A meaningful interview with a sixteen years young, Romanian-American girl from Chicago 

Nicole Sandu is an open-minded, world-observing, smart, beautiful, talented teenager. She loves people, art, and science. She is a thinker, and my guess is she will be a leader of her generation. 

You can quickly agree with me, paying attention to her words. I would describe her as:

  1. Humanistic: “I love people!”
  2. Globalist: “In the end, it’s not going to be one country to save the world; it’s going to be all the countries who will save the world.”
  3. Responsible: “I’m glad that my Mom pushed me to learn the way she did. She helped me make some decisions that I am grateful for now.”
  4. Optimistic. “I think everyone should give every book a chance.”
  5. Flexible: “I did my musical education in the car.”
  6. Patriotic: “I’m not saying America is not a great nation.”
  7. Curious: “I took photography classes just for the sake of it.” 
  8. Enlightened: “There are other cultures out there that I feel we have just become so blind to.”
  9. Visionary, because
  10.  She genuinely wants to change the world: “I can help the world most by going to engineering, trying to figure out solutions.”

Nicole Sandu, you were born in a Romanian-American family, in Chicago, 16 years ago. How do you define yourself?

Nicole Sandu: I have struggled with my identity for a while because I don’t feel American, and I can’t feel Romanian either. I do not know my parents’ native language that well, so I would have to say I’m somewhere in the middle. I want to connect more with my parents’ culture, and obviously, I can’t do that in the USA. You know, here is a beautiful blend of cultures, and it’s hard to find, you know, just only one. 

She knows that I have been in the USA for only 6 years, and she wants to help me understand what this country is about, of course. I pushed the limits a little bit, and I asked her something that parents sometimes mistakenly ask their kids. Who do you love more, Mom or Dad? I want you to take a breath and tell me to whom do you feel connected more; I rechallenged her.

Nicole Sandu: You know, I like American culture, but it also has aspects that I can not agree with.

Like what?

Nicole Sandu: In school, it is all about America and its superiority and how patriotic an American should be. I have never connected with the idea that American culture is above other cultures. I think you can have a patriotic feeling and still not forget your roots or discover and respect the other’s history and traditions. My parents are Romanian. I have been instilled with Romanian ideals. What I wanted to say is there are aspects of both cultures that I see myself embracing, but there are also some of them that I just can not. 

Briefly, Nicole, you know that is nothing wrong with being patriotic, but you think it is not right to have a feeling of superiority. Let me understand better.

Nicole Sandu: Yes. I have friends who are Americans for generations, and I see how they act. They think America is the greatest nation. I’m not saying it is not a great nation, but there are also wrong things with it just as with any other country, not to even mention that there are different cultures out there that I feel we have just become so blind to. I think there is nothing wrong with being patriotic, but I think Americans have just taken it to the level where they are in danger of ignoring the other cultures, and we will only lose being like that.

On the other hand, not everybody thinks the same. One of my friends is learning Spanish, French, Chinese; recently he even learned Romanian for a little bit. He’s very interested in languages. He also understands the culture better if he knows the language. Nevertheless, I have a lot of friends who would simply ask: Why would you want to learn those languages? What is the point if you are never going to use them? They would say: why would you want to learn about another culture? Our culture, our language, is better. But it’s not! There are other cultures out there which I don’t know very well, and they seem pretty cool.

I am admiring your curiosity. I could also say you have an open heart because I feel that being interested in other cultures is about loving others. Understanding them makes us less judgemental. Do you feel misunderstood by your friends or different from them?

Nicole Sandu: Yes, I do. Sometimes they do not understand my sense of humor. You know, luckily, a lot of my friends are immigrants, so even if they’re not able to relate to me, culturally, they’re able to connect to me on the feeling of having an immigrant family. The culture models you differently, but the central values are the same. 

Getting back to your interest in understanding the world around us, I’m pretty sure you have a special connection with the American culture through music: American traditional music. It is like going back through history, putting your feet into a museum, close to the roots. There are a lot of young people who don’t like traditional music. It is fancier to listen to rap, pop, electronic. Better you tell me: what do they prefer?

Nicole Sandu: I don’t know, either because I might have a different taste. I’m much more interested in indie music; what I love so much about it is that it comes from the artist’s experience, and I feel it is more sincere. It is not commercial; it is not the same cookie-cutter song, over and over.  I mean, I can enjoy it also, but it does not give me the same insight. 

My musical taste falls under two sides of interest: cultural and emotional. When I was younger, I was fascinated, for example, by a lullaby from Indonesia. I listened to it again, and again and it was just so pretty. It was about a little boy asking for his Mom to fetch him the moon. In the beginning, I wondered why he would ask for the impossible from his mother. After a while, I realized that it is about how their culture defines the love of a mother.  Then, there is music that I listen to because it resonates with me. Usually, this tends to be indie music, as I said. Mainstream pop is fine, and I will listen to it if I need to be upbeat, but it just doesn’t have the lyrics that resonate with me. I like, for example, the protest songs. 

