Shades of Kosovo: Handling Racism as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Note: This is the first blog post in a series I plan to do on challenges that Peace Corps Volunteers face while serving in Kosovo. My friend and I chose to write this piece using a question-and-answer format. For privacy reasons, I am referring to my friend as “Guest Blogger.” — April

April: How often do you experience racism here in Kosovo?

Guest Blogger: On any given day, I can generally expect to receive at least a small handful of racial comments and taunts whenever I walk around my site, which is a small city of about 35,000, especially along the main road. Namely, in a large majority of cases, I’ll hear young boys and men between the ages of 10 and 30 say in Albanian, “Ohhhh, China!” “Chinese guy” or “Japanese guy,” and make fake Asian language sounds in my direction.

There’s an old guy who’ll pretend to do what he believes is kung fu whenever we cross paths every once in a while. Though such an action is so blatantly racist, I find it kind of amusing.

The taunts and remarks I hear with much greater frequency, on the other hand, are just outright offensive and tiresome. I’ll also have people ask me about whether I’m from China, Japan, or Korea with regularity. Though understandable, such a question never ceases to be irksome because I’ve heard it my entire waking life. I hate this part of my service, but I don’t know what else to do but accept and adapt.

I’m so grateful that I’ve never ever experienced any racism from those whom I’ve had to work with closely and live with. They’ve always offered me the utmost respect from the very beginning for who I am and what I do for them and their community. When they’ve judged me, they’ve judged me by my attitude, words, and actions, not my skin color.

April: If you are able to look at your experiences objectively, how much of what you experience would you say is outright malicious, versus people being curious about you and perhaps just expressing their curiosity in an annoying but non-malicious way?

Guest Blogger: I think it almost always the latter. Because Kosovo is so homogeneous racially, socially, and culturally, I realize that the people — overwhelmingly young men — who direct racist remarks at me do not know any better. In other words, they act improperly in the eyes of many because they haven’t had exposure to other races and cultures and any direct personal interactions with non-Albanians. They literally lack the knowledge. In fact, “racist” doesn’t have much meaning as an epithet here, and I think it’s fair to say many Kosovars would struggle to define race and diversity.

For instance, I bet those who make fake Asian sounds at me do so because they’ve seen Asian characters, or Asian-like characters, act a particular way on TV and in movies and automatically assume that all other Asians on this planet must talk and act the same way. Jackie Chan, in this regard, has been a blight on the depiction of Asian people and Asian culture in mainstream culture. Hence, I hear young comedians-in-training call me “Jackie” here and there as they pass me on the street. They think they’re tough and clever — and they’re not! They’re pathetic — and I do wish I could stop them in the middle of the street and deliver some grand lecture that will open their minds and change their behavior right then and there. However, such a thing is impossible.

I do not think people who act in such an irritatingly shallow way mean any harm. However, I still cringe and — depending on my mood at the moment — might even feel hurt and become pissed off whenever I hear such racial remarks. I feel hurt because racial taunters in Kosovo say the same things classmates and peers who picked on me because of my race said to me as I grew up in a predominantly white suburb in Northern New Jersey. I’d prefer to have not daily reminders of this aspect of my life in elementary school and middle school. I become pissed off because I believe, in light of their country’s recent history, all — and I do mean all — Kosovars should know much better than to judge people based on their race and ethnicity. You do not need to know English or to have studied abroad to have such a perspective.

Generally speaking, no matter where they are from, I believe people in this day and age where there is unlimited access to information and knowledge should know better than to judge others by their race and racial stereotypes. I feel it’s my solemn duty as a PCV working in local education to help Kosovo’s youth gain such knowledge and discover their own insights on diversity and multiculturalism that many of their peers in other countries know to be self-evident truths.

April: Is most of what you experience verbal? Have you ever felt physically threatened in Kosovo due to racism?

Guest Blogger: All of the racism I’ve experienced has been verbal. Kosovo is an exceptionally safe place, and I’ve never felt physically threatened or uncomfortable in any place at any point during my service. Still, living in a place where people will judge me on my appearance and act on what I suppose is an impulsive need to remind me how I look is unpleasant and unwelcoming. The community integration process is difficult enough in general for all PCVs and is compounded when they look so different from everyone else in the community. The people here take such pride in how welcoming they are, especially internationals. In some ways, I’ve never been treated better at any point in my life in any place and will likely never receive such hospitality outside of Kosovo. However, when this blissful bubble bursts after I hear a racist remark directed at me, I can’t help but wonder how welcoming they really are to all internationals, not just those who could pass as Albanian.

