When I was born, food was rationed, freedom was bound, and people were ruled. It matters where you are born: your country either helps you, or hurts you. I was born at the tail end of Romanian communism—after 34 years of being ruled by a vicious dictator. By the time communism ended and the iron curtain fell in 1989, Romania would have harnessed about 4 decades under totalitarian soviet-style regime (1947-1989). Nicolae Ceausescu claimed his infamy through his cruel dictatorship, managing to get himself reelected since 1965, taking full control of the army, the country, and every aspect of human life.
In a communist system, what is mine is not really mine—it belongs to the government. Only the government gets rich, thrives, and grows. In theory, communism may seem selfless and too good to be true. But that’s because it really is too good to be true. “The communism of Karl Marx would probably be actually the best for everybody as a whole. But what he didn’t figure into was human nature, and that’s what corrupts it” (Jesse Ventura). For many today, “communism” is a fascinating philosophy debated on keyboards, in coffee shops, or within political arenas. But for me, this word means abuse, injustice, corruption, denigration, humiliation, starvation, sickness, poverty.
Communism believed the West to be its archenemy. All ties with America and Western Europe were cut off and common citizens’ travel abroad was banned. As a result, Romania was left to be used and abused internally. Imports were cut off for the average citizen and Western propaganda punished with prison time. The year I was born, Ceausescu decided that the best way to get out of national debt was to starve his own people by controlling the spending in the country on food and basic needs. Food, clothing, and fuel were rationed. Not only did families have little to choose from, but now it was all measured. Bananas and oranges were scarce, holiday luxuries. I remember lines and people fighting while waiting for such “luxuries.” The short supply never met the high demand, and so, it created much panic, selfishness, and bribery. Imagine COVID-19 shortages in February and March of 2020, but for four decades, with less supplies to sell: a nightmare, isn’t it?
Fast forward to 2001 when I arrived in America. My first trip to Walmart left me awestruck. So much food, options, abundance. It was the full shelves and the full carts that got me concluding that everyone in Walmart must be millionaires. The contrast was stark: my family used to go shopping with one bag; here people use carts on wheels! Restaurants, shopping malls, online shopping, grocery stores—can be seen as spoiled American wastelands. But for me, these remain symbols of blessings and life-sustaining tools. Better more than none. The freedom to buy food, clothing, and fuel shows me what democracy should do for people. Every time I see a banana, I remember my first taste of it. I still love it! Today, I own bananas and oranges all year long, not just at Christmas. I buy what I want or need even when I don’t “need” it (or want it). No one counts or cares, controls or stops me (except for my credit cards).
During communism, the education was a tool of indoctrination so that every student would become the “New Communist Man and Woman.” Pictures of exemplary students were displayed on school boards. We went to school to become model hardworking communist citizens. Great students were rewarded with money and books. Poor students were often shamed and left behind. The goal of education was to teach people that the answer to all of their needs is communism and Ceausescu. Religion, free will, freedom of expression were stifled, eradicated, and punished. I remember my classroom more like a shrine with Ceausescu’s pictures, morning songs to our leader and country, and textbooks with more pictures of him and extreme propaganda. Education indoctrinated citizens, not liberated them to think freely and critically. The correct response was always the communist response. Critical thinking (thinking outside the party lines) was dangerous and punishable.
Today in America, my children are free to attend, get this, a private, Christian school! This was impossible during communism. The only type of schooling deemed legal was the state’s kind. I marvel at the many educational options we (still) have today in America: public, private, homeschool, online, hybrid, Spanish, French, Arabic, you name it. The reflection of a democratic system is seen in the education of the young people. The best education is an education that equips children to learn about the world at large, not the singled out leading ideology; to ask questions, think critically, and engage in dialogues, not parrot one compromised ideology over and over again; to look for solutions to problems, not hide the problems away. Professors should really teach students, not accept bribes and play propagandist words in their ears. Presidents shouldn’t be worshipped. And books shouldn’t come only in one color (red or blue).
3. Living Conditions
Though both my parents were hard working factory workers, working seven days a week, they made just enough to cover the bare minimal. We lived in a grey block of flats, on the fourth floor, our apartment the size of about 600 square feet. The Communist Government packed people high up and close by in order to increase the country’s productivity. They even put our water, electricity, and heat on a rigid schedule. The state controlled when and how long people got to enjoy these needs. In order to heat up the homes during the frigid winters, many fathers fabricated their own gas heaters connected illegally (and dangerously) to the kitchen gas stove through plastic pipes. My father made us oil burning lamps for when the electricity went out, and we learned to heat our bath water on the stove so we can all bathe once a week. My family didn’t own a car. Even if we did, the state would have controlled when and how long we could drive it. Most people couldn’t afford much, but even if they did, the sate confiscated everything anyway. Nadia Comaneci was the country’s pride gymnast internationally, but lived just as poorly back home—the state confiscated much of what she won abroad.
