Last week, my friends and I went to a food festival to hang out and listen to some live music — average enough Croatian night. As I was ordering from one of the carts, the man working asked me, “So what are you doing here in Zagreb?” In my answer, I opted to avoid the words that I’ve realized Croatians generally don’t know, such as internship and non-governmental organization. My simplified answer went something like this: “I’m working for an organization that’s helping to smooth Croatia’s transition into democracy.” His immediate response: “Americans coming here to enforce democracy? That means war.”
My very clever retort was a few bumbling “uhhh what?’s” and “wait no’s”. This was assertive enough (I call it assertive, others may say he took pity on me, who knows) that he began to agree that aspects of their government did need some work. The rest of the conversation was interesting and constructive as I listened to his political views, but overall it was a kind of wake-up call. His comment reminded me of my American identity that I, like it or not, am constantly carrying with me. He gave me a window into his perspective that American’s are a little too proud; he viewed me as just another American trying to force my Western ways upon his culture.
In that moment, his comment caught me so off guard that it made me question if it is really my place to be working in my position. I eventually came to the conclusion that I am entirely ok and not crossing any lines — the company I work for is Croatian, not American, and I’m a feeble intern, here to learn from Croatians, not to teach or force the American version of democracy on them. He, on the other hand (from what I interpreted from the rest of our conversation), did not understand the full situation and assumed I was working for an American organization dedicated to changing the Croatian government.
I think that if he had understood my internship correctly he would have given me the ok too, but to be honest, I’m glad for the misunderstanding. Throughout all of my traveling in my life, no one has ever called me out for my American identity before. Because of this, I had begun to forget that it existed, and I had forgotten about all the baggage that comes with it. I had forgotten that as I travel, people see me in a different light because I’m American, and that I represent a lot more than myself. When I travel, I am potentially representing an entire history, whether or not I agree with every piece of that history.
If I saw that man again, I would thank him. His comment has made me more self-aware, and I think it has the potential to save me from awkward and possibly worse situations in the future.