I’m from Romania. More often than not, my answer to the country of origin question awakens Dracula. His specter rises from whatever coffin of the imagination he rests his fangs in, and he pursues me. In fact, it is the nationality words he haunts: Romania, Romanian… “Ah, you mean Transylvania!” is generally the other comment accompanying the mention of the garlic-afeared Count.
Do I dislike this? Let’s go back in time… Imagine a twelve-year old girl fresh off the boat who lands in a New York suburban public school seventh-grade class, shy, nervous, wearing weird clothes and mumbling in British English with a strange accent. One of the first questions she is asked by a few classmates who actually decide to be friendly is: “Are you a vampire?” She doesn’t have a clue what that means. When she understands somewhat, she freaks out. She cries. She does some research. And then she cries some more. Because it turns out that the 15th-century ruler of Wallachia she learned about in her Bucharest school, the hero who fought the Ottoman empire fiercely for the independence of his land, Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, is seen in this new country of hers as a blood-sucking demon. Yes, it is true that he was also called Dracula. But that was an inherited moniker from his father, Vlad II, who had been made a member of the Order of the Dragon by Sigismund of Luxembourg, the King of Hungary to whom he had been sent as a hostage.
It was the badge of the Order in the shape of a dragon that inspired the nickname Dracul, which means devil, and which, in medieval Romanian, also meant dragon. Vlad II’s sons were known as Dracula, and as the language evolved, the word became more and more associated with evil. It did not help Vlad the Impaler’s reputation that he was extremely cruel in his punishments of criminals, traitorous boyars, and enemies. Yet I grew up knowing nothing about Dracula. In our Romanian history books, and even in occasional conversations, there was no association between Vlad the Impaler and vampirism. An early book to make that connection was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and no one I knew in Romania had ever read it.
Once I became a Romanian-American, I gradually got used to the association. Soon after my culture-shock encounter with the immortal Count, on occasion I would answer “yes” to the are-you-a-vampire question. After all, my last name ends similarly; I might be a distant relative—which suddenly increased my “cool” factor from non-existent to awesome in ninth grade. (And yes, I confess, I did like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1992 film by Francis Ford Coppola).
It isn’t really the Dracula myth and its permeation of pop culture that I dislike. On the contrary, if Dracula-esque advertising for visiting Bran Castle, also known mainly for commercial reasons as Dracula’s Castle, helps attract more visitors to Romania, if sticking a pair of fangs on a red wine bottle label will get some to try a certain Romanian wine, so be it. These might be first steps towards discovering a country that offers an abundance of extraordinary natural, cultural, and culinary treasures. What disturbs me is when there is no effort on the part of other Romanian-Americans to offer information about Romania to those who know only the Dracula legend. Certainly, there is Nadia Comaneci, but she seems to rank a distant second to the Count in popularity. When some from my own Romanian-American diaspora emphasize the fact that Dracula is the only thing we are known for, not only does this propagate the stereotype but it also underestimates the non-Romanians who actually know more about Romania. There are those who know of phenomenal composer, violinist and pianist, George Enescu, of sculptor and pioneer of modernism Constantin Brancusi, of playwright and novelist Mihail Sebastian, of Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist George Palade, of filmmaker Cristi Puiu, of opera superstar Angela Gheorghiu, of pianist Radu Lupu, of tennis players Simona Halep and Ilie Nastase… There are those who, once they have tasted the food and the wine, at Romanian Garden restaurant in Queens for instance, have instantly yearned to go back for more. There are those who not only know, but are interested in knowing.
I write this not so much as an advertisement for the charms and wonders of Romania. I write it because hearing the Dracula association one too many times—and more so from a compatriot—has triggered me. As we are painfully aware, all immigrant groups are victims of stereotyping. I think it is the duty of those in the diasporas everywhere in the world to try, however possible, to break down such stereotypes and dispel ignorance. In the case of the Romanian diaspora, I believe that we can do so, not in a brutal manner that would be totally dismissive of the popular Dracula myth, but by offering something in return whenever we hear the word Dracula. So the next time someone comments on the Romanian origin as “the country of Dracula and stuff,” we might try to deal with the “stuff” part by introducing them to just one Romanian noted figure, cultural aspect, food, city. And if they say they also know of Nadia Comaneci, well, we’re already making progress.
Photos courtesy of Maria-Cristina Necula