I went up to visit Joe and Allison in remote Peshkopi this last weekend, an adventure 3 months in planning. Originally there was to be a full moon, a night hike and potentially a pack of wolves, but due to scheduling challenges we pushed it back several times several weeks. There was only a half-moon, the sky was hazy from recent fires burning across Albania, and the closest we got to wolves were the street pups and the neighbor’s son and his friend.
Like most Albanian cities, Peshkopi is quite fond of it’s xhiro, so much so they walk it twice. At a surprisingly early hour we went out to get byrek and a coffee and already the streets were jammed pack with mostly young men and a few families. Our little band of Americans got a number of stares, and I was amazed by the patience with which Jay and Joyce, who are of Asian descent, handled it. Afterwards I asked Jay if he could expound on his experience. Instead of butchering his statement, I’ve decided to publish it in its entirety.
“I am an American. I was born in South Korea but was adopted into a white American family when I was five. There is very little that I remember from my country of birth and I have no real knowledge of its culture and social norms. My identity is tied into the American way of life. This is who I am.
There are many challenges that I face living in Albania because of my Asian features. For one, most Albanians believe that all Asians are from China. It feels very strange to be instantly categorized by an entire nation just based on how you look. Wherever I go, heads turn to my direction as I walk by. I feel the stares as their minds are processing what they see into what they think to be fact; 2+2 = 4; Asian = Chinese. I can hear the whispers spewing from their mouths, “kinez”. I see their eyes as they determine with absolute conviction my origin. I would be lying if I told you that I never get annoyed.
There have been many situations where I would meet an Albanian for the first time and the first word they would utter is “kinez” or “Kinë”. I can actually feel it coming. Time slows down and my mind processes the look in their eyes and I slowly see the word forming from their mouth and all I can think is, “Here we go again”. It gets tiring sometimes. My initial feeling of excitement of meeting someone new turns into dejection. I have experienced different outcomes but it hurts when I tell someone that I am an American and they say with complete confidence,”No. You are Chinese.” The person refuses to believe that I could be anything else but Chinese. My origin is from China because I look Chinese. I likened it to being slapped in the face. I am momentarily stunned because we just met and I answered your question about where I came from and you follow up by calling me a liar. But, the worst is when an Albanian won’t believe that I am an American and will take their two index fingers to “show” me why I can’t be an American by mimicking my eyes. “You can’t be an American because your eyes look like this.” I look at them with complete disbelief as they perform this heinous and insulting gesture. From here, my mind shuts down and I try to leave as fast as possible. I am filled with various emotions and the only way I can dissipate my rage is by walking away. I would be lying if I told you I never get angry.
I am a Peace Corps volunteer living in Albania. I expect the generalizations and the stares that I receive. I do not blame Albanians for their misunderstanding because they usually mean no disrespect. I am constantly learning about the culture and the mentality of its people. Albania is a very homogenous nation that was cut off from the rest of the world because of communism. China was one of the few countries that had any relations with Albania during these years. I understand why most of Albania would see someone like me and assume that I was chinese. I can understand why it would be very hard for some Albanians to comprehend a place like America where anyone in the world can live in America and be called an American. How many years does it take for one to live in a country before they can call that country their home? How many generations does it take before someone can say they are from that country? My experiences with Albanians are not all bad. In truth, only a very small percentage of my encounters have been negative.
The coping mechanism I use to deal with ethnicity issues is approaching the person or group and clearly and confidently stating who I am and where I am from using their language. The results are almost always positive and this approach is especially effective with boys. I do not scold them for their misconceptions but try to present myself as a fellow human being. Also, I do not try to avoid people and let myself to be seen. Oftentimes, I will make eye contact as I walk by people. A simple head nod or hello goes a long way. Most of my encounters have been exceptional. I’d like to think that this is partly due to my disposition in that I exude a certain amount of confidence in the way I present myself to new people. I have made many Albanian friends and have easily adapted into the culture. Albania is a wonderful country and I am proud to be given the chance to serve in this country as a Peace Corps volunteer. I would be lying if I said I didn’t love this country.”