Use these stories to change the world! (VI)

F. Being Myself
If we’re not ourselves, we can’t begin to do any of the things we’ve talked about so far: we can’t
meet others
pick up the pieces of any broken mirror
give proper respect to people who have died in one holocaust or another.
or be citizens.
So to finish this little tour of the seven menus in Stories and Responses at this Web-site, here are some people who can help you in what may be the most difficult—- but most rewarding—- task of all: being yourself.
Meet Milan, for example.
Zdenka Svobodova introduces him to us in “I mustn’t become white” in Being Myself.
“Milan H. is a tall and well-built young Romany man. He is twenty-six, and works as a policeman in a town in Central Bohemia. I recorded this story while we were sitting in the kitchen of the council flat where he lives with his wife, who is white. At his request I am not giving you his full name or the name of the town where he lives and works.
‘I come from a family that is more or less integrated into Czech society. My parents have only completed elementary school, and they have had to work very hard all their lives. They wanted my sister and me to have a better life, and raised us quite strictly, demanding that we do our best in school. They didn’t even teach us the Romany language: they were afraid that it would get us into trouble. Though we did mange to learn some Romany from our relatives and their children.
Throughout elementary school I was the only Rom in my class. I have to say that no one ever gave me grief, neither the other children nor the teachers.
That was true too of the vocational secondary school where I went afterwards. Sure I got into plenty of boys’ fights, but that wasn’t about my being a Rom.
It’s true that sometimes somebody would call me ‘black Gyppo’ or another name, and then I would either have it out with them myself or my friends would help me. Or I’d just ignore it.
I didn’t have any serious trouble either when I did my military service.
After that I worked in the building industry for some time. Then I had enough, and started looking for something else. Fortunately I didn’t have any difficulty finding work. As a Rom who had finished secondary school, I was seen as exotic: it’s possible that I was often hired just because I made people curious. Anyway, I tried my hand at various jobs.
Then I got married and started looking for a steadier, more reliable job.
When I learned that the police were recruiting, I applied, passed all the interviews, and was hired.
When I started working as a policeman, my colleagues were curious too and didn’t really trust me. Of all the places I had worked, the station was where I had to spend the most time and effort proving what I was worth.
Czech policemen think of Roms as parasites and criminals.
But I think that by now everything has been sorted out, and that my colleagues respect me. I hope that knowing me has made my colleagues change their minds about other Roms as well.
There are still just a few Romany policemen in the Czech Republic. Hopefully this will change when the people in power understand that this would be one way of dealing with the so-called Romany question.
I don’t want to boast, but Roms respect me more than white policemen – and I know who they are: I’m one of them. And in order to keep their trust and respect I have to remain one of them. I mustn’t become white.
At the moment I’m sort of a hero for local kids because I catch ‘bad people.’ I want to be a positive role model for them – and for their parents.
As for the Czechs, I want to prove to them that Roms can do good things too.'”
Have you ever seen a policeman who is a Rom?
Usually policemen and Roms are on opposite sides, right? Milan himself says, “Czech policemen think of Roms as parasites and criminals.”
Have a look back at the stories in Being a Citizen which we discussed earlier:
“Why should the others be deniedentry too?”
“They forced me into the car and took me to the police station”
“And we want to get into Europe?” “I started to record everything”
Milan has said that he wants to do three things:
 — participate in a new approach to “the Romany question”; — serve as a role model for Romany kids and their parents as well;
 — prove to Czechs that Roms too can contribute to society.
This has got to be hard work, don’t you think?
Imagine yourself trying to be all these things to these different groups of people who don’t understand each other.
How would you do it?
How would you make sure that you didn’t go too far over in the direction of the larger group (“become white”) when you know that the condition of your being respected by the smaller group is that you stay with them?
Remember Robbie McCauley?
You’ve seen her in the first video documentary on the Stories Exchange Project excerpted in Videos at this Web-site. Haven’t you? If not, why not go there and meet Robbie?
Because we’re going to get Robbie and some other African-American friends in Boston together to talk with you about Milan’s story about not becoming white and their stories at both our Web-sites: this one and www.stories-exchange.
And maybe we can convince Robbie’s daughter Jessie—- her father is a white jazz musician and composer and she’s now half way through her four years at the Juilliard School of Music, where there are not too many other African-American violinists – to talk with us too.
Of course we’ve mentioned Boston before, haven’t we?
Mitch – “You can’t see the nose on your face” in Methods under Stories and Responses here—- lives in Boston.
