Social Connectedness

Middle School.

For a long time I've tried to understand how I can feel less alienated and detached from the world in a country where I am a foreigner. A common thing on Zablogreb is how much more social Croatian society is than the US. Here the relations are THICK, and I think I've found an answer. School. But, not in a way that has anything to do with curriculum or the quality of teachers. Nope. The biggest difference between Croatian schools and American schools is that in the US we have a special hell called middle school.

Right, so Croatia has middle school (srednja škola) but this middle school is actually high school (again with the names Croatia— it’s confusing). Before Croatian “middle” school there is just elementary school (osovna škola,). Middle school in the US is completely different. Not only is it the worse time in any American's life, it occurs in the actual middle of your schooling. Middle school is the inky-black abyss that swallows grades 6-8.

See, in the US we begin school with kindergarten, then it's on to the 1st grade. Grades K-5 are known as elementary school. Then comes middle school. That's right, everything you've known and loved, the adoring teachers that have seen you grow from a 5 year-old to an 11 or 12 year-old, the friends you've had for the last 6 years, well, all of that is suddenly stripped away from you. The feeling of home, comfort, familiarity, continuity, all gone. You are left naked. In the wild. with wolves. 

At the same time, this is when kids start to change into adolescents. And since the school is much bigger than its elementary counterpart, there is more "diversity." What that means is that I entered middle school looking like a 9 year-old and found myself walking the halls with guys that shaved. The variety of biological and hormonal differences, coupled with newness of everything, adds to the already unpleasant experience of transition from kid to teen. 

Middle school has a steep learning curve, what the launches you into the realities of American life, realities that you may or may not be prepared for. In my middle school we had real gangs, in 8th grade there were 11 guns found in the school and a friend was beaten into a coma. It's where I first learned what pot smelled like, because a fellow student came to school smelling like pot. 

Each year in middle school is filled with new strangers, and you grope for friends like a drowning rat. It's easy to befriend someone without really knowing them. Middle school was the first time I had friends that would brazenly steal from stores. It was also where everyone suddenly became programmed into trends, switching and backstabbing friends with rapid frequency. Middle school is where social pressure became palpable.  

And the teachers. It must be hard for a teacher to invest herself into a student she may only have once. Not because that teacher is bad or lazy, but teaching is emotionally exhausting. I can only imagine teaching a new batch of kids in the full flux of adolescence is, well, just awful. Especially when you are unable to have a longer, more durable relationship with them. Middle school, like so much in the US is transitory. In such a world of turmoil, the students, friends, and teachers are interchangeable, and expendable. 

Croatia, on the hand, doesn't have this system. HOORAY!! Why? Because you guys are nice. This makes all the difference. Kids here get to enjoy the familiar up until high school. And by the time you're 14, you're ready for something different. To maintain some sense of continuity at a time when you and everyone around you is changing just makes sense. What better way to raise a kid, than by giving her steady and constant friends, classmates, and teachers during the most awkward stage in anyone's life. 

I've noticed that there is bond that exists between students here in Croatia that doesn't exist in the US. The students in a classroom have solidarity with each other. While this may help them cheat, it also serves as the beginning foundation for the relationships, connections, and networks that make Croatian society stable. I'd guess that a large part of this behavior begins and evolves in primary school. It is then perfected in high school, rather than destroyed in middle school.

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Shout outs to Marko and Jelena, whose conversation got me thinking about this post. 


Why Croatia


I know Croatia has a LOT of problems. People commonly talk about corruption, inept political institutions, entrenched bureaucracy, and all in all, a very limited amount of individual opportunity (see here: http://tacklingmommyhood.com/2013/10/choose-life-america/?fb_source=pubv1). Here the question of success is usually not about what you know, but who you know. When it comes to America vs. Croatia, Croatia sounds like the antithesis to the American Dream. In the US, we are raised on the idea that there exists enough opportunity in the US for anyone to succeed based solely on her efforts alone (the machinery of America is thought to be powered by sweat and greased with gumption). So why would I consciously chose to live in Croatia over the US? 

Short answer: the sea, coffee and Punica!!! 

In all seriousness, to me the US pretends to be brimming with opportunity, making it a challenge to deal with the stark reality that the American Dream is dying. What amazes me about Croatia is how the society and people are able to eek out a more satisfying and harmonious life, despite the apparent lack of opportunities. 

