Greetings from London! My semester “further-abroad” has set off like fireworks (I’m an international student from Bulgaria at Boston University studying abroad in the UK)! For the next four months, I will share my views on the American and English culture from the perspective of a proud Eastern European.
One of my first lectures in London brought up a very interesting issue: what are the factors that define the seemingly similar American and British society.
As stereotypical as it sounds, the American society is defined by race even nowadays. How so? Open any tourist guide for any major city in the States and you will find suggestions for the top restaurants in Little Italy (NYC)/North End (Boston), the cheapest deals in Chinatown, the best Irish pubs in Southie (Boston), or how to avoid the black part of town. Read through a few blogs, and you will find quite a few negative comments about the influx of Chinese tech-gurus and the always illegal-and-low-skilled Mexican immigrants. It’s no surprise that the prospect of having a black president evoked even more heated debates among Americans than the prospect of having a woman president, although other countries in the world have had female presidents or presidents from the non-dominant race long before the States. Electing Obama was not as controversial to the rest of the world as it was to the American society, which finally felt itself ready to overcome its deeply rooted racial reservations.
Race, on the other hand, has never been a segregating factor in the UK simply because historically, the British Empire extended to India, Australia, the Middle East, South Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Different races and cultures simply had to learn to coexist. Class was what defined the British society. Probably the only country in the world where social hierarchy is more important than that in Great Britain, is India. To understand this social structure, simply take a tour of London: compare Chelsea and Kensington, whose mere architecture reminds us of the aristocratic past of that part of town, with the Docklands, which were the main source of wealth for the middle class of merchants; take a boat trip to the Greenwich Observatory to get a sense of the English scholars and intelligence strata; visit London’s exquisite cathedrals and churches to understand the importance of the clergy for the English nation. Today, the structure of the Parliament, the function of the Queen, and the aristocratic titles are remnants of the social segregation that the British claim to have left in the past.
Neither race nor class are issues in the modern Bulgarian society. This is probably because we don’t have any other races besides the occasional black foreign soccer player, who usually becomes a celebrity for the girls in Sofia’s clubs. We also dethroned our royal family a long time ago, with the arrival of the Communist government in 1946 (which is too bad because our royalties were actually part of a very powerful European royal dynasty, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha). I think that what truly defines the Bulgarian society is money.
The face of Bulgaria’s modern society was shaped after the fall of the Communist regime in 1898. This is when former members of the Party were able to receive portions of the no-longer- national enterprises and thus became successful businessmen. Those who had connections appropriated various ventures and took control over entire industries. Notably, the insurance business became a synonym of the mafia. Today, these people are filthy rich. They are some of the richest people in Europe and are very well connected with their Russian mafioso counterparts and ironically, with the democratic government. They have a culture of their own, that of the porn-like chalga culture and the thick-necked businessmen, and comprise a separate social strata.
But then, there is of course the rest of society: the open-minded and ambitious young Bulgarians who make up one of the most vibrant and interesting European peoples.