Our young lady misses her colleagues, the gigs, her friends, but she is not getting bored. She plays guitar, speaks Mandarin, edits black and white photos, and more other curiosities stay in line. The song here is her composition: 

Nicole Sandu: There is a singer Pete Seeger, whose songs raised awareness of the pollution in the Hudson River. His movement took America by storm, and the Hudson River is now much better than it was before, in the 1960s. Lyrics have so much power, and it seems that we forget it. When I find these artists who are using their words to make music that has emotions and a message, I am thrilled.  However, even if the music has no lyrics, it can still express feelings. 

You had the beautiful experience of meeting the American folk singer and actress Ella Jenkins, the one who was dubbed “The First lady of the children’s Folk song”. She is almost 95 years old now. How did it happen to encounter her? 

Nicole Sandu: With the band that I played for about 10 years, The Young Stracke All-Stars, I got so many opportunities; I met so many influential, traditional, and folk singers. The head of the band, Jason McInnes, took us in small groups to Ella’s retirement home to play music with her. I guess it was around 5-6 years ago. But I have known about her music a while before that. 

She is a legend and having the opportunity to meet her, is something that, maybe, other kids would like to, but they were not so lucky.

Nicole Sandu: Yes. I was happy to meet somebody whose music I loved as a child, and I still love even though her music may not have such a powerful message (as the protest songs have n.e.). Still, it is connecting the older generations with newer generations, in a call-and-response type of song.

Closer to our days, you also met Bucky Hulker, a music historian, labor songwriter, singer, and a traditional American music promoter.  He produced an album, invigorating a legendary figure – Hoagy Carmichael.  How did you get involved in this musical project?    

Nicole Sandu: Once again, that also happened thanks to The Young Stracke All-Stars. I have so many reasons to be grateful for this band. Bucky Hulker was an acquaintance of our band leader and we played a couple of gigs with him. After our band retired two years ago, Bucky asked me if I wanted to be part of his project. Of course, I said yes. This recording experience was fabulous. Because it was not only about how you sang or how you played the music, but also about how you recorded it, how you presented it, how you interacted with professionals, having a say in the music-making process. The thing that I love the most about music is the way it connects people. For example people like you and me; we might not even have met if it was not for music. It is such a powerful tool. 

It is for sure, a special experience! Do you want to make music from now on?

Nicole Sandu: I have been officially retired from the band for 2 years now. After entering high school I do not have much time anymore, but I still sing or play whenever an opportunity arises. I really love music, andI think music is one of the most important things in the world…,

STOP! STOP! STOP! What did she just say? Take a breath and think! Ok, thank you; now, you can continue reading! ( this is only for the auditorium, not part of the interview) 

Nicole Sandu: …but I have other passions, as well. I see myself in the STEM field. I will keep playing, and I will keep trying to connect with people through music; but, I think I can help the world most by going into engineering, trying to figure out solutions for our problems.

Your mother told me you lately discovered a new field of interest – photography.

Nicole Sandu: I was trying to relax a little bit. Last year, I took photography just for the sake of it because my mother told me she took photography classes in college. Thus, I was curious to see what it was all about and I loved it. I like black and white photography. Color is important, but with black and white, you are forced to focus on the subject. There’s nothing wrong with the color, but I feel you can get lost in it and miss the subject. 

You are a student at one of the most distinguished schools in Chicago. You took 4 college classes this year, and you are only in the 10th grade.  How do you have time for all your hobbies? I have to say the list of your interests does not have an end. 

Nicole Sandu: I approached photography and music as a way to let go of my stress and troubles. I don’t approach art as an assignment I need to do, because I think, above all, art is just a type of therapyand it’s a way for us to express ourselves. I think other kids struggle with that a lot because they take art as something that they need to do. I often hear this from them: I would love to do that but it just takes too much time or too much work.  I am always saying back: well, it doesn’t have to be work, it could just be something you enjoy doing. And so, that is why I do a lot of this stuff. Because I do not do them for recognition. I get recognition for it along the way, which is nice, but it’s just something that I do for myself and I’m glad that someone else can appreciate it. 

We haven’t talked about Chinese, yet. 

Nicole Sandu: The same with Chinese! I started learning it 10 years ago, and I really liked it. I discovered a new culture through it. So, yeah, I just kept on with it. I went to China, I studied abroad.

Have you been in a situation you know to be pushed by your parents to do something that you would prefer not to do? Were there moments you wanted to give up and your mother or your father insisted on continuing?

Nicole Sandu: There were so many of those. There still are, sometimes. Mostly, my Mom pushes me. She keeps on pushing me. When I was younger, I thought: I am never gonna like school. But now I’m glad that my Mom pushed me the way she did. She helped me make some decisions that I am so glad I made. 

There have been times where you have pushed back? 

