Guest Blogger, Chester Eng: Prom in Kosovo

[April’s Note: Hi, guys! My friend and fellow volunteer, Chester Eng, wrote the following post.]

If I have learned to do anything in my eleven and a half months in Kosovo, I have learned to keep a looser and more flexible schedule knowing that I could well have to change it at any moment. I realized early on after I swore in and moved to my site that, more often than not, the more I try to plan ahead and set a rigid personal schedule, the more likely my life will feel chaotic. Paradoxically for me, the less I try to set things in place, the more in control I feel.

Because I have found that people in Kosovo tend to make arrangements on short notice, or even spur of the moment, filling the spaces in my schedule as my days go has become my new modus operandi with a large number of my host country national friends and colleagues. Set and structured schedules, in my experience so far, are simply not common among Kosovars. The people here tend to treat time with greater open-endedness and flexibility, which has both merits and faults that are subject to great debate. In any case, there is no doubt that the pace of life in Kosovo — and in the Balkans at large — is remarkably slower than that in the United States, especially on the East Coast, where I grew up and had been living before I arrived. What happens in a New York minute likely takes well over an hour in Kosovo — on a good day under ideal circumstances. I am used to having lots going around me all at once and setting things in place in order to maintain order amidst chaos.

This personal adjustment to Kosovo time was not easy for me because I enjoyed filling my days and evenings with interesting and productive activities well in advance — mostly because of my OCD and partially because of society’s ostensible expectations of me — and maintaining a clean and organized personal schedule. I still keep an informal planner for reminders but no longer for appointments because I can now assume they will go much longer than expected. It is not hard for me to forget when and where I will have a meeting when I have blocked an entire afternoon for a cup of coffee.

One other significant way I have had to be Peace Corps flexible and adaptable during my near year in Kosovo is accepting that no matter how well prepared I am for anything, I can never fully be ready for what will happen. I should expect things to be exactly how they are as I have heard and learned from various sources plus more. I have come to accept that the only thing that is predictable about my service in Kosovo is unpredictability. I have found I have been able to improvise way better than I ever expected myself to be able to do in a previous life. Again, please credit (or blame, depending on your view) my OCD and society’s ostensible expectations that place premiums on predictability.

No matter how well I believe I have adjusted and integrated, I know I am still learning to be flexible and adaptable. Kosovo has changed me much more in a relatively short period in more ways than I will ever be able to change it in a definitely long period.

My school’s prom is the latest and greatest instance that shows that, no matter how far I think I have progressed in the integration process necessary for productive service, I still have much more to go than I previously realized. Taking from the lessons I have learned in Kosovo, the less I try to predict and expect, the more at ease and even in control I feel.

I currently teach 11th and 12th graders at a high school for economics in a small exclusively Albanian city. This week is my 12th graders’ final week before they begin the next chapters of their lives. Like lots of 12th graders around the globe, my 12th graders had been looking ahead to the future rather just focusing solely on the present, most especially prom night.

Because I still can never quite kick old habits and will always be a naturally curious person, I wanted to know what prom night in Kosovo is like. Local friends told me that, in general, I should expect prom to be like a traditional large Albanian celebration at a banquet hall with lots of dancing early and often to exceedingly loud music that shakes the floor and walls and will leave your ears ringing and head throbbing for days. Like April, I have been to two such large celebrations (a cousin’s engagement and Teacher’s Day) during my time here so far, so I knew what to expect in this department. I was caught completely off guard the first time and used the lessons learned to help myself celebrate better my next time around.

Dressing nicely is a big social must in Kosovo and looking especially sharp for big celebrations is an even bigger social must in Kosovo, which is why local friends also told me to expect my students, especially females, to be dressed in their absolute finest. The boys will dressed formally, while girls will wear gowns and full makeup.

Because of my existing knowledge and experiences related to large Albanian celebrations and prom in the United States, I felt as if nothing they told me was beyond the realm of my imagination. Even with a student body as large as that at my school and the crowd that would follow the students before they enter the banquet, I figured that I likely would not be too surprised by anything I would experience during my first prom in Kosovo and first prom overall as a teacher ever, even if it is initially confusing and even overwhelming.

Considering how many students were going to attend the prom, how big Albanian families are, and how close they are, I figured that there would be a pretty sizable crowd to see off the students as they entered the restaurant.

Going into my school’s prom with informed assumptions and expectations was a mistake and illuminated how much more I must learn before I can say with assurance and without many conditions that I have integrated into my community.

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I could not have imagined such large crowds gathered before the entrance.

For a couple of moments, being around so many people made me feel as out of place as I felt when I first arrived in Kosovo last June.

