Monica Stroe coordinates the students involved in the anthropological research, the basis of the project “The new minorities in Bucharest municipality”. Their stake is to find out more about life in Bucharest of some members of each minority and fight against the monochrome representations that are circulating. Monica explains us what to expect from this research and how it will help at “normalizing the idea that Bucharest belongs to all who live in it”.
What made you get involved in the project “The new minorities in Bucharest county”?
It was an opportunity to reconnect with an older research interest and with my academic legacy from the Master in Nationalism Studies at the Central European University in Budapest. It seems also a good pretext to offer MA students an urban research on site. Until now, the specialized practice from the Master in Anthropology of SNSPA generally consisted in research in rural areas and this suggestion was a welcomed variation.
How do you consider the involvement of students?
Like in any research on site, the participants enter into an exchange relationship in which they bring their own luggage of values and knowledge. The particularity of this research was that although the site was the “home”, without actually taking us out of our daily routines, the research subject was still the otherness. The migration experience has a pragmatic component, which implies papers, offices, the actual “use” of the city and about which most of interlocutors talk easily but also a very intimate component to which not any person with a tape recorder and a list of questions has access and about which you can find out information through other methods, in a long-term research. From case to case, these had to negotiate how to take photos, faced language barriers and sometimes even physical access ones.
The best research experience belonged to the MA students who were willing to spend time with the interlocutor, to come back, to accompany him/her in the city for daily routes, at work, at home. Many of the researchers got out of the comfort zone and entered – even for short time – in opaque, culturally encoded situations (residential complexes, ethnic stores and restaurants, incomprehensible sports) or even discovered other thing for which maybe they were not prepared: the banality or normality of some of the lives of migrants from Bucharest.
Which are the main directions that guided you in the research?
It is very important to be noted that this research didn’t intend to produce 8 monographies, one for every minority. This will be the task of ethnologists or historians in the future. Our stake is to know more about the life in Bucharest of some members of every minority and to fight against monochrome representations that are circulating. As a matter of fact, the discussions with interlocutors show their familiarization with national stereotypes: many persons make jokes on this topic or show how they struggled to become something else than a stereotype in the eyes of the Romanians around them. We want to set some reference points about every minority, to tell specific stories that deepen the understanding on the entire assembly. We insisted that the research to be a crosscut radiography of the minority in order for the interviewers to catch different experiences and outline profiles of migrants.
We even questioned the utility of the term community. Indeed, we are using an instrument conventionally called community sheet, but this doesn’t mean that we started with the assumption that these minorities are organized as communities. There are of course community institutions whose role in the community construction we tried to determine. We had the surprise to discover that sport is sometimes such an institution.
We tried to also discover a potential pattern of spatial aggregation of new comers, of Chinatown or Little Italy type, as it exists in the American metropolis or at least residential aggregations. We also wondered how new are actually the new minorities – considering that persons of other nationalities also settled in Bucharest before the 90’s – and what is different at the experience of a migrant who settled in Romania in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000.
Also, we wanted to find out more about the migration temporality: how stable it is the settlement of a migrant in Bucharest and what are the ways in which this creates relations with the place/setting and the exchanges he/she has with the native place (packages, visits). And potentially if any relation is established between new comers of certain nationality and the homologous historical minority, when it exists (the case of Italian or Turkish, for example).
Our undertaking could be synthesized under the term of mapping: an exploratory research that offers some cultural (not geographical) reference points about the migration phenomenon in Bucharest; to identify and open some relevant research themes. To outline a plan – figuratively speaking – of the itinerary and experience of these minorities in Bucharest.
How do you consider the attitude of Bucharest inhabitants towards minorities?
I think that Bucharest inhabitants have been exposed to the ethnical diversity much less than many European capital cities, and the globalization didn’t make yet this capital city a hot spot on the map of migratory routes. Till we talk about the integration of migrants of other nationalities, I think that internal migration raises also acceptance problems: we still have regional categories used as pejorative attribute (Moldavians), and the migrants from the rural area are also stigmatized as pejorative adjective.
Statistics indicate a lot of ethnical and religious homogeneity. I believe that Bucharest inhabitants experience more diversity outside the country, as a result of their own mobility (work abroad, delegations, scholarships, holidays). And there are consumption forms of cultural products in which Bucharest inhabitants are well socialized: the consumption of ethnical gastronomy, cultural festivals of different embassies and institutes.
However the idea that Bucharest follows its normal path to cultural diversity seems hard to be internalized. For now, this ambivalent attitude is frequently met: curtsey towards “honourable” foreigners came from the Occident, which many times appear in the state of expats, namely reticence or even fear of “inconvenient” migrants” (black ones from Asia or Africa). There is of course racism and Islamophobia in Bucharest and I don’t know if the growth of the influx of migrants acts as antidote or the very opposite.
The attitudes or behaviours of Bucharest inhabitants towards strangers don’t always show openness. The recent crisis of refugees started in Romania – which is neither a destination country nor transit one for them – a wave of public violent comments that prove a great lack of understanding and empathy for the vulnerable refugees who knock at the doors of the European fortress. We have in Bucharest many cases of abuse on Philippine baby-sitters and even forms of slavery about which some journalists already wrote but about which the interest of the public opinion is minimum.
From these reasons I think that the research – although it doesn’t approach this problem first of all, of discrimination and intolerance – can bring its contribution to “disenchanting” the foreigner near us. An important stake is for the research results to bring their contribution to normalizing the idea that Bucharest belongs to all who live in it and take out some of the investigated minorities from the relative invisibility.
Which are the most open minorities and which are the most isolated ones?
I would like to tint the question: I think that “open” and “isolated” are not necessarily terms from a dichotomy and I generally believe that no one isolates him/herself voluntarily when they also have the option to not do this. The sexual minorities, for examples, can also seem isolated or invisible where their legitimacy as members of the society is not accepted by the majority. Just like a gay couple will probably hesitate to show its relation in public, a Chinese family can also possibly hesitate to go to a barbecue in Băneasa forest. What we perceive as isolation can be a sign that the minority internalized a stigma and its members would rather organize some secured spaces in which they can interact (schools, stores, residential spaces, leisure spaces, medical services, etc). In principle, the members of the more prestigious minorities in the eyes of Romanians are more comfortable with their public presence because they receive validation (sympathy, respect) from interactions. What we perceive as isolation can be also the attempt of categories of migrants, as a rule those from the privileged classes, to make their lives private in Bucharest in order to compensate the lack of services at certain standards: they seem isolated because they use private medical practices, their children study in private schools, don’t use the public transport, don’t go to exclusive social events, they live in private neighbourhoods and then we simply don’t have occasions to meet them.
“Isolation” can be the effect of structural factors, of access problems: regulations related to visas, work permits, language barriers, etc. And it can be also related to the migration temporality: if the access and opportunities allow you to settle in Romania on long-term, you will be more tempted to become a “native”.
The project “The new minorities in Bucharest county” is based on the anthropological research of eight groups of minorities: Chinese, Turkish, Indian, Lebanese, Moldavian, French, Italian and British. At the end of the research phase, we will publish a study which will show the cultural impact of the groups of minorities settled in Bucharest in the last 20 years.