April: Would you feel comfortable sharing the worst instance of racism that you have experienced?

Guest Blogger: I can’t really say that I’ve had a “worst instance” of racism in Kosovo. I want to say that all of them are bad because racism is racism, no matter the intent. Still, it’s unreasonable for me to say that all instances of racism I’ve experienced are equally bad. Some Kosovars genuinely thought that they were speaking Chinese with me when said “ching chong chu” at me, and admitted that it was a misunderstanding on their part and begged for forgiveness of their ignorance. Also, if they really sought to be racist, they could’ve called me something much worse like “Chinaman,” “chink,” “gook,” “jap,” or “yellowman.”

Two instances still stick out to me. One time is an older waiter at a tea house slanted his eyes at me when I walked in the door. I wanted to berate him, but what I figured that such a reaction from me would achieve nothing positive. He doesn’t speak English, and my Albanian wasn’t good enough at the time to offer him a lesson on racial and cultural sensitivity.

Another time, another “tough guy,” which is a personal term I use to refer to young men who make racist remarks at me in passing but don’t own up to it when I confront them, at my school simply would not concede he was being racist when he said “ching chong chu chu chu…” at me and refused to apologize. I suppose he struggled to understand why I would become so upset with him. I found the refusals to acknowledge any wrongdoing and to apologize to be even more offensive than the racist remark. This case is still the only time — and I sure hope the last — where I’ve taken a student to my school director’s office for disciplinary action. Teaching at my school is difficult enough because of my students’ generally weak academic abilities and widespread disrespect for all teachers, and I was just not having it that day.

April: What are some strategies you have used to avoid experiencing, or confront, racism?

Guest Blogger: I simply actively choose to ignore racist remarks and carry on as if I heard nothing. I know that sometimes giving the taunters attention can make things worse because I am reacting the way they want me to. No action is, in fact, oftentimes the best course of action when I know I’m receiving racist taunts from people I don’t know, who likely do not know English, who likely wouldn’t understand me in Albanian, and whom I likely won’t see again anytime soon.

I generally have headphones in whenever I’m out and about in my town, which I find to be another effective avoidance technique. Nevertheless, I can still hear “tough guys” taunt me sometimes, either because they shout that loudly at me, or because I’ve become so attuned to racism that I can hear it over the music and podcasts I listen. Though not easy, I bite my lip, keep looking ahead, and continue on my way as if I heard nothing. I believe they simply want the attention and the satisfaction my attention brings them, so I’m not going to indulge them.

Whenever I feel I must respond, I simply shout “No!” back at them, wag my finger, and shake my head in disapproval as I walk away. They get the message, great! If not, oh well …

For those who have the language skills and willingness and openness to have a discussion about racial diversity and racism, I try to use their remarks as a teaching moment to explain how their words are, in fact, racist and why they are offensive and hurtful to me and many other people who look like me. To drive home the point and help them to feel the pain I feel when others mock me for being Asian, I’ll mention how the movie Taken depicts Albanians extremely negatively and ask them how they would feel if I assumed all Albanians are criminals based on this one well-known cultural depiction of Albanians. No one likes to be pigeonholed in such a way. I have found establishing such common ground on negatives leads to positive and enlightening discussions about our worldviews on both sides.

April: Why do you think some people in Kosovo say and/or do racist things?

Guest Blogger: To reiterate what I said earlier, I think some people in Kosovo make racist remarks because they do not know any better. They might not even know what racism is, and, therefore, would not feel badly if called racist. I want to emphasize that I do not think they should receive much blame, if any, for acting insensitively because of Kosovo’s homogeneity and isolation from the rest of the world. They haven’t learned before and interacting with a person of color is a golden opportunity to take a first step in the learning process.

April: What advice would you give to someone who isn’t (or doesn’t look) Caucasian and is considering serving in Peace Corps Kosovo?

Guest Blogger: I have a couple of suggestions:

1) Please pardon the puns: I advise finding your own ways to grow a thicker skin when confronted with racism and other comments and questions about your identity. The less you allow racism to get under your skin, the less stress you’ll create for yourself — generally speaking. In these cases, sometimes no action is the best action.

2) Even if you become resistant to, grow to tolerate, or even come to accept racism as a part of your everyday life, it doesn’t mean you should desensitize yourself to racism and let everything go. In my experience, I can allow 99 racist comments and taunts to slide, but then the 100th can just set me off for reasons I still struggle to understand when I look back at moments when I blew up.

