Oh reverse culture shock

I once heard a singer say that one reason she loved to travel was the opportunity to look at ourselves and our own culture through new eyes. And sometimes we don’t like what we see.

Here are a few things that have stood out for me…

Relational –While in Bosnia, I heard many people say and demonstrate that relationships are a key component to their lives. “It is a wonderful thing the more we can love and be loved in return.” Or another paraphrase that I heard – “Success is measured by how many relationships one has.” U.S. culture does not share this value, or at least does not place as much emphasis on it. It has been difficult for me to readjust to this process. For the last couple weeks, people have seemed cold compared to my life in Bosnia. I know that this is not the meaning behind their actions, but after being in Sarajevo for 2 months, I have grown accustomed to doing things together, sharing nearly everything, offering/ receiving food and drinks, seeking out community, placing a priority on people, etc. A big question for me now is how do I continue a relational lifestyle in a culture that places a higher value on efficiency and tasks. Especially when there does not seem to be enough time for it.

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Bluntness/ rawness – Bosnian culture, and especially my supervisor, has a certain amount of bluntness or rawness compared to the states. Words are not usually minced, items are not usually sugar coated, political correctness is not always followed. You say, feel, express, convey what you want and then move on. It was highly refreshing for me. I used to operate in this manner when I was younger and studying to be an engineer, a profession which required a certain amount of directness or bluntness. 1 + 1 = 2. However, as I switched my major in undergrad and am now in graduate school for social work, I started dancing around topics more. But it’s never felt entirely natural or comfortable to me, and it wasn’t until this summer that I was able to truly recognize this process in myself. Now I am wondering what will my level of directness look like with others, especially clients. How will it look within a social work or a therapeutic context?

These are just a few tidbits that have been going through my mind since returning. It has been a wonderful summer in so many different ways and in large part to the amazing people in Bosnia as well as those affiliated with DU. Without these relationships, this program would not be the same or even comparable. A great thanks to everyone who helped make this summer what it was.

Goodbye for now Bosnia. Inshallah I will return soon.

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Anger & Photos

At the Dutch UN base in Potočari, the soldiers left behind a number of graffiti. These range from the mundane to the crass to the outright offensive. One of the most infamous is below.

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Viewing these words at the base created a lot of anger in me. Anger at the soldiers, at the situation, at humanity. Cuss words flew within my head. How could anyone write such a thing? People were being raped and murdered nearby. People were dying from starvation and dehydration. People lacked basic necessities. Perhaps most enraging to me was the fact that there’s a window not 3 meters from this graffiti. Whoever made it may have been able to view the entire situation unfold when they wrote these 9 words on the wall. Frankly, wtf?

For a while after Srebrenica, I was not sure what to do with this anger. It seemed to blind and overwhelm me, encouraging me to scream out about these atrocities yet ignore any response. A closed one-way street. One of my favorite authors, Rachel Remen, states that “often anger is a sign of engagement with life” and “a demand for change, a passionate wish for things to be different.” Yea, that resonates with me. But what do I do with my contempt for this situation?

An answer appeared in another photo. One that uses the same grafatti but with a slight difference. Upon entering the permanent exhibition of the Muzej suvremene umjetnosti in Zagreb (Museum of Contemporary Art), visitors walk up a flight of stairs and are confronted with an enormous picture, over a story tall. Made by Bosnian artist Šejla Kamerić in 2003, the work superimposes those horrible words over a self-portrait of Kamerić herself. The contrast is startling.

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I do not doubt for a second that Kamerić felt anger around these words or maybe even the project. But she was able to channel it in a productive way. She received international acclaim for the work and brought a spotlight to the graffiti as well as Srebrenicia.

Now that I am back in the states, I pray that my anger from Srebrenica never goes away. It has the ability to blind us or to drive us toward change. Hopefully it’s the later.

