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International curiosity & national pride
15 November 2004
by Elizabeth Vernon

Elizabeth with her fifth-grade students in northern Bulgaria.
(Source: Peace Corps)Elizabeth with her fifth-grade students in northern Bulgaria. (Source: Peace Corps)
The Bulgarian boy looked at me out of the corner of his dark eyes as we walked through the town park. He was trying to decide whether to talk to me, but he wasn’t sure what to think of me. I was the first American he’d ever spent much time with, and he didn’t like that I shared a mysterious language with his mother, a teacher of English at the school where the Peace Corps had placed me to teach for two years. Finally, he decided he’d try me.

“Elizabeth, in America, are there watermelons?” eight-year-old Christian asked me in Bulgarian.

“Yes, there are,” I answered.

“Cherries?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. He gave a shy smile, and his mother tried not to laugh. Our first communication had been successful and we were both happy. We knew we’d be spending a lot of time together that summer because it was his mother’s job to help me settle into my new town.

On our next walk, the topic was animals. “Elizabeth, in America, are there squirrels?”

My answer: “Yes, there are.”

His next question: “And sparrows?”

My reply: “Yes, we have those, too.”

Our walks became a daily activity, and we covered a range of subjects: geography (he wanted to know if there were mountains like Bulgaria’s, and beaches, in America); weather (he asked about snow and heat in the states where I had lived); and toys and books (he was concerned with Batman, and Hans Christian Andersen stories). As the hot summer days passed, I could tell he was thinking harder and harder, trying to find something Bulgaria had that America didn’t.

Finally, one day, he got me. The topic: cars. “Elizabeth, in America, are there Moskviches?”

“Well, normally, no, I suppose there aren’t,” I said. His face lit up with national pride. It was as if Bulgaria had just won the World Cup—never mind that the Moskvich is an old Russian car.

When school began in September, I found this same mix of national pride and international curiosity in my students. These fifth, sixth, and seventh graders were eager to share their country with me, and they were curious about life in America. All day long, regardless of what we were studying, they fired questions at me:
“ Does everybody have a swimming pool?”
“ Do you know how to surf?”
“ Is it true that people sometimes have four brothers and sisters?” (Most Bulgarian families have just one or two children.)
“ Were you in New York on September 11?”
“ In America, are there ... ?”

So, along with being an English teacher, I’m the acting authority on American culture for my students, and sometimes for my whole town. It’s scary to have people decide what they think of America based on what I say, so I have to be careful. Bulgarians watch American movies and listen to American music, so they know quite a bit about the United States. But much of the American culture that has been exported to Bulgaria and other countries presents an incorrect, or at least incomplete, view of life in America. Almost every day I find myself faced with questions from children and adults about the truth of what they see on TV. So, even though I wish the media beamed around the world gave them a fairer picture of America, I’m glad Bulgarians are exposed to what they are. Their questions start conversations and help us connect despite our differences. Once we get through the initial “Yes, that’s true” or “Well, no, not exactly” answers, people are eager to talk about the deeper issues, and to compare our countries. Our conversations become an exchange, and I am proud to be able to help other people understand my country and culture, even as I become part of their country and culture.

But I’m learning that some things about America just can’t be understood in another culture. As February began, I tried to explain Groundhog Day to my students. Not knowing the Bulgarian word for groundhog, and having forgotten the word for squirrel, I described the animal as a very large mouse. The children looked at me like I was completely crazy: Why would Americans be so silly as to let a large rodent predict the weather? The next day, one of my sixth graders flew into the classroom, very excited about something. “I saw it! I saw it!” she exclaimed.

“Saw what?” I asked, hoping she would calm down enough so I could understand her.

Her response: “The big mouse! On the news! I didn’t think it was true! I thought it was like the movies!”

Sometimes, it turns out, America is as strange as the movies.