(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
I may have done myself a disservice.
Among Serbian locals, I might be recognized as Brandon from London or Ben from Melbourne; only among young Belgraders whom I knew I’d likely befriend longterm was I Brian from the States.
After the first couple weeks, I was tired of being asked about America’s bombing of Belgrade in the 90’s. I was tired of being asked why I’d ever support ‘Killary’ Clinton. I was tired of responding to conspiracy theories like “the US invented HIV/AIDS,” “the US arms and funds ISIS,” and “the US orchestrated 9/11 to justify war.” I was tired of defending a futile argument. Even when conversation was civil, I was tired of having these conversations when they would never come to a resolution.
So I took an easy out. I knew my American citizenship and other aspects of my identity would prompt conversations I was tired of having or knew would likely provoke disagreement, so I avoided those associations. While out for an evening or two, I became British or Australian, if only for the sake of not being bothered during a meal to be asked about US foreign policy or the current election cycle.
And while it’s always fun to be someone else, by doing this, I narrowed my horizons and ability to learn more from my surroundings than I could have otherwise. I wish I (as well as the other Engagers who used this technique) would have realized sooner that this behavior, although fun in a social setting, limited the possibility for genuine interaction with our host environment.
I could have learned more from my experience – more than just how to manipulate my accent – in Serbia if I chose to be who I really am at all times.