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America and me

Cecilia Voiculescu
Phare Program translator / conference interpreter

 

My trip to America as a Fulbright researcher in applied linguistics was meant to be in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I studied there for seven months to finish a legal English-Romanian, Romanian-English dictionary of Anglo-American terms, under the supervision of an American linguist, profesor at the English Department, while also attending courses at the Law School.

I think that my luck in this half-scientific, half-cultural trip, making up a perfect unity in harmony, was that I left home with the idea to come back, sooner or later. And it was even sooner. The departure and preparations in themselves which lasted almost a year were rather tiresome anyway so I had little energy left to take some decisive actions for my personal life there. I said "luck" but in fact, having in mind all the time whom and what I had left behind, the return home was, from this point of view, much easier.

I brought back home a much lighter emotional and intellectual luggage than I expected but much bigger than I could have likely put together here in years. My expectations were indeed much higher, as I used to think America was something above normal, and instead I found a civilisation based on normal but well-established and well-respected norms. I saw that an American knows almost too well how to properly speak in public, knows also which are the most recent theories about a certain trend of thought, knows how to write well, starting with e-mails, what's the polite time to send it, what is proper to judge, to what extent it is suitable to think about your friends, how to make friends in the first place, until how one must eat, and how much. All of this is science, technique and long-term exercise. Sometimes, they can annoy you with these standards, as well as rules for many other situations. (And, who knows, maybe these things makes them supra-normal.)

Besides this, I have tried not to bring too many change to the family life I was used to, not to shake my emotional background too heavily, with the precise intention of managing to focus exclusively on my project. My plan was wrong in a way, because you cannot anyhow transfer the life you have at home in any other country of the world; as individuals, we have different reaction to the changes in the cultural environment, but I would stop here and not enter into further details. Instead, I was able reach communication and intellectual levels which, I must confess, I was not able to reach throughout the entire university period.

The seven months of study in Ann Arbor, Michigan, brought me the joys and satisfactions I used to dream of when I was 18, as a student at the foreign language school. I would have loved at that time to study in a library with seven million books in all the languages of the world, with heated or airy reading rooms according to your seasonal needs, quiet, large, and well-lit... Oh how I would have then enjoyed the absence of unfriendly librarians. I also got to talk about my paper and my study interests with more university professors throughout my 7-month stay in the US than in 4 years in Romania, and I am saying this both with regret for my lack of courage then, and for the little friendship and availability shown by my former professors back in the late 80s and early 90s. It was not difficult at all: the Americans, even those of Romanian origin, are so much inclined to communicate that they support you with their presence, although some are disturbed by their generally strong voice, and their willingness to know as many people as possible.

Having done my luggage thouroughly, I returned home. Sincerely, I could hardly wait. My personal life had been too much disturbed, and the dictionary was way too comfortable in its folder, ready for publication, to even stay one more week. The first thing that shocked me back home was that too few friends were willing to hear about my intellectual experience in America, and much too many used to ask me, with sincere regret or false concern, how come you did not stay there? I also made the mistake to forget that those who travel, even by their own merit, are not loved, and they can make their interlocutor feel sadly uncomfortable when they tell them I've been to America. I had forgotten that in general it is customary to share your travel experience, but on the contrary you'd better keep that as a secret for yourself, or they will think you boast.

However, professionally, I was prepared for anything. I had tried much in advance to reasonably define what was it that I wanted from this scholarship, from this country, and most of all, as I said, why I was leaving. I was leaving for my personal training - this was a project that I created and started, with a precise objective upon returning - publishing the dictionary. I confess not having set myself the condition to depart so that when I'm back I can find a better job, for instance. There are two reasons for this. First, because I already had quite a good job when I left, and secondly, because before I left I incidently attended a workshop for young people who studied abroad, and I carefully listened to what they had to say. I promised myself I would not fall into the same trap as them, that is not to leave for my personal intellectual training, but either with the aim to establish myself abroad, therefore to give my personal life another turn, or to obtain higher social benefits upon returning home, more speedy climbing of the academic or professional ladder.

I was convinced before I left that Romania is not yet ready to acknowledge, with pleasure or sense of responsibility, such successful study visits but most importantly, that it was my own decision to spend in this way some months of my life (for others, some years), thus interrupting my usual rhythm, my job and other projects, in a word, making a sacrifice. Not for a moment did I think of making use of this grant in order to present it to future employers as a claim or a reward. I knew too well that the place I was leaving behind was a totally different world from the world I was heading to, that I was better off living this experience as a personal one, enjoy the high quality environment, an amount of money thus received as a gift (the scholarship itself). Thus, I thought I must not forget the place of my returning, and try to adapt to the new situation. I left the past behind, while enjoying my new me: a more open, more patient, more tolerant person, grateful for those months spent in another country, another continent, and yes, another world.

I did try though to change some things when I came back. The need for change is one of the instincts that gets activated the most upon return. I would tell everyone not to dare ignore the effect of this nearly visceral change which takes place, in some people, almost unconsciously. That is why, I began by looking for a new job, while keeping my expectations quite low. I was lucky in finding better jobs than I expected, more civilized than I could remember. Without doubt, I registered a great failure when I requested the salary I thought I deserved. What matters is that I was ready for it, and that disappointment did not catch me by surprise. I knew (although I hoped in my soul to be wrong) that not too many people were going to get delight in the fact that I spent so many months in the States, on US government money, so that now they should feel obliged to offer me a high-standard job in terms of work environment (that was my priority) and a generous salary on top of it. I was not lucky enough to meet those few aware of the long-term investment I had made in my self, through this grant, and of the potential profit they could have gained by hiring me. That's how I got back to my former job, satisfied of having at least tried the change; translating and interpreting in legal and economical environments still gives me the satisfaction of seeing languages evolving in close contact with one another, English influencing almost all languages, Romanian trying to over-adapt or remaining stern, everybody caching up with new technical jargons.

To conclude, the time I spent in America on the Fulbright grant was mainly a time for personal revelation, and I cannot warn enough those who continue to leave for studies abroad, about the psychological inner significance of such long trips, during which you see yourself and the others in a different light, while often you dramatically change. In the luggage for this trip, besides winter and summer clothes, some introspection ought to be required, a long and honest talk to your own self about exactly what you wanted, or what you have indeed accomplished, or who you are and where you want to go. I must confess that all this time had tremendously raised my confidence and strengthened my passion as a researcher in applied linguistics. Talking to people from such a specialized research area as lexicography, being able to contact Romanian researchers, from the US, that, otherwise, I would have surely not met, obtaining confirmations for my linguistic intuitions (until that moment), or finding out such precious scientific information from such credible sources regarding my field of study, the English language - all these make up the image of an intellectual revelation. Indeed, I felt that the seven months spent at the University of Michigan were a great progress of my mind. Finally, even the two lines published in the local newspaper in Ann Arbor, by someone I don't know, about the then still fresh (and now still ridiculous) draft law issued by George Pruteanu on "the use of the Romanian language in public spaces" - were a revelation, just as the two lines consequently published by my academic advisor, intrigued by this news, in the preface of one of his linguistic books. I felt that the unintentional Romanian sense of humour, just as our intellectual courage have come a long way. On our way to Europe, here we are, a little closer to America - definitely a useful detour.

 

This article was published thanks to Sorin Cheval.

Ad Astra • Volume 3, Issue 1, 2004 • Viewpoint
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