And now John Shattuck—- you remember him talking about the Roms’ white tent in Usti as something like what they used in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
[“Slavery was like what happened in Terezin and we’re still wrestling with its legacy” in Being a Citizen]
lives and works there too. He’s the head of the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation. We’re planning to have some workshops in early 2002 to link with workshops that some of you can do in Prague, in Usti, in Brno.
And now Robbie is moving to Boston too.
All roads seem to be leading to Boston—which is only appropriate for a city that calls itself the “the Hub of the Universe.”
Jack’s feeling the pressure. He was born and grew up in Boston, and lived there recently for about five years when he began commuting to the Czech Republic to do the Stories Exchange Project. Maybe he should move from New York back to Boston: it’s half an hour closer to Prague by plane….
You may have heard about all the trouble that Boson had some years ago when the city tried to make sure that there was a better balance between African-American and white kids in city schools by putting kids in buses and sending them all around the city? It was called “bussing.”
Robbie did a radio program on that a couple of years ago. Maybe we can get Katerina to translated some of that and put it on one of these Web-sites.
And there a lot of African-American policemen in Boston who could use our Web-sites to talk with us—and, for sure, with Milan.
That might be another positive way of responding to the situation that Kumar discussed in Terezin, and to which he called attention by his act of civil disobedience
“I know that this is the story of many young people, young Roma boysin Ostrava. They are often taken to the police station, and they are treated more brutally than I was.
There are teenage boys in Ostrava who for no reason at all are taken to the police station and chained to the radiators. There are no witnesses. How do you prove that happens?
So this is a case of disobedience. I am disobeying the law. Consciously and deliberately.
I want to draw attention to a practice which is not just in Ostrava but I think in the whole country.”
During the civil rights movement in the American south we would have called what Kumar did in Terezin last September “putting his body on the line.”
But Milan is putting his body on the line every day when he goes to work.
He is using himself to show both Roms and whites that you can stand on both sides of the racial and cultural divide and make things WORK: that you can provide good example to young and older people in both communities and encourage them to put themselves in turn on the line.
And—maybe on-line? We in the Stories Exchange Project can offer at least that: we can offer a virtual space where anyone can cross back and forth over any line that society draws, and speak with anyone in the world “on-line.” We can offer you a chance to move back and forth across the racial lines in Ostrava or Brno, or Prague or Usti nad Labem and Boston and London and – wherever.
You can join us in that white tent with black print which the new technology is letting us send endlessly around and around the globe.
But to use this tent, you have to be ready to put your bodies on the line when you’re off-line too: out there in your communities, joining Project Citizen and others who are figuring out how to solve problems in the real world, in your schools and communities.
And we hope that Milan and many other Roms who are crossing back and forth across cultural – lines without becoming white – can help.
Take Hanka and Eva R., for example, who tell their stories in Being Myself:
“I have a heart and it’s not Czech”
“I am Romany and I am proud of it!”
Here’s the ending of Hanka’s story “I have a heart and it’s not Czech”: read all of it in Being Myself in Stories and Responses – and tell Hanka what you think:
“I ended up marrying a white guy.
I’m not complaining. Before we met I had seen him in a dream. He was my destiny.
Then in autumn 1997 we watched a showing of Romale on TV and heard that the Evangelical Academy was inviting new students to enroll. I asked my husband whether he thought I should go for it. “Sure,” he said. “It’s the right thing for you.”
I don’t think he had a clue.
When I first entered the Academy I was surprised at how many dark-skinned people there were. I don’t know why I disliked it, but I did. But I got used to them and grew to like them.
After about a year, I confided to a schoolmate that I sometimes felt out of place and somehow wrong. He told me this was because I don’t know who I was and where I belonged. He also said that once I was clear about that I would be fine.
This was quite something to think about. How do you ask yourself who you are and where you belong? I live with a Czech man among Czechs. I speak Czech and I do things Czechs do. My ID says I am a Czech woman.
But I have a heart, and it’s not Czech. It’s Romany – like my father’s and my mom’s.
I’m homesick.
Lord, what did they do to me? I don’t know who I am or where I belong. I like food, cars, books, and hopefully my husband…
Forgive me.”
Have you ever been homesick? Do you know how that feels?
And do you always know where you belong?
Tell Hanka.
Now have a look at the beginning of Eva’s story “I am Romany and I am proud of it!”: you can read –- and comment on!—- the rest of it in Being Myself… on-line.
