Since I'll be moving to the States in a couple of days, the last half of the year has provided me with a priceless opportunity to witness a very specific phenomenon: of one nation slowly getting to know another nation. Speaking with a wide array of Americans, from faculty staff to real estate agents, we slowly went from “Where is it you said you were from?” (usually followed by my reply “Europe” or “never mind”) to “Oh my god, you are from Slovenia? You have to tell me everything about Melania Trump!” And I am not sure I like that. It's not just about Melania Trump's poor PR, or my closeted hipster sentiment that takes pride in being a part of something nobody has ever heard of. It's the unbearable lightness of generalization that hurts.
I was always a great fan of underdog cultures, seeing as I come from one. Cultures that didn't make it into the pantheon of public knowledge, onto postcards. Cultures that have been either too small or too well hidden or too specific or too boring for anyone to bother squeezing them alongside stereotypes, like poor “romantic France” or “orderly Germany.” In being entirely unknown, there was room for detail. With Melania Trump, all that is gone. Slovenia became a thing.
But it didn't become the thing I know and love and hate passionately. It's urban (and rural) legends that create the content I call my home are still as unknown as they always have been. Jason Horowitz's travel piece “Melania Trump’s Ljubljana, Then and Now,” published in The New York Times, is a rather clear proof of that. It shows exactly what Ljubljana and Slovenia have become, in the public eye of the West. An Eastern European destination with some lovely old houses and a communist past, not entirely unlike Prague or Krakow, only smaller. The type of a destination that has that generic torture exhibition in some old castle in the center of the town. The type of a destination with beer a bit cheaper than where you are from (but you thought it would be much cheaper, didn't you?) and a humble choice of ugly magnets you can put on your freezer. A type of a destination fit for people who run around the world claiming they “like meeting new people and new cultures,” but always end up explaining that to the exact same flock of birds of the feather in the exact same cookie-cutter hostel.
I know, it's hard to understand what you haven't experienced, and generalizations help us with sustaining of the illusion that we can grasp the ungraspable. What I find more unsettling is the fact that people who have experienced something similar take part in this – dull and dangerous at the same time – process of what I’ll call “stereotypization.” A wonderful proof of that could be found in the article titled “Melania Trump and the Culture of Cheating in Eastern European Schools,” published by The Washington Post and written by Monika Nalepa, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who appears to have grown up in Poland and knows something about what communist education does to the human brain.
Of course you remember: Melania Trump gave a speech Republican National Convention – a speech that much resembled an eight year-old speech delivered by Michelle Obama at some other convention of some other party. Awkward, some would say. She had a horrible ghostwriter, others would have it. Or a very funny one. But Melania Trump insists she wrote it herself, and Nalepa chooses to believe her, claiming that copy-pasting a political speech is a clear result of communist and post-communist education which encouraged learning by heart and cheating at tests. Let me quote:
How did does such a norm set in? First, cheaters weren’t called “cheaters.” They were called “borrowers” and were considered street-smart. Neglecting to study for an exam but passing it by whatever means possible was considered a greater achievement than passing the exam after carefully studying the material. In fact, it was those who reported cheating who were ostracized and considered to be “collaborators.”
But you see, I also have some first-hand experience with this exact school system, although one could argue it's just as much post-Austro-Hungarian as it is post-socialist, since history didn't begin with yesterday. (If I remember correctly, the heavenly kingdom of communism never managed to materialize itself on this earth). From the first day of my primary school, to the fifth year of my yet unfinished PhD, I spent 22 years in the precious company of the Slovenian educational system. And yes, it does tend to be a bit scholastic. And yes, kids cheat at tests. And yes, it makes them feel street-smart and provides them with a feeling that this is the way that will help them win at life. But none of this is a result of communism, or some sort of differentia specifica eastern Europeans share. It's human, and it blossoms everywhere. It's a characteristic some people share: people who put more stock in the goal than in the journey; people who want to do whatever they do because they crave success, instead of doing something they love and succeed at by the way; people who don't believe being a student or being a politician or a public persona or somebody's partner has a value in itself, but only as a means to wealth and glory. And in this Melania, born in socialist Yugoslavia, and Donald, born in the Land of the Free, found their strange camaraderie. And in a world where practically nobody involved in the theater of politics is there because they would have a cause to fight for, and practically nobody writes or dictates their own speeches, what happened to Melania Trump was really just a question of time, and something that could happen to any person of her type. Regardless of their origin.
What I resent most about Nalepa's reasoning is the feeling I sometimes get around women who hate other women for being feminists. It's this weird form of auto-orientalism people sometimes practice when they feel the culture they were born into is inferior to culture they moved into. The desire to insult what you are a part of, so nobody notices that you, in fact, are. It's not that I believe one should take pride in one's nationality per se. But taking pride in somebody else’s nationality sounds even worse.
I'm was never big on nationalism, but there is so much beauty and wisdom where I come from. Please don't judge my country by Melania Trump's inability to pen a decent political speech.