My first day in the United States. After a long trans-Atlantic flight, the only memories of which are my half-dried tears, a dreadful headache and the German girl who sat next to me and never spoke a word, I land in the Washington D.C. airport. Or was it Philadelphia? I no longer remember. I pass the dreaded Immigration and officially enter the US. “Rally-Durham,” cries the nice man who takes my suitcase at check-in.
Finally, I arrive. It’s sunny and I have a feeling that it is going to be a good year. The journey itself presaged it: four connecting flights and no problem whatsoever. I find Vlaho, my Croatian friend, who is nervously trying to find a taxi. We spend the night in a motel, eat crappy American food bought from a gas station near by, and in the morning head for the university.
The cab driver, an Indian with poor English and a big smile, has heard about Croatia and Macedonia and we talk about Yugoslavia. A pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, in the end he only gets a meager tip from Vlaho as we are still not well informed about the tip “policy” in the States.
We call home from the Study Abroad Office and then Amanda, our advisor, takes us to our new homes. Mine is an apartment on Alexander Street. I still don’t know who my roommate is, but I like the place. My family has always lived in no more than two rooms, and I shared two rooms with three roommates while at university in Skopje, so the thought of having a whole apartment, even if I do share a bedroom with a flat mate, is exciting. Next, I roam around campus with my new French friend, Agnès, who is also one of the Visiting Internationals. I soon meet the rest of them; they come from Germany, France and Taiwan. The following day Amanda takes us all shopping at Target. First encounter with those large supermarkets where you can buy virtually everything you could think of. Buying the things I need without worrying too much about money is fun. But in general, shopping in such huge places tires me, it takes me ages to make a choice and in the end I feel strangely downcast.
Orientation week passes like a dream: nice people, beautiful places, lots of food and information, and all the American things to do. During one of the social events, students grumble about the new ACES (the computer system of the university). I tell them that they should not complain; in my school such a system would be considered science fiction. They look at me in a weird way. What they didn’t know is that instead of an electronic record, in Macedonia we have little “index books’ in which all the courses we take and all the grades we get are entered. The grade needs to be entered by the professor after the exam results are published, and this, of course, involves a special trip to the professor’s office and sometimes waiting for hours on end. Then, at the beginning and end of each semester we have to report our courses to the Student Affairs Office, and again queue for hours in a stuffy room, hoping that the administrator behind the counter will not be in a bad mood. Not to mention filling a form for every exam taken, as well as endless other forms which clutter the Student Affairs Office, our lives and this essay…
Classes start and I get busy. There is a lot to read, but I am not discouraged. My professor of Cultural Anthropology says that after this class our whole understanding of the world is going to change. Adam Smith and Marx are on the reading list, and many other economic theorists. Most of the readings are about political philosophy and economy; the topics include the division of labour in society, the beginnings of capitalism, the working class…I begin to learn about the principles behind our present world order, which I always found far from ideal and essentially unjust. I am getting even more acutely aware of the inequalities in the world, while studying at a rich university that has all the amenities and conveniences you could ever wish for. I enjoy my almost limitless food points and share them with friends who have a smaller food plan. We sometimes jokingly bless George Soros for providing our dinner. I love the Gothic towers of West Campus and the super-modern library (though I prefer the highest tower with large windows for a studying place over the brand new futuristic basement floor), but most of all I love the walk home: the big trees, the beautiful lawns and gardens and the pretty houses all of which lodge some or other important office for the university.
Often it all seems unreal. Organized to the point of irritation. You go to the library to scan a document, and of course you have the scanning directions on the Desktop. There is a bus that takes you to classes, or brings you back home, for free, even though it would take you no more than 15 minutes to walk there. And the wonderful Safe Rides! If you are stuck in the library late at night after the buses have stopped running, you call them and they come with their shiny white vans and give you a ride home, again free of charge. I felt so grateful each time they came to pick me up. Of course, students pay for most of these services through their tuition. But I have a scholarship that covers all my expenses, so sometimes I wonder: what am I doing here? In a positive way, of course. When I tell my European friends what my monthly living expenses in Macedonia are, not more than 200 dollars, they laugh. And yet, I find myself thinking: people, this is not reality!
