Blending in amongst teenage Romanian speakers

Playing now: Prințesa de Aur. Photo credit: no author, Creative Commons CC0 licence.

by Cosmin Popan

Scrolling back to 26 November 2019. ‘Fieldwork, day 1. Secondary school in eastern Manchester. Two Romanian / Roma students, outside the building, listening on their mobile phones to manele music, Prințesa de Aur to be more specific. Totally immersed’. I type this and seamlessly post it on Facebook as I am baffled to listen to the Oriental-inspired melodic lines of what is largely seen as vulgar suburban gipsy music by the Romanian middle classes. I approach the students and ask in our native language, confident I’ve nailed their ethnicity, what are they listening to. Of course, we all know Prințesa de Aur (The Golden Pricess)!

While I’ve lived in Manchester for almost two years, I don’t hear a lot of Romanian (or Romani for the matter) around, despite the fact that there are almost half a million Romanian nationals living in the UK. The Woodland Academy, a secondary school in South-East Manchester, is different as it hosts over 70 Romanian students. I was enthusiastic to have the opportunity to do fieldwork in a school with a substantial Romanian / Roma contingent, knowing this could potentially offer me the opportunity to gather richer data. Romanians living in the UK have a had a bad reputation in recent years amongst the British public and this further motivated me to unpack the challenges these pupils have when it comes to their integration in the British schools and society.

As my weekly visits at the Woodland Academy continued in December and in the new year, I got to meet a handful of Romanian students, some of them becoming trusted and very polite gatekeepers who offered me valuable insights on the school environment: which are the stigmatised ethnicities, what’s the food like in the cafeteria, what classes do they like and so on. Others, on the contrary, used the opportunity to transgress and speak in Romanian with me during classes while disrupting the lessons. Thus, the combination of observer (passive observation) and friend role (moderate observation) advocated by Fine and Sandstrom (1999) when approaching students proved more complicated than expected. Often times I felt necessary to reassert my position during these encounters in order to preserve both my credibility and the trust I’ve established over time. One such instance occurred at the end of January, during a Science class I attended:

The second class (of the day), Science, (also) with Year 7 pupils, is focusing on current in series circuits. There are quite a few Romanian pupils, who tend to sit together and, similar to others, chat quite a lot amongst themselves. One of the girls asks me if I speak țigan (Romani) and prompts me to tell them how to swear in Romanian, since the teacher (of Afghani origin) ‘doesn’t understand it anyway’.​

Field notes, 31 January 2020

On another occasion, the ‘friendly Romanian’ role proved even more problematic and I had to fully reconsider how I present myself to students and what my expectations are from them. One male student, from the Republic of Moldova, who speaks Romanian (and Russian), was reluctant to engage in conversation with me on various occasions and, during the formal interview conducted in mid-March, he made it explicit that he doesn’t want to speak to me in Romanian. The fact that, unlike his Romanian counterparts, he doesn’t have many Moldovan friends in the school probably contributes to his refusal. Nevertheless, he solely motivated it on the bad language used by his Romanian peers:

I don’t like how they (the Romanian colleagues) are talking about things. Bad things and swearing and talking about your mum. That’s it, that’s why I am ignoring them ​

Răzvan, 13 March 2020

Realising I could damage the interview, I had to hastily apologise and agree to eventually conduct the interview in English.

Note: The name of the school and the pupils interviewed have been anonymised.