“I think your job is done here. You can go on knowing you helped someone discover a proper selfie!”
I flicked through my thread of Facebook messages with a smirk. I had just revealed to my friends the newest development in my relationship with my 16-year-old host sister, Ana: this week I lent her my iPhone for selfie purposes. Lo and behold, the selfie is universal… Ana used my phone (a device met with a quick intake of breath and knowing, wide-eyed appreciation on the day of my arrival) to take seventy-four selfies, emphasis on the tens place. She had modeled for a new hair and makeup salon opening in Chişinau and asked if she could use my cell for a few minutes to take some pictures. The loan extended past the sixty-minute mark, and as the minute shook hands with the hour, Ana returned to ask me to send her photos through Facebook Chat. I spent the next ten minutes making sure she wouldn’t miss a single frame of her cute pout.
This country, like so many in our contemporary times, is “plugged in.” Peace Corps advertised Moldova as one of the more sought-after locations, and I’m mildly suspicious that our high-speed, World Wide Luxury has something to do with it. In some ways and locations, Moldova comes across as “Westernized,” with “First-World Realities.” On Saturday, one of the current Peace Corps volunteers presented on his success working with Moldovan youth and bluntly stated that without Facebook Chat and other online chat services, he would only be connected with half of the youth he is currently serving.
The discovery of Moldova’s complex modernity has been an ongoing process, and the realization only slapped me full-on as I observed the crowd of adolescents milling around the “Carla’s Dream” concert I attended with my host sisters last Thursday.
When I accepted my invitation to serve in Moldova, I had decided that I would try to understand the culture with a fresh mind and an open heart. I would only read a few blogs for a general overview, take advantage of a few Corps resources on their Moldova-specific site and, of course, haunt Moldova’s Wikipedia page for some general history. But I purposefully eschewed any extensive history of the country or in-depth studies of its culture.
After observing this place for the past month and absorbing the juxtaposition of pitted, muddy roads with accessible high-speed internet, I’ve decided that my decision to limit my research was a good one – perhaps, on some level, I would have been confused by the “reality” of the culture. Instead of the conservative attitudes and rigid gender roles I was preparing myself to face (based on the little I had garnered from Peace Corps publications) what I have found instead is a country in the midst of a monumental transition. This isn’t to say that my expectations will not be met – I am currently living only 15 kilometers outside of the capital, of course – but at the same time, how could I have imagined that one of my host sister’s English language assignments would be to write an essay on Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook fame?
It’s not just internet accessibility that has influenced my fledgling perception of this country; the concert I attended with my host sisters Ana and Livia kicked my understanding to a new level. Of course I am coming into this with American eyes, but I can’t help but think that our culture is permeating Moldova. As soon as we arrived, Ana, Livia and I pushed our way toward the cracked steps in front of the “Teatrul Naţional de Opera şi Balet Maria Bieşu” in Chişinau and then squeezed ourselves into a small space between a fidgeting boy and a young woman in a white floral top. The band’s name, “Carla’s Dream,” is a tribute to their use of English (coupled with Russian and Romanian) in their songs. Though the majority of songs played that night were poppy-rock, hints of hip hop, jazz and rap were evident.
I recalled America many times throughout evening. Moldova’s largest phone company, Orange, advertised their sponsorship in English on a towering billboard as tall as the concert venue: “Orange Sponsors You.” During the opening acts, I observed the crowds for any surprises, and recoiled in double-take when the woman in the blue shirt, slender straps joining together in a V at her shoulder blades, turned around – no bra, free nipples, dangling sans support. And the teenage girls, mainly, were dressed like the twenty-somethings in America: crop tops, skinny jeans, fresh Nike, Converse knock-offs. Of course there was “Engrish” also, though the “Engrish” was decent: one shirt read “Lift Big Shit,” another simply spelled “King.” A few people flashed by sporting stunning tattoos and hawkish fades, and I even spied a “Hot Tuna” tee. (Shout-out to Harry Rose and Angela Skarpelis… there was a kid in a Lumpy Space Princess dress!!!)
We decided to close out the evening with the most American invention of all: cheeseburgers and fries at the king of fast food, MacDonald’s. The throng of adolescents (almost exclusively girls!) milling in front of the cash register threw me off. Where was the line? A quick memory flashed through my mind: the cows back home grouping in the Madison County auction house, bumping each other to get to the feed, some blindly staggering along the fenced enclosures, others lowing for attention. According to my Language Training Instructor, queues aren’t much of a “thing” in Moldovan culture … checkouts are dog-eat-dog. You look away for a second and another person has shoved her way in. Don’t let your mind wander – focus, maneuver, make the most of your elbows.
We ate our MacDonald’s in the back of the cab Ana had called to come pick us up from the village. The fries – the essential staple – were true to home. I could only lament the sesame seeds missing from my bun. Oh, America.
BONUS: Pictures from my visit to the market with Ana today: