Tomato Skin, Buildings, and Waking Up Early

Contributed by Weiran Zeng. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.

When you come to Serbia, people describe certain expected Balkan culture and customs. Your host family will offer you too much food. The family will be overprotective of you. While I’ve experienced those “cultural differences”, I notice more how coincidentally similar my host family is to my own family. While my host brother joked about “Table Defense 101”, I used to have to put back excess rice in my bowl because my parents always overfed me. While a stereotype of the families here is that they’re very active and interact a lot, both my family here and in China are very independent and do their own things. And the warning about being overprotective? I would say both families are really cool and won’t interfere with my choices of clothing. I bond with host dad through cooking just like watching my dad cook at home, tease host mom about peel tomatoes like I laugh at my mom for never eating tomato skin, and find much more similarity between me and my host brother, both being an only child.

Photo Cred: Weiran Zeng
Photo Cred: Weiran Zeng

What reminds me of home most is the architecture. Many buildings here were built during Tito’s era, so their socialist realism style is no stranger to me. These are the kind of buildings I grew up with. In Xi’an and Beijing they were built around the same time as in Belgrade, but because of both bad quality and the constantly reforming landscape of China, they’re almost all gone. Here, short and tall socialist realist buildings stand after almost half a century. It’s a strange mindset to me, how a city could go through such huge change politically but the people don’t feel a pressing need to change the face of the city. Walking back home from the SIT Study Abroad office, I realized the bombed buildings are along streets people walk to work, to home, the very streets people walk through when going out. While my home city Beijing tears down factories and buildings even just for the Olympics, Belgrade seems perfectly content with leaving relics the way they are. While we stress the importance of history everyday in China, with every new subway line people seem to be forgetting, or in a rush to bury memories. So living in Belgrade buildings with mixed marbles lining the floor instead of tiles, working somewhere with even a realist courtyard, is de ja vu. Though I’ve never been to this part of the world, coming to Belgrade feels like returning home.

I work at a magazine called Liceulice, a street paper that sells its magazine for half the price to homeless vendors to empower them. So far I’ve been researching Kickstarter campaigns and preparing to assist our art director Sanja, whose superb design work makes the magazine stunning to me even without my comprehending a single word. Although awkwardness surfaces when I wish to understand and join their laughing sometimes, the general love people bring to work and to each other makes Liceulice a truly special and welcoming place.

While people love their work, the real, and so far only cultural shock I’ve experienced is our difference in attitude towards work. On the first day, I was so concentrated that I finished a whole report. When Nikoleta said it was for the whole week, I was amazed how little she demanded from me. The next day at work I came ten minutes earlier than the previous day, and was locked out for twenty minutes. So far it’s making me question my motives for “hardworking.” Is going to class everyday necessary? (Okay maybe that is.) But a lot of things I used to measure my progress on were more like formalities. During freshman year, I embarked on a heroic pursuit of waking up early. For a whole month I forced myself to wake up at 7 only to be doing literally nothing the entire morning. The act of early rising was a ritual that convinced me I was trying hard to be “doing life right” but was really just a self consolation. It made me question the signals of excellence/hardworking we were brought up with in a competitive atmosphere: pulling all nighters before finals, sleeping in libraries, and even getting to class early for the front and center seat. I still can’t say with confidence what to make of this cultural shock, but I’m starting to see the benefit of alternative perspectives. Let me comb through these thoughts as we adventure on in Belgrade, Serbia.

Till next time!
Weiran

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