“Instant Modernization” in America

A prime concern of modern historians and social scientists has been the huge change in the qualities of human life between what are called “traditional” and “modern” societies. Whereas our relationships were once largely face-to-face and conducted with people whom we knew, nowadays many of the people with whom we come into contact remain anonymous; whereas most people once lived in a rural environment, nowadays we are more and more urban (and suburban) dwellers; whereas human interaction was once governed by custom, now it is increasingly ordered by formal laws and contracts; whereas most people were once illiterate, now most are literate; where once kinship was the most important relation and the family was one’s primary identity, now relations are voluntary and one is first and foremost an individual.

For our forefathers, coming to America was a double shock: not only did they have to adjust from Balkan to American society, they also had to adjust from traditional to modern society. The difference was stark and sometimes overwhelming. What happens to a traditional Balkan society when it undergoes the various processes lumped together under the rubric of “modernization”? I thought I might share my own observations, which are based on the small Vlach community of the Northeast United States, comprising just four parishes of the Romanian Orthodox Church. I am writing this not as a scholar, but rather as a member of this community who has seen it change yet who loves the new as fiercely as the old.

The Old

A basic belief of Vlach culture is that one should live elsewhere in summer than in winter, and that the summer home should have three qualities: it should be away from civilization, it should be cool, and it should be a place where you can simply enjoy festivities and fun. It takes a lot of money to be able to do this in America, more than the first generation to arrive here could manage. But children were not tied down to jobs in the campu (lowland — a derogatory term), so I was sent every summer to live with my aunt in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a factory town with such a large Vlach community that I thought it was a Vlach village named “Oonsocka,” as my aunt Sia used to call it.

Now this may seem amusing, but as a five-year-old I took it quite seriously. The two broadest entities we are raised to perceive in the world are a nostri (our own kind) and xeñi (everyone else). I could easily maintain this belief as a child because I was always under family supervision, and because in the 1950s our community was still more or less keeping to its old-world social system of the casa disclisa (open house) wherein one’s house is open to everyone else in the community to come by for a visit. The flow of our visitors seemed never to end! When it did, we were usually on our way to visit someone else.

Due to work schedules the better visiting days were on the weekends, but even these were minor when compared with the crowds on name days. It was a point of honor for as many people as possible to visit as many celebrants as possible on the name day, but the numbers were just too much. There had to be some way to set priorities, so two organizing principles were used: soi (kin) and oaspitsi (guest-relations). Kin were obvious and were kept track of up to 3rd and 4th cousins; guest-relations were ancient alliances between families which were, like so many other things, never questioned.

One thing that amazed and amused me was the computer-like knowledge of family that the women seemed always to have — they had several generations memorized up to 3rd and 4th cousins. To keep the computer up-to-date they had to visit each other often and exchange the latest news, which required global contacts because our community was spread between America, Greece, Albania, and Romania. Once the updating process began it was impossible to interrupt it: Words flew quickly and incredibly concisely between the women — covering all noteworthy births, deaths, baptisms, and weddings within 7,000 miles — until all were satisfied that they were completely updated. There would be a noticeable pause and only then would they look beyond each other at the other people in the room again. Another purpose of this genealogical knowledge was as a sort of database for our “genetic psychology”: Personality traits were seen as strictly inherited, and whether one was an alcoholic or an angel there was always an old woman around who knew one’s family tree well enough to find the ancestor, sot or saint, whose existence would account for one’s behavior.

The building block of this society was the fumealia (family), not yet the individual. One thought in terms of the family’s needs rather than one’s own needs. And the family extended beyond the household to include uncles, aunts, and first cousins. Marriages were often (but not always) arranged, and they created still larger alliances. If more support were needed for any undertaking, such as the endowment of a church, it would come from the wider family or clan, often those with the same numa (name). The clan was also mobilized as needed in running the affairs of the main “cultural and benevolent society” we have had in America since 1903, the Society Farsarotul — typical of this was the battle over the name of the Society, which started out with the safe abstraction Sperantsa (“Hope,” a word borrowed from Romanian) and ended up with the very concrete Farsarotul, the name of a particular northern tribe — in spite of the fact that Vlachs from all tribes and villages were supposed to be welcome in the Society!

In other words, things were not exactly run by rational and democratic methods. Instead, the basis of our society was honor, family, and patronage (and it is no coincidence that those three words form the title of J.K. Campbell’s famous book about the Sarakatsans, Greek nomads whose pastoral society parallels our own in so many ways). The young always listened to the old, and clients always listened to their patrons. In a situation such as this, is it any wonder that one very well-known trait of mountain cultures like ours, a trait we ourselves have an endless number of jokes about, is what we call capu grossu (a thick head)? If anyone did not follow the rules they were simply moved into the mental category of xeñi (outsiders) and were ostracized.