Statistically speaking Croatia is poor. GDP is a paltry 56 billion dollars, unemployment sits around 17%, and per capita income is a stagnant $1,000 dollars a month. Yet, poverty in Croatia does not seem to be as much a curse for individuals and for the society as a whole as it is in the US (I should note that by any income measure I am not poor, on the border, but not there). So, sure, Croatia may not have the career and entrepreneurial opportunities the US has, but its society and way of life are, in my opinion, a better way to live than the current trends of life in the US.  

For example, healthcare: Having healthcare, especially for my daughter has enabled me to lead my life as an aspiring Academic and... Blogger? Is that really what I’m trying to do here? Um? Yes? If I moved to the US, the first thing I would look for was ANY job that gave my family some kind of health insurance. Most of the visiting professor and adjunct positions at American Universities are low paid and provide no healthcare. If I couldn’t find a job with benefits, then I would probably have to spend $1,000 a month on healthcare. That’s money just hoping that nothing bad happens to me or my family. A couple days in the hospital without healthcare could easily eat up a year or two year’s income for those of us on the lower end of the pay scale. 

AND, it’s not all about me. I believe a society that doesn’t have to worry about going into debt just to go to the doctor or taking their kid to the doctor is a less stressed, better society. Imagine having to decide if your kid is really sick enough to warrant a trip to the doctor, talk about stressful. Access to healthcare is one very important thing not to have worry about. It’s like a great big social hug and a reassuring voice that says: Hey, we are here for you, if and when you need us. And by not having medical debt, those us living in Croatia can go into debt for all the important stuff, like BLACK BMWs and fashionable outfits for ŠPICA! 

Another great thing about Croatia is the lack of violent crime. Fifteen cities in the US reported more than 100 murders last year. Excluding the megapoli like New York (431 murders) and Chicago (500) averaged size cities no bigger than Zagreb report hundreds of murders each year: Detroit 386; Baltimore 219; New Orleans 193. As the list reveals, those cities with the highest murder rate per capita tend also be the poorest cities. Because in America, poverty and crime go hand in hand. This sad phenomenon exists at the neighborhood level as well. The worst neighborhood in my hometown, with 26 murders in the lat two years, is also one of the poorest. The neighborhood’s average income is the bottom 1% of the country’s average. This tragic story is told throughout similar neighborhood across the US. The poor not only have to suffer poverty, they also have to suffer from high violent crime. 

There are broader effects of this relationship. Namely, American society tends to associate poverty with crime, thereby making the poor potential criminals in the eyes of the public and the police. In cities like Chicago, violent street crime is itself an obstacle to opportunity. School children have to worry about being shot when just going to school. Even if they get to school, they may have trouble learning or taking advantage of the benefits an education can offer them. An Interview with one resident from a high crime neighborhood in Chicago indicated that he may suffer from the same post traumatic stress disorder as a returning war veteran from Iraq. As if poverty alone weren’t enough, the American poor have to face fear, persecution, and violence in their daily lives. If there is more opportunity in the US, the stress of poverty and crime, have isolated many from its fortunes. Yet, the American Dream tells us it can’t exist like this, so some of us judge the poor and mistrust them, denying that something is wrong, and through our own prejudice contribute to our society’s growing divisions.

Finally, what it all comes down to is community. Croatia’s greatest virtue is the strength of people’s relationships. Everyone in Croatia is connected. Forget Facebook, the original social network was created in Croatia. If you look at the most indispensable element of Croatian society, having coffee!, you see that going for coffee has nothing to do with the caffeine and more to do with maintaining old and fostering new friendships. FACT: It is impossible to consider someone a friend in Croatia, until you have had coffee with them.

While this just seems normal to Croatians, what may not be understood is how this connectedness is in fact what offsets the negative effects of poverty and limited opportunity. Societies that have a higher level of connectedness have healthier members and lower crime. Trust and relationships within a community is one of the greatest contributors to the quality of life in a given community. In California, one city uses the question of whether or not its residents have five people they can call in an emergency as  an indicator into their overall well-being.  The idea here is that individuals who are better connected have a higher level of well-being as they are part of, and exist in a network of dependable individuals. Imagine what this says about Croatia. Five? Easy. Since Croatians are incapable of saying ‘no’ to a friend, you can always ask someone you know for help in an emergency (especially if that emergency is needing a place to stay for a night or two on the coast during the summer. CRISIS!).        

Having the ability to ‘chose’ where you want to live is a privilege. While America does hold the promise of opportunity and Croatia does have problems of its own, there are aspects of life here that I would find very difficult to exchange for what might just be a dream.