where a Westerner might have turned to organized support, like food banks or universal credit, we only had family and community to rely on. This was before the first migration boom, when neighbors still knew and helped each other. I wore lots of hand-me-downs and gave my stuff away when it no longer fit me. Getting a new coat or a pair of jeans was a Big Deal; I only got one of each every year.
And then, we were all at the mercy of greater forces than any of us could have realistically controlled. My family weren’t politically active. They weren’t businesspeople, either, much less the kind of profiteers that prospered in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. As civil servants, they relied on the competence of a political class whose first and foremost concern was to steal or dismantle anything that wasn’t nailed down (and a lot of things that were).
They were also fiercely proud, so you’d have never heard them say we were poor. Instead, my mother used to take me aside whenever I asked for something I couldn’t have and tell me, “No, honey. Cut your coat according to your cloth2.” To which I’d then say, “Well, why not get a bigger cloth?”
I set out in search of that proverbial “bigger cloth” as soon as I was legally allowed to live on my own. I didn’t settle until I got to where I wanted to be, and then I kept going. At this point, I’m not sure I know how to stop.
There are a lot of things I still don’t understand about living in the West, though. For one thing, the notion that you buy things on a whim and throw them away when they no longer suit you is alien to me. My parents were hoarders by necessity. I, on the other hand, got used to living lean due to a combination of not enough money and keeping on the move. I might have settled down recently, but I still hesitate to get too attached to any of my possessions.
And then, there’s the fundamental disconnect that comes with lacking a lot of shared context with my current peers—from the little things, like not having played the same videogames as children (game consoles were a luxury), all the way to realizing that some of the things I saw growing up were things no child should ever have to see3.
I also learned, in those early days, that there’s no such thing as “we,” especially after social order breaks down. There’s the have and have-nots, and if you want something that they won’t share, you might as well find a way to take it4. I also learned I shouldn’t apologize for it. If I could do it, so could, realistically, anyone else. If they didn’t, that wasn’t on me.
Of course, I know better now. There may not be a quintessential “we,” but there is strength in numbers, and building a bigger table to share the spoils feels better than building a taller fence to keep it all for myself.
A crowd of me #
If I try to reconcile my first lived reality with where I am now, I usually give myself the mental equivalent of a bluescreen. I may have taken on some of the lifestyle and mannerisms of somebody living in the West, but that doesn’t make me a Westerner, nor would I want to become one.
That said, I’m also not the Romanian I used to be, and I’ll never be able to return to that, either. I’m stuck being the perpetual “other,” living a life that sometimes feels alien to me.
There are some things that I doubt will ever change, though. Going to sleep on an empty stomach can send me into a full-blown anxiety attack. It still feels weird to go shopping for clothes, and usually I stick pretty closely to the one-of-each approach. When I had a car back in Europe, filling up the the tank was nothing short of a transcendental experience sometimes5.
I guess, on some level, I’ll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop. I may have worked my ass off (and then some) to get to this point, but I also got lucky once, and chance is a fickle mistress.
Meanwhile, though, I’ve started trying to reconcile all of the pieces of my past, at least. This essay is one step towards that.
No, they do not get capital Cs. They already got the one capital thing they deserved. If anyone’s curious, the Romanian press organization Recorder did a poignant three-hour documentary on the subject of our nascent democracy after that. ↩︎
In Romanian, „Întinde-te cât ți-e plapuma” (“Stretch yourself as far as your blanket allows.”) It’s meant to say that you should limit yourself to what you have and can get. ↩︎
This applies to a lot of Romanians who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, I think. ↩︎
I never went around stealing other people’s stuff, but I know lots of kids in my neighborhood who did, and I can’t really fault them for it. Later on, they graduated to selling contraband and smuggling people across the Serbian border. One of them died that way. ↩︎
I’m dead serious here. Ask me how I learned to make a quarter-tank of Diesel last twice as long. ↩︎