Music of Sarajevo (Part II)

This post continues with some musical highlights that we have experienced during our time in Bosnia. Enjoy…

One component of rap that I’ve always loved is how meaningful the lyrics can be. Artists will use their music to tackle social issues or criticize wars or lambast politicians. And all of these thoughtful commentaries come in polished packages complete with those figurative language devices that we learned as kids. But this time they actually sound good. Edo Maajka is one of those artists. Although I have to use a translator or a co-worker to understand his lyrics, he’s adding a voice to a lot of the discontent here – black market, unemployment, women’s rights, even facebook. Here’s his song Jesmol’ Sami…

Ann has often been mentioned that if someone invites you to something in Bosnia, the answer should always be yes (within reason, but even then the answer is probably still yes). So when a classmate told me about a Bosnian reggae concert, I said yes without really thinking it. It turned into a late, dancing, fun-filled night. Zoster…


As a number of the blogs have touched upon, people are amazingly warm and welcoming here. Whether inviting you to their hometown, bringing you more coffee/ food than you can drink/ eat or simply stopping to talk and catch up, people continually demonstrate hospitality. This process still takes me by surprise sometimes, and a recent example occurred in the form of a private piano concert. Only meeting the day before, a classically trained pianist offered to play a few pieces for us. Hopefully from this clip (Chopin’s 7th Waltz, 2nd movement), you can hear some of the life and energy the artist brings to her music as well as her own life…


Music of Sarajevo (Part I)

There has been a number of musical highlights during our time here. So much so that I decided to split them into two blogs. Up first are clips from the 100 year WWI anniversary performance and the Balkan/Sarajevo Orchestras.

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of Gabrilo Princip killing Franz Ferdinad and his wife Sophie, a musical/theatrical performance was held on the nearby Latin bridge. In typical Bosnian fashion, little information was available except through the grapevine. Even then, the only thing that we could learn was the start time, 11:45 pm. Here’s a clip from the beginning…

Despite not knowing Bosnian, I still found the night memorable. The event included a folkloric group, modern dance, Bosnian pop-star Dino and an a cappella group amongst others. Perhaps most memorable was a theatrical reenactment of Abraham and his son (this time as brothers and Abraham slewing the other despite divine intervention – the symbolism gave me goose bumps). Here is a clip from the a cappella group…

Baščaršija Nights occurs every July in Sarajevo and is a series of free cultural events. One of the first events this year was the Balkan Chamber Orchestra and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra. Again little information was available and upon arriving we quickly learned that you needed a ticket. At first we were a little flummoxed, especially since part of the group had learned earlier in the day that tickets weren’t required. However in Bosnia things have a way of just falling into place. And sure enough, there was a lady nearby handing out extra tickets for free. The concert was spectacular and closed with Beethoven’s well-known Choral Finale…

Pictures in place of words

Srebrenica. Potočari. Marš Mira.

I do not have words yet.

Two weeks ago some classmates and I participated in the Marš Mira (Peace March). It was demanding mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and probably any other –ly you can think of. I haven’t even begun to fully process the experience. So when we visited Srebrenica again this past weekend, it was difficult for me. Although the setting was the same, it felt entirely different. Quiet and serenity had replaced thousands of people and stimulation. More emotions and feelings came up for me during the second visit as it was easier to reflect and be still in the moment.

Despite my lack of coherent language to share with others, I still wish to begin to share something. For it is a story, a place, a collective memory that needs to be shared. Hopefully pictures suffice for now.

Outside the factory/memorial in Potočari
Statue outside the factory/memorial in Potočari
Inside where close to 5,000 people were held without access to food, water or any basic necessities
Inside where close to 5,000 people were held without access to food, water or any basic necessities
Eventually the Dutch UN peace keeping force turned the people over to Serbian troops
Eventually the Dutch UN peace keeping force turned the people over to Serbian troops
The red and yellow doors used to be a bar for the UN troops.
The red and yellow doors used to be an entrance to a bar for the UN troops.
Looking from the factory to the "offices"
Looking from the factory to the “offices”
Hasan describing how the Dutch UN troops used the facilities
Hasan describing how the Dutch UN troops used the facilities
Throughout the offices are some of the troop's "artwork" - this is one of the more respectful pieces
Throughout the offices are some of the troop’s “artwork” – this is one of the more respectful pieces
Freshly buried graves in the cemetery. A total of 175 individuals were identified this year.
Freshly buried graves in the cemetery. A total of 175 individuals were identified this year. Of the 8,372 reported missing, around 1,000 have yet to be found or identified.
Three of us overlooking Srebrenica in the early morning.
Three of us overlooking Srebrenica in the early morning.

