Contributed by Grant Goettel. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
I think the biggest culture shock I have had so far is the openness and curiosity that Serbians have shown me so far. This means that they have loved to strike up a conversation about America as that is one natural topic of conversation. These conversations have not at all gone how I expected them to go at all. In conversations with locals throughout the week, I met somebody who loved to talk about America. The conversation came to basketball, but he had never heard of Stephen Curry or LeBron James, which, on its own, is understandable. The weird part was that the player he could name was Dennis Rodman. For another example, the second actor somebody named when talking about American cinema was Eddie Murphy. A street vendor chatting me up about America while making my food asked me if I agreed with him that 9/11 was not actually caused by terrorists, and that it was all a government conspiracy. What people know about America is not exactly representative of what I, and I think most Americans, think about America.
My point here is not that Serbians know nothing about America. In fact, most of the Serbians I have met speak English, can have intelligent conversations about American history, and know American geography incredibly well. I, and I think most of the people on the program, can say none of this. Part of my point is that, yes, they might not understand America fully, but think about how much more they know about America than we do about Serbia and Belgrade. For the most part, when I tell them I am from North Carolina (not necessarily the most famous part of America), they know exactly where in the US that is. They will talk about Michael Jordan and the beach and the mountains and Duke and UNC (without me mentioning I go to Duke). When they tell me where they’re from and it isn’t Belgrade, not only will I have no idea where it is, but I won’t even be able to spell it to look it up the first four times the person says it. It took four days of conversations with people here to come up with examples like that; I don’t even want to think how many times I have said something way more misinformed about the region.
During our orientation, we watched a video in which a student that had previously studied abroad at SIT in Serbia said that the longer she was here, the less she felt she knew about the region, and I have felt the exact same way. Before I came, I thought that my high school world history class and the one day I spent two weeks ago watching documentaries and reading up on the history would enable me to understand the history of the region and its effect on the people here today, but after being here, I realize just how little I know. I did not know, for instance that Slavs actually came from as far north as Scandinavia and were originally blonde until a couple days ago. The history of this region is so complex that you could not possibly begin to truly understand it after spending two months here, much less the week that I have spent.
In that regard, the Serbian perspective on America I have seen has made me take a step back and look at my perspective on Serbia. I would have no idea if my opinion on a topic about the Balkans could be tainted by such a fundamental and wrong idea as one like the idea that the US government blew up the World Trade Center and killed its own people in order to drum up support to go to war and take control of the Middle East. For example, the rampant soccer hooliganism here could be caused by underlying cultural factors that complicate the matter greatly. I couldn’t tell you if the rivalry between two local soccer teams Red Star and Partizan doubles as a rivalry between the working class and the social elite, which might mean the hooliganism is more an example of social unrest than people that happen to be angry about their sports team losing. (I do want to know the answer to that, by the way.) Before I got here, I just brushed it off as idiots being idiots, but the longer I am here, the more I realize I can’t pass judgment on issues like this without understanding the area better.