“The totalitarian regime left its mark on my childhood. I come from a Romany family, and the totalitarian system aimed at eradicating Romany culture.
As far as our large family is concerned, they very nearly succeeded.
Our parents assimilated. They brought us up in the Czech way, as the regime prescribed. They wanted us to grow up as educated people. I know they were right, but in trying to help us succeed, they failed to teach us our own language, the Romany language.
When I was a child I did not realize that this was a problem. On the contrary, I integrated myself into Czech society. Having successfully finished elementary school I went on to study at the comprehensive. I had excellent grades, and was a model member of the Socialist Children and later of youth organizations. I eagerly absorbed all the Communist ideas. As a child I didn’t even know that I was Romany and belonged to people with a language, culture and traditions of their own. I grew up among Czechs, and my family were the only Roma I knew. I never met any others.
When I was in secondary school and had begun to grow up, I realized that I was different from the others, that indeed our whole family was different.
There were several such families in Kadan, where I grew up. Unlike ours, they had preserved their Romany character and traditions. We were on friendly terms with one of them, a family with two girls of my age.
One day when I was about seventeen, those girls dragged me out of my isolation and took me to meet some other young Roma.
Was I ever delighted!
When I heard Romany songs and language around me, I felt wonderfully free and happy. Their company made me feel good – whereas in the majority society I was like a caged bird.”
It’s not easy to be yourself if you’ve got two cultures inside you singing different songs and telling you different stories all the time.
But people who know that they’re at least two can be one in very powerful ways. Especially if they live in a society that has the same problem.
Remember what Anna said to Ivana in “I don’t live with them I don’t know them” in The Broken Mirror:
“We live here with you. Not only Roma, but also Vietnamese, Ukrainian, Slovaks, Germans…. And we can all learn from each other and enrich each other as well.”
People who live on the line, on both sides of the line, between being Czech and not being Czech – people like Milan, Hanka and Eva – can play first violin, we think, in making a concert out of what can be cacophany. Milan and Hanka and Eva—- and Robbie and Jessie – carry the confusion around with them, and have to make sense of it every day of their lives. So they can speak with singular authority to a world in which achieving identity is not a simple matter for any of us.
Take Katerina. You’ve heard her talk about herself as a revolutionary who feels that she, along with her country, has not kept her promises to the Roms. Now read her whole story in Stories and Responses, Being Myself: “I am Katerina.”
It’s as if the Czech Republic—- or rather, Czechoslovakia as it was when Katerina was growing up – needed someone to embody its multiplicity and self-contradictions. Katerina has had at least seven selves – with as many menus as Stories and Responses, which she translates back and forth from Czech and English.
She’s been a Jew, a Communist, a Czech patriot, an anti-Communist revolutionary, a post-revolutionary admirer of “shamanism, Indians, Buddhism, Catholicism, Mormons, Islam, Judaism, aborigines, Inuits, Celts, pagan Slavic gods, ecology, magic, astrology, numerology, Chinese, Japanese,” a mother—- and at last, herself: Katerina.
Here are—- what else? seven: we’re into numerology too—- excerpts from Katerina’s story.
There was a portrait of my grandfather, an oil painting. It hung in my dad’s study.
Visitors would point at the painting and ask: “Who is that man?”
My dad would answer, “He is my father.” And after a while he would add, “He died in Terezin. He was Jewish.”
For me the picture became synonymous with being a Jew.
I was a Pioneer, a member of the Communist youth organization.
I liked being a Pioneer, though I knew there was something odd about being one.
I never had a uniform because my mom would never buy me a light blue pioneer shirt and a dark blue skirt with a belt.
Not because she disapproved of my being a Pioneer, but because we had no money. She could only give me twelve crowns for a red scarf made of some kind of artificial fabric. iii.
My grandmother, great-grandmother and great-grandfather were Christian, and the whole family on my mother’s side was very patriotic.
My grandmother often said to me—- maybe about once a week: “I am a patriot, Katja. I can’t help myself: I love this country, I love Czechoslovakia. It is my country.”
So I was proud to be Czech. It seemed to me very good to be a member of the Czech nation.
iv. My dad told me that there was no reason to be proud of being Czech. Czechs were cowards.
What had they done to stop the Germans?
What had they done to stop the Communists?
So I stopped being proud of being Czech and started to be proud of being part Czech and part Jewish.
The first demonstration I went to was on the seventeenth of November: the revolution began the next day.
For the first time I was glad that I was a student.