Today, I own clothes, electronics, a central heating system, electricity, and water on demand. No one controls when and how I am to use them all. I can wash when I want, leave as many lights on as I want, cool myself down or heat myself up, on demand. The sizes in America vary, it seems, from big to huge (even the smallest size in food portions or glasses here is still bigger than my country’s biggest size). There is space, color, creativity, originality, and rewarded hard work. The choices of living are as diverse as the stars in the sky, and the individual possessions can’t be confiscated. In a democracy, we earn what we make and we keep it, too.
Communism had one religion—itself. Atheism was its sermon. Freedom of worship and religion were nonexistent. In fact, communism imprisoned, tortured, and sanctioned people of all kinds of faiths and churches. Religious expression was illegal. So were churches and home gathering. My grandparents became Christians during communism. They risked their lives and homes for sharing the gospel. Meeting often in secret, they thrived and so did the people around them. I remember visiting a house church they helped lead. There were egg cartons on the ceiling to muffle the noise, church members watching for police outside, and lower sound system to not draw too much attention. The Bibles were illegal and it would cost everyone their lives. I have relatives who were involved in illegal smuggling of Bibles in Romania since 1970. Their creativity astounds me. They used the woods at night to unload imported fruit treys with a double bottom where the Bibles were carefully hidden. They even packed Bibles like sardines in tin cans, or used large trucks carrying gravel with Bibles mixed among it.
Today in America, we can still worship freely. Churches are in plain sight. Amazon sells Bibles, bookstores sell Christian material, and even Walmart has Christian merchandise every now and then. We sit at a coffee shop and read the Bible in the open. Conferences and Christian concerts are played in the cities, and Christians introduced themselves as such. We can pray in restaurants and wish a store clerks “God bless you.” No one is arrested (yet) for claiming faith in Christ or pulling into a church parking lot on Sundays. Freedom of religion is in the fabric of the American constitution. Being able to worship without fearing for one’s life is what makes America so great still.
Because Romania was kept poor during communism, the healthcare options were few, basic, and dirty. In fact, when I was born, Romania had the highest infant mortality in Europe. The basic medical equipment and medications were not available. Though the state paid for medical care, it was the power of bribery of the nurses and doctors that assured the decent care. Hospitals were unkept and people were asked to bring their own syringes, bags, medical equipment for the sake of their health and life. Many of such medical equipment was confiscated. Only the bribing envelope (stuffed with money usually) would take the sick into the carrying hands of those in medical positions.
Today, in America, the technological advances and the modern medicine is incredibly rich and non-discriminatory. The lack of bribery in hospitals, the clean and sanitized medical rooms, the 911 service showing up, the care of the physicians, the availability of medicine—all these make me grateful beyond words to live here. When my sister was diagnosed with cancer three years ago here, I watched in thankful awe the excellent way she was attended by the medical system here, from the oncologists and nurses, to the pharmacists, dentists, lab techs, medications, treatments, and hospice care. Though living in America is still the best of all, dying here is just as good.
In Communist Romania, voting and elections were just for tradition. Ceausescu was the only one running for president and guess what, he won every time! Politics served as a propaganda for communism and it was a lavished, celebratory, worshiped form of idealizing the president. The totalitarian regime passed and voted laws that suited only themselves. No one could argue against them. If so, they would lose freedom and life. To assure his perpetual power, Ceausescu created his secret army branch called Securitate. They acted as his powerful puppets—cruel and merciless, working against private sectors and encroaching on the citizens’ lives in order to ensure that no other ideology ever threatens communism. All the media was actually forced to side with our leader. Programs and shows ran constantly praising and celebrating the president. He monopolized everything.
Today in America, elections matter. Votes have consequences because they actually work! The majority’s choice matters still. The separation of church and state assures freedoms of worship and voting. Americans are not forced to elect the same president over and over. The five main freedoms in America make America the freest in the world still. Speech, religion, press, assembly, and right to petition the government are not punished with prison or censored (at least not openly).
This year marks 20 years since I came to America and 40 years from my birth. The difference is stark and often conflicting. From economy, education, living conditions, to religion, healthcare, and politics, life in America is far more superior and better than most care to admit. It took a revolution to gain our freedoms in Romania. It took many a war to gain the American freedoms, too. The price of freedom is costly. But every freedom is worth the cost. Without freedoms, totalitarianism reigns. May we never stop counting our freedoms even as we are always ready to pay its costs.