There was no question of having a different “opinion” or “party”; you were either with the people you were supposed to listen to, or you were against them, period. The idea that you could enter into a real corporate grouping with institutionalized dissent built into it was as foreign to our forefathers as the moon and sometimes seemed twice as impossible to reach. But they were in a modern society, America, and they felt they had to have a corporate group for all, regardless of family, so they tried it. Somehow the Society lasted, though when I hear the stories of shouting matches and fist-fights and complete fission of the community into two groups I wonder how it did survive.

In actual fact, they could not help what they did, it was part of their culture — they were almost completely unprepared for a modern pluralistic, democratic, rational society on the Western model. Those of us who were raised in traditional households and then emerged into modern American society experienced both worlds; though neither is necessarily “better” than the other, the two are clearly different, and so the transition from one to the other is likely to be fraught with problems.

The New

These days it seems as if everything has changed and our old world no longer exists. The greatest symptom of our “modernization” (or “Americanization” — one can view it either way) is the breakdown of our old community. The open-house calling system has given way to notions of privacy (which existed in Western Europe as early as the sixteenth century). We still visit, but nowhere near as often, and when we do we call first. The only occasion where a call is still not needed is on a name day, but the capacity crowds of yesteryear are greatly reduced, and anyway the name day has lost ground steadily to the birthday.

This breakdown is partly a reflection of the changes in the family. Kinship is no longer supreme; what matters most now is friendship by choice and group membership by voluntary association. Another aspect of this is marriage by choice: Most now marry outside the group, to people who were once considered xeñi (Italians, Greeks, Romanians, and Albanians primarily, though African-Americans, Latinos, and Moslems, too, most recently). The old-timers sometimes get upset about this, but these marriages often turn out just as well as the old forced kind and at any rate are notoriously hard to compare with them; each marriage type may be suited to its own era.

Few of us any longer know our kin beyond second cousins, if even that far; we seem to be moving towards the casual Western view that family is a sort of biological accident. Our psychology now tends to be post-Freudian, though every so often I find myself explaining someone’s behavior to myself by the fact that that behavior has been known to exist in that particular family. Old ways of thinking die hard, it seems.

We are losing the language, which is not surprising considering that there has not been even so much as a school here to preserve it (what is surprising is that it has lasted even this long). This has had the further ramification of putting us almost completely out of touch with the old country, because we no longer share a common language (and even those of the first American-born generation, who know the language, never had the benefit of learning how to write it). As far as church goes, where once the older generation half-understood the literary Romanian used in the service, very few of us now do, and we are making the transition to an English liturgy. Of course our ancestors might have argued, “Who needs to understand the liturgy anyway? You just attend, follow it, believe, and be a good Christian.” Nowadays this is no longer enough: People want to understand the liturgy, to really get the meaning of its words and symbols. Eastern Orthodoxy in America once sacrificed so many of us to its stubborn use of the old languages; it is finally moving, albeit slowly, to reclaim us.

Corporatism has by now been almost completely reduced to the nuclear family, though I still note such curiosities as our attempts to have balance between clans on the slate of officers of the Society Farsarotul. Individualism has swept us away and self-interest has begun to seduce us. If we face a choice wherein the family’s wishes might conflict with our own, we feel freer now to follow our own perceived needs. Just as it did in the West, though, this breaking-down of local loyalties and fragmentation of society has made it easier for us to develop broader loyalties and work within the framework of a larger group within which there might be people who disagree — thus are larger groups built now, from fraternal societies to nation-states. In fact, I would say that the main differentiation in our community now is along the lines of (socioeconomic) class more than of kinship and clan.

Thus is the Vlach community in America making a difficult but almost instantaneous transition from traditional to modern. Of course, we are not unique in this regard. Contemporary American literature is rich in fine works describing the changes immigrants and their communities undergo in the United States — and it is no surprise that, with the recent explosion in immigration from Asia, several of the best of these works describe the experience of Chinese, Indian, and other Asian refugees. Witness the enormous success and appeal of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine. One of the reasons these works are so satisfying even to non-Asians is because there is much in common among all immigrants and their descendants — and most Americans are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants. But, still, it would be nice to read something even closer to home.

Will a work of literature someday be written about the Aromanian experience? If anyone is considering such a project, I welcome you to try out your ideas and hone your skills by publishing in this Newsletter first. You won’t find an audience anywhere that is more receptive — or more demanding.


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