From Kavadarci, Macedonia, January 2000
Kavadarci, Macedonia -- "Do you all seriously believe that America is more dangerous than the Balkans?" I asked.
I had just finished listening to a series of essays, written by my students. The topic was "Differences between your country and mine." I got comments like these:
"I think America is a very beautiful country, it's a free country, but life in America is very dangerous. There are many people who take drugs. ... There are many people who enjoy to kill other people. The murders happen every day in every corner in America."
"I think that every third person in America takes drugs."
"It is dangerous to go out at night because they wear guns in America and you can easily get shot and end up dead."
The answer is, yes, these 15- and 16-year-olds seriously believe what they wrote. There is no irony in these sentences, no put-on. They're not yet fluent enough in English to be anything other than literal.
The truth, of course, is just the opposite. The Balkans is a far more dangerous environment, especially for women and girls.
In America, for instance, wife- and girlfriend-beaters enjoy a social status only slightly above pimps and men who sell drugs to children. In most parts of Macedonia, police won't even respond to domestic-violence calls. A young woman recently told me about an incident in which a man was beating his girlfriend on the main street of town and the police refused to intervene. For a man, there is simply no penalty for physically abusing the women in his life. Nor is there much of a penalty for rape because, while there is a rape law on the books, few women here would report it. And then there's the high alcoholism rate, the poverty, and the penchant for making war.
So who told these kids that America is more dangerous than the place where they live?
The answer is, we did -- or, at least, our movie and TV producers did.
Because Macedonia, like most of the formerly communist and socialist countries, is still quite poor, TV producers here don't have much money to produce programming in the Macedonian language. Aside from American programs, TV mostly consists of music videos, dull politicians talking, or Macedonian folk music broadcast from TV studios. As a result, we watch an unending stream of what my great-aunt Anna used to call "the blood-and-thunder shows." Little of our gentler programming makes it onto Macedonian TV, perhaps because humor doesn't translate well, and American humor in particular doesn't play well in Europe.
In America, we have some basis for comparison. We can go to a movie about Mafiosi -- and know that we probably won't be witnessing any gangland slayings on our way home to the suburbs. We can watch a TV show about a cop who kills six bad guys and then asks his partner, with a grin, where he'd like to have lunch -- and know that human beings do not kill so casually. But to a Macedonian, there is simply no basis for comparison. What's more, Hollywood's product seems to confirm decades of socialist propaganda about the decadence of American society.
When I was on my first tour with the Peace Corps, living in Kumanovo, Macedonia, a student named Maja asked me to help her prepare for an exam on English syntactic structures, and we made a date for her to come to my apartment. Before leaving home, she got firm instructions from her grandmother not to eat or drink anything while she was in my apartment. The old lady had seen a TV program about an American who put something in a pretty girl's drink, and apparently assumed that we all carry a supply in our pockets.
When she told me what her grandmother had said, I explained to Maja that there had been such a stream of beautiful young women through my apartment that I had plumb run out. (Then I had to explain "plumb".)
One of the purposes of the Peace Corps is to let the people of other countries see real Americans, so they can know that we're not all thieves, hookers and murderers. The problem is that, in this country of 2.1 million, there are currently 18 of us, and altogether we may have contact with only a few thousand Macedonians.
Television, however, is everywhere.