Nicole Sandu: Yes, definitely. When I started school at Lane Tech, my mom and I disagreed over what to do with Chinese. Lane is a college-prep high school and has an academic program meant to introduce kids to high school two years earlier. Technically, I didn’t graduate middle school at my elementary school, I went directly to high school after finishing the sixth grade. At that time, I was thinking of giving up Chinese and taking French classes. I’m really glad my Mom pushed me to continue because I met one of my best friends there. Moreover, I got the opportunity to study abroad last summer in China, which was one of my dreams ever since I started learning this language. 

How long did you stay there?

Nicole Sandu: It was a month-long scholarship program. I was shocked because our sponsor, a Chinese company, spent 10,000 American dollars for each student, which was a lot. There were 24 students in this program. This experience just reminded me once again how important it is to reach out to one another and connect because in the end, it’s not going to be one country to save the world, it’s going to be all the countries who save the world.

What do you read these days? 

Nicole Sandu: I have not been reading as much as I used to before high school. I like a good science fiction book. However, I read dystopian books, history books, fantasy books. If you ask me what book I like the most, I would tell you that I don’t have a certain book, because I think they are all great. I think they all offer something and I believe everyone should give every book a chance. Of course, you can stop reading it if you don’t enjoy it, but you should give a try. 

Tell me a little bit about your family, not too many details, only what you’re allowed to say. ( She is smiling) 

Nicole Sandu: It is my Mom, my Dad, and my sister. My Mom and my Dad both came here from Romania in 1999. My Mom is an accountant, my Dad is a self-employed electrician, and he is trying to get a union job right now. I would say we are a pretty average American middle-class family. My Mom and Dad both love music. My Dad is more into rock or disco of the ’60s, ’80s. My Mom listens to jazz, classical music, alternative music. That’s my parent’s music taste, and mine is a combination of both. Because I grew up listening to Rolling Stones in my Dad’s car and then, in my Mom’s car I listened to Norah Jones or something, in any case, lighter.

I like how we do our musical education in the car.Tell me something about your sister. 

Nicole and her sister

Nicole Sandu: I love my sister. She’s great. I call her a rascal. She is a rascal. (Nicole is smiling, knowing that I can catch her humor). There have been days where I barely tolerate her. Oh my God, I think we interact like every normal American sibling. We love each other, but there have been times where we want to pull each other’s hair out. There are seven and a half years between us. 

How social distancing changed your life?

Nicole Sandu: I love people! I love interacting with people, I love being with people. So, the last couple of weeks were kind of rough. You know, you are just stuck at home with the same people. I love my family, don’t get me wrong, but at some point, I need to hear someone else’s voice. I started calling friends and then we set up an online group chat, playing at some normalcy. Another part that was kind of hard was not going outside for a long time. I would have liked to enjoy the nice weather and take some nice pictures outside with beautiful trees and flowers. It certainly interferes with the summer opportunities I had planned to attend. There were a bunch of engineering camps I would have been happy to go to. I was going to try to study abroad again this year, through a National Geographic program. Obviously, all of those got canceled. I guess I will just make more music and learn, whenever I can.

Do you think the people would act differently after this pandemic? 

Nicole Sandu: Maybe we are going to value family, friends, and human connections more. I hope we will not have to maintain some sort of social distancing too long. I want to hug my friends. I want to be able to just give them a big hug and tell them: “I miss you”,  instead of having this conversation over a camera. 

I can relate to that, Nicole. But for now, this is all that we have. 

Epilogue: I still do not know many things about teenagers besides all the myths surrounding them. I am learning every day along their sides. When it comes to this age, a lot of parents roll their eyes in annoyance. If you listen to the majority of them, including me, you would learn that you have to stay afar. If you are not wise or patient enough, I have heard, our offsprings can drive us crazy.

Even teenagers themselves talk about their age as something that others need to tolerate, but hopefully not for a long time. The teens have been told they are distinctive; this is why they have excuses for doing sporadically unacceptable things,  sometimes unbearable, or, let’s say, funny if the family has a good sense of humor. In short, it seems that being a teenager is not an experience that someone would desire. At least, this is what society teaches us. I was a teenager, and I didn’t like myself all the time.

One day, I would be grumpy; another day, enthusiastic. Every so often, I would dream all day long. Now and then, I could be so realistic that I see people are malicious. Frequently I would not go out of my room because of the pimples on my forehead, or my dress being too red, too tight, or too long. I was moody. I did not like myself all the time, but I loved that age. I love it even now, with pros and cons.

I see the beauty of it. Whenever my life takes me close to these particular human beings, adolescents, I am happy. I can see their potential even if it is well-hidden. Some of the teenagers are very well-educated, some of them are not. Thus, I still believe they are unique and promising, as we all are.

Discussing with Nicole about her life, hobbies, accomplishments, it was so nourishing that I forgot to ask her about what makes her sad. We have talked only about what makes our lives reliable, beautiful, and joyful. Nicole Sandu thinks they are: art, science, and the beautiful people around us. 

Laura Bandila Goldberger

Photo credit: Adina Sandu