But what is reality? At that time reality for me was my way of life in Macedonia, with less money, but not a bad life really. And yet my reality in Macedonia is different from the reality of other Macedonians, because I come from a lower middle-class family, if such classifications can be made. There are people who live better and people who live worse, economically speaking, as everywhere in the world. Is the reality of starving people in Ethiopia more real than the reality of beggars in Atlanta, Georgia, or even more real than the reality of the children of millionaires studying at Duke? I don’t know. The problem is that people get so embedded in their own realities that they forget other realities exist. And that the realities are so drastically different from each other.
It was a bit of a blow to see so many poor people in wealthy America. The disparities in a country which is well-to-do in general are even more drastic and striking. When I went to the Martin Luther King museum in Atlanta, I was moved by the greatness of the man and his idea, and then saddened to see so many beggars right outside of the museum trying to sell you something worthless, or just asking for change. All of them belonging to the same race for whose advancement he fought his battle. And then, one of my closest friends at Duke was Tim, whose mother was homeless. He was at Duke on a scholarship, still bruised by the memories of the times when he and his mom lived on food stamps, or of the many foster homes he had lived in. In the second semester his mom had found a place to stay so he went to visit her, and to meet up with his younger brother, who had just been adopted by a very religious Protestant family. He never told us in detail how he moved from being homeless to enrolling a university and then transferring to Duke. It seemed pretty amazing to me, but he didn’t want to talk about his past very much.
Sometimes, I felt bad for the pizza deliverer and the janitor lady because they had to serve me. The system was no good.
The real crisis came when I saw Slumdog Millionaire, the movie that had won the Oscar that year. The grey Sunday afternoon started ordinarily enough. We decided to leave the library to go to the movies, even though the pile of unfinished homework lay heavily on our consciences, as always. We jumped into Sam’s car and found our way to a small cinema in downtown Durham. From the beginning the movie generated a strong reaction within me. Strangely enough, it infuriated me. I was angry at the director for turning the plight of the slum children in India into an unrealistically romantic success story. I was angry at the Western audiences who might be disturbed by the scenes of the life in the slums in the beginning, but would go home comforted with the happy ending, singing the tunes of the Bollywood-style closing dance theme. “None of those children is ever going to become a millionaire, nor get near to the famous TV show, and that’s the real problem!” I screamed silently.
We shared our thoughts after the movie was over. Tim thought it was primarily a love story. The others agreed with me over the importance of the social themes. And yet, I was unable to convey all the intensity of what I felt to them. Of course they realized the gravity of the issue. It was the unfortunate downside of capitalism, I believe Vlaho thought. I had had many debates about capitalism with him, as I went through the process of unveiling its foundations and its crimes in the anthropology course. He, as a historian who was reading about the atrocities of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, reacted differently to my rant about equality for all. It was simply not possible, he said. Capitalism might not be the best imaginable system, but it is the best possible one, he triumphantly concluded in one occasion. Sam understood my concern better. He had gone through enough of poverty in his childhood and adolescence to never wish to go back to that state of affairs. His transferring to Duke was due only to his own ingeniousness and hard work, although he had never gone to high school and received formal education. Once there, he was not going to let pass the opportunity. He was going to play by the rules of the system in order to earn lots of money, and then he would outsmart it and change it, always helping the ones in need. So, he had a plan in place, and hence was not as terribly disturbed by the movie as I was.
Sam contributed a new perspective to my unsettled thoughts about Slumdog Millionaire. Sure, the story was sugarcoated in order to become a blockbuster, but that had enabled its message to reach wide audiences all around the world. If the movie provoked such reactions as the one I had, it was doing a pretty good job making people aware of how poorly and unfairly organized our world was. Still, I remained restless. One question after another emerged in my mind. I thought about all the professors teaching at Duke and the brilliant ideas they dedicated their lives to. It was all wonderful, but how could they remain calm and doing what they did while knowing that there were people in the world who might never have enough food and safe drinking water, let alone get educated and learn even a bit of all the knowledge being produced? What’s the point of building a career and achieving personal success when millions lived in such poor conditions, not because they had deserved it, but because the system didn’t let them do better?
