Why is it that when I was faced with overt xenophobia, my heritage saved me? Why is it that I identified as solely Romanian, when someone was attacking me?
I am a Romanian-American writer, teacher and healer. When this incident happened, I could not believe it. I felt the earth shatter under my feet and my body took a punch in the guts. Let me explain.
A few years ago, I was teaching at a school. I later took on an administrative position at the school, and my new job entailed me offering tours, private and public, to potential couples and clients. One day, I was notified by the receptionist that my clients had arrived and I should meet them by the elevator bank. As I approached the clients, I had to adjust my glasses. I could not believe my eyes. I recognized them immediately. I swallowed a big gulp of nothing, air, definitely not saliva since my mouth was parched due to my being starstruck. I was in awe that I got to interview this elite couple who had a high level of interest in my school for their child.
I spent over two hours interviewing these parents, giving them a tour, and answering all their questions. At one point, my female client asked me: “Are you French, Adela? I heard you speaking to the teachers in French while on the tour.” At that moment, I never felt more proud to say: “No, I am not French, I just speak the language fluently. I am Romanian.” I am Romanian. I am Romanian. I will always be Romanian. She was curious about me, and we conversed more casually in the lobby of the school. We realized that her brother and I had attended the same high school. It was overall a very pleasant and successful tour and made me proud of my school and my job.
Afterwards I walked back to the office of the administrators to debrief them on my morning tour with the two parents. I shared with them how my female client was curious about my background. I said with pride, “When she asked me if I was French, because she heard me speaking in French, I replied that I was Romanian.” It’s true. I was proud to speak French fluently and to be mistaken for a French person. Yet, what made my heart sing was to say what I was in my heart and my bones: ROMANIAN! But immediately, I heard an administrator reply: “No, you did not say that!!! Did you? But you are clearly American, you are not Romanian. You are not even French. You’ve lived here most of your life, and our school would like you to state you are American to potential parents.”
My jaw dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I responded immediately, “Are you embarrassed that I am Romanian and I represent the school? I do not see the reason why I should hide this fact.” I trembled saying this and walked out. I did not throw a fit of rage, although I wanted to. I also wanted to say that no matter how much time I had lived in America or how impeccably I spoke English, I consider myself a Romanian, first and foremost.
I did not quit the job, although I wanted to. It was my livelihood. I did not denounce this xenophobic act at the time, because I did not know who would listen to me. Years later, reflecting back on that day, I feel a sense of pride for showing my true colors and not betraying myself. My Romanian self. My rage subsided but my need to have people of power be fair and supportive, just and open to different nationalities and backgrounds is a must for me.
I am lucky today to teach in a place that accepts the roles of immigrants as essential parts of the structure and fabric of our country. We would be nowhere without our immigrant brothers and sisters. They know the struggles of leaving an entire country, continent, and their families behind for the freedom offered in the new land. I encourage you all to stand up for yourselves first and foremost, even though sometimes the battle seems to be lost in that moment. No matter how difficult the mountain ahead of us is to climb, we must continue to forge ahead and fight and unite for the rights of immigrants across our entire nation.