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Music as a faithful companion

By Martina Law
Published September 2005

She was born in 1972 in Cluj Napoca, a city in Transylvania, Romania. “It’s a beautiful city. It has a lot of German and Hungarian influence. It’s quite cosmopolitan.”  

I’m talking to Oana Rusu Tomai, a native Romanian, who has been living in the States for almost ten years. She lives together with her husband, also Romanian, in Bellevue where she teaches piano.  

Tomai started to play the piano at the age of five. “I had a grand piano since I started talking, it was there,” she says. Her parents are no musicians, Tomai explains, but they’ve always loved the arts. “My parents were pleased and happy when I showed some interest in [arts].”   

Her mother would take her to piano lessons twice a week for one hour. “To me learning the piano was like learning to read or to write. Music was a big part of my days.” Tomai tells me that her sister, who now lives in DC, is also a very talented musician.  

When she was a child in Romania, her life evolved very much around the piano and books. “My life was so immersed in this fantasy world. This world had so much more reality for me than that what happened around me.” That what happened around her, Tomai describes as “dark. It was foreboding and pretty dark.”  

Romania was under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, the leader of Communist Romania from 1965 until shortly before his execution in December 1989. In the 70s, he added “President of Romania” to his title.  

In the 60s Romania ended its active participation in the Warsaw Pact, though it remained a member. In 84 it was one of only two Communist-ruled countries that took part in the American-organized Summer Olympics. Also, Romania was the first country that had official relations with the European Community (EC). However, Ceausescu opposed any liberal reforms, and Romanians were closely watched by its secret police Securitate. 

“It was an invisible threat,” says Tomai, when talking about Securitate. “I think what was really interesting about the Communist era was that sometimes you couldn’t put the finger down on the evil. It was everywhere, it was looming. You knew you were observed. You knew if you did something you could get into trouble.” 

During the 70s Romania became more open. It was called the Golden Era. “The country was more liberal, and we became more like Czechoslovakia and Hungary.” She says that more books were available on the market.  

“But then things tightened up. The Communist view was imposed and nothing else was tolerated.” During those times, art was neglected in order to promote “the idea of a scientific modern man.” Tomai adds, “Industry became a huge thing in Romania. They started to build that good-for-nothing industry. And it was harder to find books on the market.” 

As a child, Tomai attended a school of arts, but even there “mathematics, chemistry and physics took up a huge amount of time.” 

The fall of the Communist regime in 1989 came to many in Romania as a surprise. Tomai states that following the death of Ceausescu, fear spread. “We immediately thought of how this is going to affect us because of the oppression we experienced in the past. We knew how merciless [Ceausescu] and the regime were. We tried to protect ourselves.” 

Those were tumultuous times, and Tomai says those times were the closest she has ever gotten to war. “Women and children stayed inside the house. Only my father would buy groceries, but it was dangerous. You could hear guns. There were tanks in the middle of the streets and dead people on the pavements. We feared repression.”

Tomai says that democracy didn’t come easy to Romania. She describes Romania as a country that “suffered a massive stroke, and it had to come back to life. It had to learn patterns of speech. That would be the speech of democracy.” 

Slowly Romanians got a taste of what democracy means. Tomai speaks about traveling. “I remember when I first went to Austria, my first impulse was to kiss the ground. If you let young people out of the cage, you get this really strong emotional feeling.” 

Her move to the United States was mainly a professional decision. Tomai states that the instructions she received in Romania were professionally and very good. “My sister and I had the opportunity to go to the United States [on scholarships]. I had to expand my horizon.” 

In the States, she continued to study music and piano. First, she received her master’s degree, later her PhD.  At some point, Tomai realized that she and her husband didn’t want to return to Romania. “The country was in turmoil. I knew I wasn’t able to get a job back in Romania.” They both participated at the Green Card lottery and won. “We are Americans,” she says with a laugh. But Tomai considers herself a world citizen. 

Throughout her experiences, music has “stay[ed] with [her] through good, through bad, through anything. It’s a very faithful companion.” 

And then she adds, “I feel that I’m necessary in this [American] society, and this is a good feeling. I’m necessary in a society like this where consumerism is so huge. There is a huge need for people to go in a different direction.” 

Oana Rusu Tomai can be contacted at

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