Here’s a popular Romanian joke:

A gypsy and his neighbor set out to build their houses. They spared no expense, and they succeeded in building two identical houses, brick for brick. When they were done, they both stepped back to admire their work. “What a great house!” the one said. “I’ll bet that I can sell it for a million dollars.” “What a great house!” the gypsy said. “I’ll bet that I can sell mine for two million dollars.” “What?” the neighbor said. “Our houses are identical. Why would yours sell for twice what mine sells for?” “Easy,” the gyspy said. “I don’t live next to a gyspy.”

And here’s a true story that happened to me while I was living in Romania: I lived outside of town and had to take a bus into work. I lived near a gypsy enclave, and my bus was often filled with people bringing their wares into town. One day the bus was very crowded (as usual), and I offered my seat to a youngish gypsy woman who looked tired and weary. She took it without a word. Then, about halfway through the trip, she started harassing me to give her money. I politely ignored her, but she became increasingly strident, offering to tell me my fortune in exchange for whatever money I was willing to give her. As she grew more insistent I grew more impatient, until the bus finally arrived downtown and I hurriedly disembarked to escape. No luck. She followed me, pulling on my sleeve and almost physically attempting to keep me from leaving. In exasperation I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the first thing that I found: a 1000 lei coin (a tiny pittance, since a loaf of bread cost 10,000 lei at the time). I tried to push it into her hand, but it slipped out and fell into the muck and snow at the edge of the bus stop. She dashed after it, then looked at me in disgust when she realized that she had dirtied her hands for such a pathetic sum. A cop was standing nearby, and he started laughing. He winked at me in camaraderie–he naturally assumed that I had done this on purpose to humiliate the woman. Horrified and embarrassed, I fled from the bus stop and towards downtown. I say these two things to illustrate the following points:

  • Romani (gypsies) are subjected to immense, pervasive prejudice in Romania. One simply assumes that gypsies are dirty, irresponsible, rapacious, abusive, fortune-tellers, thieves, and swindlers. Anti-Romani racism is nearly universal and almost never questioned. In this sense Romania is quite different from the US, where racism is usually covert and subtle. Romanian bias is overt, obvious, and most of all considered normal.
  • At the same time, the prejudice is not really racial. It’s cultural. Romani who adopt mainstream dress, language, and lifestyle are pretty easily integrated. My wife descends from such a family: her paternal grandparents were gypsies who settled and entered Romanian mainstream, and this heritage has had close to zero impact on her and the rest of her family. She and all of her sisters are darker-skinned than the average Romanian, but no-one cares. I knew other people who were obviously Romani, but who had no trouble integrating into normal economic life once they took up Romanian dress, religion, etc. This also contrasts with historical attitudes in the US, where one-drop rules meant that people with mixed ancestry felt the full weight of segregation.
  • Partly for this reason, official attempts to redress this situation have been entirely ineffective, from what I can see. Officially, the Romani are not țigani but romi, and public-service advertisements against racism are visible in all major cities. The result? People now tell racist jokes using the word rom instead of țigan. Progress, eh? Additionally, there’s very little political consciousness among the gypsies themselves (that I know of). This dooms any attempts to address the problem through official channels, and makes the gestures that have been undertaken seem like condescension.
  • The story of what happened to me on the bus illustrates a problem with many of the accepted narratives about why racial stereotypes exist. In this feel-good just-so story, stereotypes are a means for the privileged to keep the underclass down, and closer interaction with the oppressed shows the stereotype to be false, and so racism disappears. My experience was just the opposite. Most interactions that most people have with gypsies in Romania serve to reinforce the stereotype. Indeed, the most horrific stories of spousal and child abuse I’ve ever heard have come from my sister-in-law and her husband, who do social work in an impoverished gypsy village. Their experience working closely with the Romani has not served to create the comfortable illusion that the gypsies are “just like us” beneath their skin, but rather has deepened the impression that there are terrible dysfunctions in Romani culture and mores.
  • Since the real divide between gypsies and Romanians in Romania is cultural, some people would counsel tolerance and mutual respect. Tolerance might be possible, but it will never lead to respect, because the differences between mainstream and Romani culture are imbued with moral significance. For example, it is not uncommon for Romani women to be married in their teens, and to have a few children by the time they reach their twenties. This is combined with widespread domestic abuse and general misogyny. Is this something that should be tolerated and respected? And this is just one example that I picked as congenial to Westerners–there are many other examples of cultural differences imbued with moral significance that separate the gypsy minority from the Romanian mainstream.
  • There is a conflict between the desire to preserve and respect Romani culture and the desire to eliminate prejudice against the Romani, because the culture is largely the cause of the prejudice. Okay, we say, we’ll keep the good (or neutral) aspects of the culture and get rid of the bad ones. Keep the bright dresses and lose the child marriage. Okay, but which cultural aspects are good and which are bad? And who gets to decide? The Romani themselves, or well-meaning liberal bureaucrats in Bucharest and Brussels? I have a hunch who’s actually going to set the policies that determine the future of Romani in Romania, and I’m suspicious that it’s just another form of racism, masquerading as multiculturalism.