The 4th story

A co-worker recently told me that there are 4 stories in this country: the three ethno-national perspectives and then the truth. Deciphering between all of these and determining the 4th story can be difficult.

Throughout my time in this country, I have been constantly reminded of how complex situations are here. Even things that may appear black and white seldom end up being so clear cut. There is always another element underneath the surface. Some other piece of information that confounds the scenario. Always another layer. Another side or at a minimum a different slant or angle to view a situation. Two people can take part in the same event or observe the same thing, yet have drastically differing viewpoints on what happened. Additionally, they may hold these antagonistic viewpoints as absolute facts.

Everyone looks at the world through their own lens; however this process seems to take on a new level here in Bosnia and has been difficult for me to adjust to. Which one is correct? What actually happened? What do I choose to believe? These questions and their answers are not always clear to me.

As an example take the recent spring riots in Bosnia. Was it solely the result of activists fed up with the current economic/ political/ social situation and demanding changes? Or did a government official orchestrate and fund the riots in order to gain political power? I have heard people tell me with absolute conviction that one or the other is correct. Sometimes heatedly putting down the other viewpoint when I ask about it.

As a foreigner trying to better understand this country, I have realized that I need to let go of my desire to find the “4th story.” Each perspective is truth to that individual. Every worldview is its own reality. Anymore I no longer view the truth as a separate entity to seek and discover but instead I view the 4th story as an interweaving of the other three. It may be logically impossible. But it seems to better encapsulate my experiences here.

Contrasting contrasts

For this blog assignment, we were instructed to contrast Bosnian and American cultures. Differences between work, food, education, politics, relationships, etc. Of course there are many differences present, but for this blog entry I want to write about the concept of contrasts itself.

Most Americans seem to place a priority on finding differences. It is one of the first things to come up. Something to talk about, to describe to others. Something to analyze and dissect. We have X, they have Y. We both have Q but theirs is like A and ours is like B. Yet I do not come across this process as much from non-Americans, either in the US or abroad. The same has occurred here in Bosnia.

Most of the locals I have interacted with rarely point out differences or focus on them. Instead these individuals seem to simply describe the culture. Communication is like X here, or there. A pedagogue does Z here. Bread is like Q there. Etc. Also similarities seem to be pointed out more often than not, especially from co-workers when talking about Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Whatever culture is discussed, I rarely hear a focus on contrasts from non-Americans. The topic at hand is simply discussed. Yet it is common for me or other Americans to go through this comparison process, pointing out dissimilarities more often than not.

Perhaps I am overstating or over-generalizing. So a question or two: do you find this idea valid? Do Americans and non-Americans look at differences, well differently? If Americans do have a tendency to compare cultures more often or focus on differences, is this a form of Americentrism?

Sarajevo Rose

While on a walking tour of the city, we came across my first Sarajevo Rose. These spots mark where an individual died from a mortar attack during the Siege of Sarajevo – the scar in the pavement later filled with red resin producing a psuedo-floral arrangement.

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As our tour guide described the meaning behind these markings, I was reminded of the sobering fact that someone died in this spot. An unsettling feeling to sit in. This city is so beautiful as many of classmates have described that it is sometimes hard to imagine what occurred here. To fully comprehend the war in this city. Photos, readings, videos can only provide so much context. But actually seeing a Sarajevo Rose, seeing the nearby hills where the mortar may have been launched from. These things provide a greater realization to me.

Currently the Sarajevo Roses are slowly disappearing as roads are repaved, and in a way I hope that there is some symbolism in this process as relationships are relaid and repaired as well. Over the next 8 weeks I hope that I continue to learn – the past, the present, the subtle reminders of what happened, the not so subtle. And above all else, I hope to better understand the multitude of relationships that have shaped this area.

So zdravo Sarajevo, i idemo.