And my dream came true. I was a revolutionary, and the revolution was velvet.
I remember, though, how shocked and terrified we were in December when we saw what was happening in Romania.
We students were sitting in a very small room on the floor, embracing our knees to make space for others with our eyes stabbing the screen and shivers going down our spines.
We couldn’t understand it. Nothing had happened to us in Czechoslovakia. Everything had gone so well that it was hard to believe.
But people in Romania were dying. Kids were being killed. We saw pictures of corpses. How was it possible? How come we had got our freedom so easily and they were suffering?
Then suddenly we were living in an open world. Everything had changed completely, but the change was so natural that we often didn’t notice that something was changing.
Matter had stopped coming first. We all started to be interested in faith, in religion. Esoteric literature, shamanism, Indians, Buddhism, Catholicism, Mormonisms, Islam, Judaism, aborigines, Inuits, Celts, pagan Slavic gods, ecology, magic, astrology, numerology, Chinese, Japanese….. We wanted to know everything.
Now that we were free we could choose which path to follow. One day we were Buddhists, and the next day we were celebrating some pagan festival. We were full of good will. We were overflowing with hope and enthusiasm.
But I was confused.
What should I chose? What should I believe in?
Who am I?
Why am I here?
There were no answers to my questions.
I got married.
My dad became a Rabbi.
My first son was born.
And with the birth of my child, all my questions vanished. I had better things to think about. Suddenly I realized that I would never find the meaning of life.
I would never know what comes after death, not until I died.
Who was I then? I was a mother, and that was the most important task for me in this world.
For a long time I thought that being a mother was enough.
Then my children grew up a little, and I had time for my own things.
I started to see friends again. And one day I noticed that the question “Who am I?” no longer bothered me.
I know that I am a Czech with a Jewish grandfather. But I don’t find that too important. There are other things that seem more important to me than nationality or faith.
I’ve stopped searching for my identity. I’ve stopped asking questions that can’t be answered.
It’s enough for me to know that I am human. My task in this world is to act and feel as a human being.
I am Katerina. That is my identity.”
The whole story, in Being Myself, is really a little novel, and paints a vivid, often funny picture of what some people see as a continuing Czech identity crisis.
And this is the confusing context of Milan’s, Hanka’s and Eva’s efforts to sort out their own confusions of identity: their crossing and re-crossing that no-man’s – and no- woman’s – land that seems to lie between Czechs and Roms, whether or not they build walls like the one in Maticni Street in Usti.
So now write your novel.
What’s your story?
Where do you come from? Where did your parents come from? What do they believe? What did their parents believe?
Who else are you besides your parents?
What do you believe in? What do you care about? Who are you?
Again, this is where it starts.
You won’t be able to listen to anybody else’s stories with the proper attention, intelligence—and, above all, compassion – if you haven’t told your own.
That’s where the work begins: in knowing and saying where you’re coming from.
THEN, to say it once again: then you can learn, work, meet others, be a citizen – of a nation that needs you as well as those on-line line-crossers Milan, Hanka, Eva and Katerina if she is to find out who she is.
And here’s a poem by Milka—- whose at first happy but then bitter day of preparing lunch for her family we have shared: Emilie Horackova from Mimon.
It’s called
The Change
Waist-long golden hair and eyes like the sky: I longed for this beauty.I wanted people’s hearts to melt the moment they saw me. I wanted to change at any cost.
I wanted to change, and change I would! I invoked both God and the devil to come and grant me what I asked.
“I want to change, to be worth more. I’ve suffered enough. I’m tired of life as it is, tired of being called a black thief! In a new body I would be free of shame. I want to live as someone else. My black eyes have seen pain, disappointment, prejudice. Changing color would change my life.”
I invoked the devil, and he came.My mind was dazzled with eagerness to change.
The devil came and changed me as I asked. I was no longer myself, but a different woman – beautiful and unashamed.
But my friends, parents and the people around me did not know me, and they cast me out!
Looking for her daughter, my mother passed me by.
I was like a ghost to them, one that suddenly stands beside you. And the others, the ones I wanted to match with my new white skin? They wanted to touch me and only tried to take, whereas I had wanted them to give to me.
And the change was flawed: my heart had failed to change.
Was this a breakthrough, to give up my Romany life?
This was the full price of my change.It was a bad deal, and I wanted to back out, and shed my new looks.
I mourned and wept. I turned to God for help and prayed.
God came to me and said: “Stay as you are: you have no need for any other kind of beauty.”