I felt a tremendous sense of relief when my school’s assistant director emerged from the crowd and took me to the spot at the restaurant entrance where our colleagues had gathered. I am usually glad to see my colleagues day in and day out. I felt genuinely happy to see them at this moment. When around so much unknown, to be back with the familiar was catharsis.

The strange feelings I get when I see the unexpected crept back immediately when I began to recognize my students dressed to impress like I had never seen them before.

Even though learning their names took a while and required major effort, I learned their faces quickly and easily. I felt genuinely distressed that I could not recognize them the young men and women I had seen day in and day out over the past eight months — most especially my female students.

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As expected, I could not walk in any direction without being asked for a picture or a selfie with students. My cheeks still hurt from all of the smiling I did on my Monday night.

Eventually, after taking so many pictures with them and just being around them looking so differently, I had little to no trouble recognizing my students, not just calmly sitting at their assigned tables and enthusiastically taking pictures with each other and with students, but even exuberantly dancing as if there was no tomorrow from the moment the earthshaking music began.

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I believe it is safe to say that the students were eager to circle dance like they had never circle danced before and they had plenty of reasons to feel this way.

Region to region, city to city, and village to village, Kosovar Albanians differ in lots of ways. When talking about people from other places, as a general objective non-judgmental observation, I have found that my Kosovars friends will typically highlight the differences more than their similarities. But if there is one thing that they all have in common I think it is a love of dance and I believe my school’s students made the case that they love to dance just much as their fellow Kosovars.

These pictures you previously saw do not quite capture the energy — and, of course, the loudness — that permeated throughout the banquet hall hour after hour.

I am convinced that if my school director and one of the senior teachers at my school did not request breaks from the action, so the band and singer could rest and we all could eat, the students would have just tirelessly danced for the entire night.

These videos provides a much truer sense of what it was like:

The traditional Albanian dancing I saw and partook in (more on this to come) and the music I heard were on a whole different level from what I had experienced at the engagement and on Teacher’s Day. I knew to expect something similar but yet wholly different and, once again, my initial expectations proved to be off.

Similar to their fellow 12th graders in the United States, along with having such dance fever, a sense of genuine joy was palpable among all students as they celebrated the end of high school, reminisced about everything they had gone through together, and looked forward to their respective journeys ahead.

Also, like their American counterparts, my students wanted the best music possible on their big night. Much to their delight, my students had the great pleasure and privilege to have Afrim Muqiqi, the most highly regarded tallava singer in Kosovo, perform on this most special occasion. Muqiqi, who is originally from their region, is such a big deal that he easily earns 4000 to 5000 euros per performance. To understand how much money this amount is in Kosovo, the average Kosovar earns just over 10,000 euros per year. People who make 2,500 euros monthly are considered to be rich by local standards. Considering how much they clearly enjoyed his music, however, the students made clear they believed having Muqiqi on prom night was worth every cent.

Other than placing great sentimental value on the event, wanting the best music possible, and dancing like nobody’s watching, there is not much I could see that proms in the United States I attended as a high school student and this first prom in Kosovo I attended as a high school teacher have in common.

There were slow dances on two occasions, but, other than a small number of student pairs who did the typical slow-dance dance with some considerable distance between one another, they were strikingly different. First of all, the slow dance music was still loud enough to blow out your eardrums. Also, many more students slow danced in much larger groups. These groups had have about a dozen students standing in a circle as they swayed side to side for several minutes.

Unlike the prototypical American prom, no students at this Kosovar prom were crowned the king and the queen of the prom. Considering the way the schools are set up here where students do not mingle as much as those in the United States, I do not think the students at my school know each other well enough to be able to bestow such honors on just two students.

Instead, during the breaks in the music and dancing, my school director conducted ceremonies where students received awards for major achievements in the classroom, such as highest average in the class, and on the field, such as best football player.

Besides using them as opportunities to celebrate my students’ accomplishments with them, I also these personally much-needed breaks (despite my best efforts and my youthful appearance, I could not quite keep up with my students on the dance floor) to eat and rehydrate. By appearances the food was completed as I expected: grilled meat and bread. I shuttered to think about how dry and unsatisfying my dinner that evening would be.

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The tenderness and actual flavor of the meats pleasantly caught me off guard and I actually genuinely enjoyed my traditional Albanian celebration meal for the first time ever.

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Even though I and colleagues had to enjoy it without the luxuries forks provide, the beef slices I had on prom night were by far the best I have had in my community thus far. Beef here is typically dry and flavorless, so having tender beef was another pleasant culinary surprise for me.

The most pleasant surprise of the night for me was better than any of the food served. Please note I will typically choose food first and foremost as the main highlight of a major celebration. Also, please note that I do not particularly enjoy the traditional music at traditional Albanian celebrations. Sorry to let down those who were counting on me.