On a more personal level, how could I dream of going to graduate school and spending my life studying literature, or cultures, or whatever, knowing what I know and not doing anything to change the situation? Wasn’t pursuing one’s chosen profession and thus not being full-time dedicated to helping others selfish?
Yes, people were often closed in their selfish little worlds, full of “important priorities,” I thought. Perhaps many started out idealistic, but then submitted to the pressures and demands of earning a living and providing for their families, and left behind good intentions about changing the world order. When I was sixteen, I read in a book which was very influential for my development that when choosing what to do, people should follow their strongest impulse and choose the activity that they are uniquely capable of, that few people could do better. The problem always is about discovering what one is uniquely capable of, and what one’s strongest impulse is. At the time of the “Slumdog Millionaire crisis” I debated between my two impulses: my undefined love of literature and studying in general, and my wish to help the poor and make the world more “just.” I finally reached a decision that the second impulse was the more important one, if not necessarily the stronger. I reasoned that in an ideal world, it would be okay to indulge in research work and lofty ideas, but the situation being as it was, it was paramount to take action.
But the future was still blurry and elusive. How exactly should I go about taking action? I started lamenting the fact that I had chosen to study English instead of economy. Had I studied economy, I would have had the necessary theoretical background to come up with a ground-breaking theory that would improve the system, make a real large-scale contribution. My ambitions were obviously far from modest. I promised myself to do research over the summer and find a postgraduate program to attend or some organization that I could become involved in. But then, maybe I should change my focus and think more locally? Concrete help given directly to people, or supporting organizations who work in those areas, can also make a difference.
One night on the bus, while I was going home from the library, the boy sitting next to me was talking to the driver (all the bus drivers were really nice, funny people). From the conversation I concluded that he was one of “the rich kids,” but had a rather different view of his future after graduation. He told the driver that he was planning to do “Teach for America” for some time and then probably work for a non-profit. “Teach for America” is a state program which encourages young people to teach in public schools with small budgets and big problems. At the goodbye dinner that we, Visiting Internationals, had with our advisor, the Dean of the Study Abroad Office, she expressed consternation at the fact that apparently a high margin of the university’s graduates got a job with “Teach for America” after finishing college, instead of going into some more remunerative field. Her point of view was that since their parents had made such a huge investment in having them study at Duke, the least they could do is try to earn a lot of money. Of course, I didn’t think much of her point of view, and was happy that the university managed to make some of the students aware of the plight of the less fortunate. There were many such examples. Bryan, for example, was going to spend the summer helping in a hospital in Kenya. So there were probably ways and ways to be useful for others, and yet do what you like best.
I need not say that all those thoughts did not come to any final conclusion, nor did I make a specific plan. As spring arrived, the intensity of my dilemmas started to fade and I was enchanted by the beautiful Duke surroundings. In spite of all the reading I had to do, I found time to enjoy friends and even find new ones. The America I had been critical towards finally won me over. At least that part of America that was the bubble I was living in…not real, or how real…I don’t know.
One year since my return from “the land of opportunities and contradictions,” I am no closer to finding my personal way to deal with the problem of poverty nor do I have a much clearer picture of what I want to become in life. However, it seems more and more probable that I am not going to go the strictly altruistic way and fulfill my resolutions made at Duke. It was somehow easier to have a wider perspective and to be more aware of world issues while in the US…Macedonia is still too enclosed in its own “reality,” and I lack insight and determination to undertake a great reforming endeavour. But I guess helping others is not actually as complicated as I present it to be. Small acts count and whatever one’s primary occupation is, it is important to sustain a personal integrity and never get too carried away and forget about the parallel realities of people who are doing their best to survive.
We are all living in one world, and a world in which chance is a powerful force. The place and conditions you were born in, and all the opportunities you have had are not necessarily your personal merit. But the faults of the system and all the aspects that could be improved are your responsibility.
Don’t forsake it (note to myself).
Daniela Atanasova is a fourth-year student of English language and literature at Ss Cyril and Methodius university in Skopje, Macedonia.
"Epiphany and Not Following Through (Yet?)" is copyright 2010 by Daniela Atanasova and may not be republished or reposted without permission of the author.