Me mangav tumenge but baxt thaj sastimos.
I’ve been thinking, thinking about running.
Maami and Papu fled the Holocaust, the hungry smoke nipping close at their heels. Viewed with suspicion and hatred, they weren’t welcome anywhere they set down. My father, born in the ragged blood-red dawn of a post-War world, fled the memories and the sadness in his parents eyes.
Baba and Papo fled their culture, hiding in the anonymity of assimilation. My mother, born in the smoke of bombed-out houses, fled the broken reality that surrounded her.
I ran too. Three hundred dollars, two suitcases, and one chance. I fled the suffocating, stagnant breath of arranged marriage, illiteracy, and poverty. I ran more than eight thousand miles on the promise of freedom and education.
Growing up, we were gyppos, knackers, tinkers, black pigs, pikeys, and worse. My name, my face, my address, all pointed to my roots. It was inescapable. At school we were funneled into the lowest classes, barely taught, barely acknowledged. When we ultimately dropped out, there was a collective sigh of relief.
We’d never achieve anything anyway.
My family were labourers, cleaners, shoe-menders, mothers. When she first came to England, Maami mended fishing-nets. When Baba Edita was ten, she was scrubbing floors for rich families.
It wasn’t that I didn’t admire their strength, courage, and heart… it was that I knew I possessed none of those things.
I was a traitor. I fell in love with words and books.
Eight thousand miles, alone. Eight thousand miles too far.
Romani women in my world stay at home, get married, have babies, serve their men. They don’t go to school, read books, write papers, get jobs. Romani women carry romanija in the palms of our hands. It is our job to keep our house, our men, and raise our children to adhere to our ways, our culture, our language. That is our only job.
I guess I didn’t see it that way. I guess I thought that I could be everything, that I could break the tradition of poverty, alcoholism, and illiteracy that haunted my family.
In many ways, I did. I got my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees (both in the top 0.5% of my graduating class). I worked hard, tirelessly, struggled and fought the system – a system that was not welcoming or accommodating. I got a good job I worked hard at…
but, there was one thing I could never run from, no matter how I tried, that always caught up to me and broke the veneer of assimilation I wore:
I am Romani.
I keep my hair long, as a mark of respect to my elders (and my childhood self) – who were not given the choice. In pre-War Slovakia, the Hlinkova Garda would chop off the braids of any Romani woman they caught. During and after the War hair was cut to hide better, to assimilate better, to look less Gypsy.
I keep Romanija. I keep my desk clean and ordered. Food is not eaten in certain places or with certain implements. I have issues with public restrooms. I will only wear certain clothes to work. I speak funny and say weird things. I’m too quiet, too introverted. I look too Native/exotic/different. I’m too superstitious. I read and speak a weird language.
I’m a good student, but find academia challenging. It doesn’t come naturally to me. My math and science are both grade school level (probably four and six respectively). My English and writing are good, but sometimes I have a strange way of expressing myself. I never know what to say and I never answer questions (and if I do, I get flustered because my accent and way of speaking often make people ask me to repeat things).
People (non-Romani, maybe even some American Romani) who know me will tell you I’m just plain weird, different, off.
I’m tired of being compared. In school we were always inferior, we weren’t even given the chance. In college, I was always told that for someone like me I was doing surprisingly well. If people found out I was Romani, instead of encouragement, they tried to dissuade me from further studies – “academia really isn’t for people like you”.
I find myself guilty of the same self-talk these days,
don’t apply for a PhD, you’ll never get in anyway!
don’t apply for that great job, you won’t even get an interview. Even if you do, one look at you and they’ll find “someone better”…
Most educated Romani women I know or have read about (academics, authors, artists) had the support of their families. Many of their families were already partially (or fully) educated, permanently settled, flourishing. They were raised with education a natural part of their lives.
My family did not support my choice and now they’re gone – smoke in the sun on a winter’s morning.
Pa murri maami… simas baxtali te prindžarav la… ke sas la jekh but zuralo karakteri. Mri maami sas biškolake…. či džanel te genel. Mangel ma te genav lake. Či džanel te hramosarel, so but bilačho. Čacimastar, ande murri familjija, me simas e angluni te lav jekh diploma khatar e univerziteta.
Alje, bistardjom dopaš e Romani čhib.
I want to BE Romani and BE a wife and mother and academic. I want to get my PhD. I want to have a fulfilling job. But, I don’t want to have to choose: I shouldn’t have to hide my ethnicity or pretend to be something I’m not.
Me som Romnji. Čačimastar barimangi kajso sim řomnji, the zurales som baxtali kaj bijandjilem ande‘kh traditionalni familija. Řomanipe kodo si jekh 2000 beršengi kultura … ke kodo naj drabares, te čores vaj t’aves melali.
Amen šaj avas řomni thaj šaj keras savi butji amen kamas.