However, in this case, I must say that I will likely not enjoy hearing traditional Albanian celebration music as much as I did at the beginning of the last hour of prom because I had the pleasure to see one of my students perform in front of the entire restaurant with all eyes and ears directed in her direction. I knew she could sing and have even heard her sing on one occasion when my counterpart more or less forced her to sing in front of her class, even though she did not really want to. Because she is also a fairly shy and overall mild-mannered young woman, I would not have imagined her taking the big stage on the biggest night of her high school life. Here is genuinely hoping that she will get more opportunities to sing for even bigger crowds on even bigger occasions.

I wish I had a video of her singing, but my phone was well out of battery at that point because I had neglected to bring a longer lasting external power source that would last me the entire night. How naive of me to think that I could spend a good portion of my night sending Snaps and not drain my phone battery. I will see this class later today and kindly ask students if they will share with me a video of their classmate singing. Watch this space.

At that late hour, I finally felt I could fully enjoy the prom among the students like the students without judging myself or feeling judged by others. I love dancing, even though I dance mediocrely at best, and will find someway somehow dance to any beat, especially when the occasion calls for all in attendance to be on the dancefloor.

Because of the distant — and even occasionally cold — relationship between students and teachers at my school, I did not necessarily feel so comfortable dancing so closely with students, even though they enthusiastically welcomed me to dance with them and were delighted to see me in a new and completely different light. Because I am significantly older than they are and still their teacher, I did not want to cross any social lines that my colleagues clearly would not and did what I could to do as they did based on my on-the-spot observations.

I gladly circle-danced with students and danced within those circles with them for much of the night because plenty of my colleagues did so with glee. I cannot see a better way for a local teacher to become more human in the eyes of their students.

However, I made a point to decline to dance with male students who grabbed my arms or put their arms around me in ways I felt were inappropriate and even sometimes uncomfortable. I did not see them do that to any other male teacher and am sure they would not ever dare so either. Throughout my time teaching, I have made clear and direct efforts to show students that I am still a teacher first and foremost and expect them to show me the same level of respect they give my colleagues. I was not about to give this principle up on prom night.

Also, I avoided dancing with students all together during the 45-minute period when all of the current top pop songs in Kosovo of the past year, such as “Despacito” right now and “Bon Bon” almost a year ago to the date, played as the singers rested. I am all for teachers and students becoming closer, but absolutely not by dancing together to “student music.” Gross.

I have a feeling you sense the pattern by now. Heading into prom night, I expected to have to deal with the issue of how to best conduct myself in front of my students at prom but still enjoy their event as much as I wanted on the fly. However, everything I had expected and prepared myself to face and handle changed the moment a male student whom I do not know grabbed my hands in an effort to dance with me without a prior clear sign of approval from me. I did not predict that something like this would happen to me with the knowledge and experiences I have gained so far. And some part of me thinks that I would not have been able to prepare for it anyway. I know more now.

The one part of prom I was most unprepared for was how long the night was. Because the first two big traditional Albanians celebrations I had been to did not run past 1:00 in the morning and got the impression that early morning was the threshold, I figured a Monday night prom would more or less be the same. Oh goodness was I wrong.

Though the prom began at 7:00 that evening, as hour after hour went by without any sign of slowing down, aside from necessary and natural breaks in the music, I got the feeling that prom was much more than I had expected. I will not forget anytime soon the astonishment in my voice when my counterpart told me at 1:30 in the morning that prom would last until 4:00.

The sinking feeling in my stomach I felt at that moment sapped my desire to dance anymore and to stay any longer. I felt flabbergasted by how much long prom would go when it had already gone on for so long up to that point. I felt ready to leave then and there. As much as I enjoy dancing, I will always choose sleep first.

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My counterpart, Fitim, and I wearing our Monday best.

Though I spent much of the next day terribly tired and sleepy and for a good 10 minutes after the end of prom gripped with fear I might not be able to catch a ride home, I am pleased with my decision to stay until the very end because of the memories I now have from that night. There is nothing that will make me feel otherwise. I preferred to take in as much as humanly possible from such a unique experience that I will not have many more opportunities to have. By staying at prom into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I got to see my student sing and enjoy a couple of completely guiltless dances with my students as our time together draws to a close.

All in all, I had much more fun than I expected and prepared to have on prom night. I look forward to going again next year. Personal excitement is my only expectation and personal anticipation is my only preparation.

Read posts by other guest bloggers:

Chelsea Coombes
Valeriana Dema
Ingrid Lantz
Sam Green
Hannah Polipnick
Todd and Stephanee Smith
Andrew Bivins

3 thoughts on “Guest Blogger, Chester Eng: Prom in Kosovo”

  1. love the video’s to see them dress and the food. As we sit here we have no idea what it is like there and to learn so much from all of you that go over is great.

    Liked by 1 person

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