Contributed by Sanjeev Dasgupta. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
“There are many aspects of the culture which we may find different, and so would need to adjust to.”
“The language barrier is a bit intimidating, and we are not sure how effectively we can communicate with people who can’t speak English properly.”
“Can we adjust to the different cuisine here?”
These are all thoughts that we were confronted with at the beginning of our program. Most of us knew very little about Serbia and its people and so we didn’t really know what to expect. However, we all had expectations that certain things that we would face, would be very different to what we are familiar with. We would need to find ways to adjust to or negate these aspects in order to have a good time here in Serbia. Many of the early conversations we had as a group were spent on discussing these differences between the Serbian people and us.
I don’t deny that people in different parts of the world are somewhat different from each other. They possibly follow different religions, speak different languages, eat different kinds of food, and believe in different things. But what I have realized in my first month here is that I can spot many more similarities between these people and me than I can spot differences.
My family here is like my family back home, and probably like any other family in the world. We talk about similar things, complain about similar things, worry about similar things, and relax in similar ways. This past weekend, I spent an entire day in the countryside with three Serbian families (including my own). It reminded me of numerous days I have spent with my extended family back at home, going on group excursions, and just having some fun together. Just this morning, my host mom was telling me about how worried she is about her daughter because she thinks that my host sister is over working herself. I am pretty sure that every mother, regardless of where she is from, is constantly worrying about her children.
And it’s not just my family. I’ve had a number of conversations with people here about how upset they are about elites making political decisions, about how the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. This kind of government dissatisfaction is not uncommon in many countries around the world. Yes, the levels of dissatisfaction may differ, but the underlying thought process is exactly the same. What about the language barrier? Yes, they speak a different language here. However, I have never failed in my attempts to use exaggerated hand actions to have basic communication with people. Despite the language barrier, we all do have some basic instincts that we can rely on, and exaggerated hand actions and expressions do use exactly those common aspects.
What I mean to say by mentioning all of this is that I find it somewhat disheartening that despite the fact that people all over the world have so much in common, the first thing we always talk about is how different we are from others. There is absolutely nothing wrong in being yourself, being a unique person; in fact, I am a very strong proponent of that. However, I do feel that this extreme emphasis on difference rather than the acceptance of similarities is the main reason that conflict erupts so often between people. Look at the Balkan region itself. Ethnic differences led to a decade of turbulence and animosity despite the fact that these very people had lived together peacefully for almost half a century before that. They had to have something in common to have survived those fifty years together. And yet, some rounds of nationalistic discourse about differences between Croats and Serbs and Bosnian Muslims managed to overshadow all those similarities.
Such extreme emphases on differences between people often prevent us from identifying that people in different parts of the world are still just people. We share the same basic needs and desires, the same basic instincts and the same basic feelings. And despite all these abundant similarities, we latch on to those differences, trying to divide the human population into ever-smaller and ‘distinct’ pieces.