And yet… I don’t think that we should be complacent about the treatment of gypsies in Romania (or anywhere else). I just think that we should be realistic about the content and the causes of prejudice. If you like this, you may be interested in A visitor’s guide to Romanian racism.

Update: Here’s another article about gypsy demographics, culture, and history which is relevant to this discussion.

It’s April 18th. And it is snowing in Seattle. Big, wet, fluffy, gorgeous flakes. I’ve obviously stumbled into some bizarre alternate dimension where Seattle weather is something other than soggy drizzle for weeks on end, and I love it.

Yesterday my wife wrote me shortly after I arrived at work. She always writes me, usually just to chit-chat. But she said something interesting: “I’ve started bleeding.”

That got my attention.

She had also experienced a few mild contractions the day before and that morning, so we were alarmed, to say the least. A call to our midwife resulted in an appointment for an ultrasound in the early afternoon. It wasn’t urgent, the midwife said: she had no pain, the bleeding was really just spotting, and the contractions were highly sporadic. Still, they were unusual symptoms given that Larisa was still eight weeks away from her due date.

I took off from work early and we headed downtown for an emergency ultrasound at Swedish. The results were, basically, that nothing was wrong. Larisa was not in labor, the baby was of average size, and there was nothing wrong with mother or child. The contractions were unusual but essentially harmless, and the bleeding was attributed to more unusual-but-harmless motion in the plumbing.

So the baby is not, as far as we know, going to surprise us by arriving eight weeks early. Phew!

Last night was a night of great and portentious (not to mention pretentious) moment. Four of we who met at Potlatch, gathered at my house. The celebrants were myself, Jessie Kwak, Natasha Oliver, and Brian LeBlanc, all denizens of Seattle and ambitious neophyte writers. We had agreed to a get-together shortly after Potlatch, and this was the day it got together.

Food was had, and in delicious quantities. Natasha supplied fantastic ham quiche squares, Brian blessed us with alcohol, and Jessie took up the rear with a kind of Mexican cookie whose name I have forgotten. The entree was supplied by me and my wife: ciorbă rădăuţeană, a traditional Romanian soup made with chicken and sour cream. I requested that the revelers learn to pronounce the word before they started eating, which they did with admirable aplomb. Well, at least Jessie and Natasha did. I think that Brian got away with not saying the name of the dish the entire night.

Food meant discussion, which eventually led to reading and critting. Jessie agreed to be the first victim with a short story about… Actually, I won’t say what the story was about. It’s her prerogative to divulge details of her own WIP. In any case, everyone agreed that the format was enjoyable and useful, so others will provide further grist for the crit mill in the future.

We all agreed to an encore, with the exact date to be established in the future. The last order of business was to agree on a name for our cadre. After heated discussion, we agreed on the Shining Creamsicles, for reasons to ridiculous to explain. Note that the name is only temporarily plural: when the Creamsicle Singularity occurs (like the Technological Singularity, but with Creamsicles), we will merge and become The Shining Creamsicle. And I know we’re all looking forward to that.

I just got back from Potlatch 17. This was my first con. Conveniently, it was held right here in Seattle. It was also conveniently awesome.

I don’t think that I could do justice to it in prose, actually. Until this weekend I had never met a single SFF writer in person, except for once seeing Ursula K. LeGuin at a reading. This weekend I was plunged into a sea of seasoned pros, newly-published young writers, and hopeless wannabes like me. I was suddenly and unexpectedly surrounded by people with the same interests, the same experiences, and the same aspirations as me. It was literally a revelation. On Friday night, I was literally shaking when I went to bed; Saturday morning I woke up dreaming about the evening before.

I’m still very much on a high. Enough of a high that I spontaneously started a blog :).

I’m not going to try to recap the actual content of the weekend. But these were the Hopeless Wannabes, the people that I actually hung out with most of the weekend (all unpublished writers, for the most part):

  • Jessie Kwak, making us “Jessie and Jesse” for the whole conference
  • C.S. Inman aka Sän, who said nice but completely untrue things about me on his blog
  • Elizabeth Coleman
  • Eva Folsom (no site?)
  • Natasha Oliver (also no site)
  • Jennifer Hopkins (no site–seriously people, get with the times. If Google doesn’t know about you, then you don’t exist.)
  • Brian LeBlanc

And here were the Big Important Authors that I spoke to. There were many more authors than this at the con, of course, but these were the ones that I actually talked to and who might actually remember me.

I’m going to be building a blogroll with these people and others soon.