Inside, I was still the same, unchanged. I didn´t know what would happen next. When the sun flooded the room I lost my fear and shed my burden. I got up quickly and hurried to the mirror.
I cried out with joy at finding myself again.
Relieved, I remembered what God had said in my dream: Like anyone else I also have my value. I will go on with my life as I am. I don´t need that kind of change!
We’re all different and everybody´s life is worth living.
Remember what Socrates said some two millennia ago: the beginning of knowledge is knowing that you DON’T know.
Some of you have already begun to talk and tell stories about the fact that most of us don’t know what we’re talking about—- as Ethela puts it – when “the Romany question” comes up.
You remember what Iveta Bronftova, a student at the School of Social Studies in Usti nad Labem had to say about Roms in “I don’t live with them; I don’t know them” in Stories and Responses in The Broken Mirror: “I don’t know what these people are like.” But for Iveta, as it was for that ancient student Socrates, not knowing is the beginning of wanting to know: “I’m curious about one thing: who are they? What nationality are they? Where did they come from?”
And you remember that after a class with Irena at the Jan Patocka Grammar School in Prague one of our Gabinas told the other that discussing the stories has made her know that she doesn’t know Roms, and, so, has made her curious about them:
Gabina Setunska
Do you know anything about Romany culture, about the way they live?
Gabina Kocova
I know now. I didn’t know anything about them, and I wasn’t even interested I felt no need to know more. Now I see I was mistaken. Most people condemn things they know nothing about.
(As you’re preparing to take part in discussions about the stories, your own included, do have another look at “Most people condemn things they know nothing about” in Interviews.)
And Eva Bajgerova tells us in “Listening to stories wasn’t enough for them” in Stories and Responses, Learning that students at the Business Academy in Usti heard her stories, came to know that they didn’t know what they were talking abut when they talked about Roms, and asked to go with her to visit people in Romany neighborhoods.
But there are many other stories and responses to stories by students in Stories and Responses, Meeting Others which you might enjoy looking at while you’re collecting your own stories.
“Maybe it’s getting worse” gives us responses to stories by students at the Vranovska Street School in Brno.
“I was lucky it was a skinhead” is told by another student at the Vranovksa School, Lubos Drslik.
Several stories and responses to stories in Meeting Others are by students at the School of Social Studies in Usti nad Labem:
Lucie Slaba, “But I’m not scared of them: why is that?”
Lucie Krupickova, “And he was white”
L.Kristanova, “Create your own points of view” Michaela Cerna, “He was accused of assault”
Zdenka Rerichova, “My best friend is Romany”
Petra Novakova, “A little scar on my lip reminds me”
Three students at the Jan Patocka Grammar School have experience of other cultures in the Czech Republic: Tereza Stenglova, “I know she often missed Vietnam”
Mariana Wesleyova, “I hope that my generation will overcome…”
Mateja Segi, “Foreigners enrich our culture”
And in Meeting Others there are other stories by students at the Jan Patocka Grammar School:
Lucie Matuskova, “There are good and bad people in every society”
Filip Capanda, “They shouldn’t have been forced to assimilate”
Tereza Rehakova, “It was full of joy”
And finally—- for the moment – , you remember Eva Siedtmannova at the School of Social Studies in Usti nad Labem saying in “Each one of us is a piece of the puzzle,” Stories and Responses, The Broken Mirror:
“People are beautiful just because each person is unique, and this world is wonderful because so many different people live in it. Each one of us is a piece of the puzzle that makes up the Earth. Each piece is different and should be admired, not condemned.
We must learn to value difference. We must learn to understand each other and accept the unique character of each person.” * * *
So NOW what can you do?
If you’d like to get bit closer to the experience of people who have told us stories so far – and to your own experience – , you can make sure that you’ve answered all the questions that we’ve asked here.
Just type in your thoughts in the windows after the entries in Stories and Responses.
Our questions are summarized, along with a few new ones, in “Ask yourself…” in Methods.
And you can join your teachers and classmates in seven workshops: one for each section in this text in Methods, “Use these stories to change the world!”
Also in Methods you’ll find “Guidelines for Seven Classroom Workshops.” This asks you too to keep your responses to questions and comments on stories in a journal. You can periodically share this with the leaders of your workshops. And you can have it on hand for your own reference as you write your own stories, collect other people’s stories, and begin a team project.
Again, welcome to the Stories Exchange Project!
We look forward to getting to know you and working with you.