I can’t say that I’ve always responded gracefully and thoughtfully to racism. When I’ve allowed my sensitivity to racism to overwhelm me, I believe I actually made the incident worse than it needed to be. More often than not, it was a case of misunderstanding on both sides. Taking a second to breathe and calm down when feeling the urge to react has helped me maintain a mental balance when I know that I have this kind of daily struggle with myself and others each and every day.

3) I cannot emphasize this enough: Try to imagine how different — and even strange — it must be for the average Kosovar to see a non-white person in their community. Outside of Prishtina and Prizren (the two largest cities in Kosovo), it’s rather uncommon for Kosovars to see people of color in their communities. I advise being empathetic to the fact that they often simply do not know how to act around non-Albanians because of their lack of firsthand exposure to different cultures and people. They’re curious and mean well. They just don’t know how to respond — yet!

4) I say yet because I’d encourage PCVs of color to use instances of racism to inform when you deem appropriate. Trust your instincts when you choose to engage others in response to racism. Something as simple as “No, I’m American” has completely changed the way others who’ve never seen me before and don’t know who I am see me. It is awfully satisfying to see them respond so positively when I tell them I’m American. Other times, I just get blank stares or expressions of disbelief. I’ve even had people flat out refuse to believe I’m American, even after I’ve shown them my passport and other forms of ID. You won’t be able to convince everyone that you’re American and that many Americans aren’t white. You’ll go crazy if you try to change everyone’s perspective. Instead, give yourself a pat on the back when you’re able, in fact, able to change even just a couple of people’s outlook on the United States in a small but undoubtedly profound way.

5) Stand your ground when others try to tell you something different about your own identity that you disagree with. Being born an American is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, so I relentlessly push back against those who’ve told me that there’s no way I’m actually American because I’m Asian. I’ve told others in Kosovo, in other countries, and even in America that I want nothing to do with them ever again because I find their refusal to accept my Americanness to be gravely insulting. Take pride in your Americanness and never let anyone tell you otherwise if you feel similarly about your nationality.

6) Perhaps most important, laugh at racism. If you take racist remarks too seriously and can’t find humor in them, then you might well do more harm to yourself than any instances of racism ever can. I believe that those with malicious intent will feel disempowered and that those who express curiosity insensitively and ungracefully will understand that they’ve something wrong more clearly. Humor can be a great uniter and method of clearing the air. Also, finding humor will make your Peace Corps experiences all the more enjoyable and enriching in other ways those of “typical Volunteers” are not. I believe Peace Corps stories are the most memorable for good reasons.

Friday Gratitude: Little Changes

Several Peace Corps volunteers in the group ahead of mine told me that their second year of service was easier than their first. I fantasized about my service becoming easier once I started my second year of school. But, for me, it has not been true. My emotions are as up and down as they’ve ever been. I feel like I am constantly having to re-set my own mental health button, and constantly having to set boundaries with other people. (Gee, you and your wife want to come to my house so I can give you free English lessons? I am afraid I am busy all of the days.)

This week, I have consciously made a series of small changes in an attempt to cheer myself up:

  1. I got a haircut. Back in Chicago, I would get a haircut every four months (so, three times per year). I’ve really let my standard slack here in Kosovo. The water at my site is particularly bad (Peace Corps gave me a boiling filtration system so I can at least drink it), and it’s wrecked havoc on my hair. I was going to put off getting a haircut until I returned to the U.S., (kind of a disheartened “what’s the point?” feeling), but this past weekend I bit the bullet and got a much-needed trim. My hair feels better, and so do I.
  2. I’ve made small changes to my morning routine, including switching up my breakfast food (I like variety) and trying to keep a “gratitude” journal. Given how faithfully I’ve kept up with this blog, it may surprise some of you to know that I’ve never been a big journaler. Any time I tried in the past, my entries became dull lists of daily activities, or they would devolve into complaining. But this week, I’ve taken to jotting down a list of things I am grateful for in that moment, and I try to be specific (“I am grateful for talking to this person”) rather than general (“I am grateful for my family and for my health.”) I also list any goals I think of for the day or week.
  3. Furthermore, I have been trying to start my day with ten minutes of yoga. I used to feel guilty if I didn’t do a full-on routine, but this week, I tried to get in the habit of just loosening my muscles and joints first thing in the morning.
  4. I re-arrange my bedroom furniture again, to give myself a fresh perspective.
  5. I signed up for an online course through Coursera titled “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” I’ve signed up for online courses in the past and have had varying degrees of success in sticking with them. But I am determined to finish this one!

Media consumption this week:

  • I finished the last Harry Potter book. It is one of my least favorite in the series and I didn’t re-read the whole thing, just skipped around to different parts.
  • I’m a fan of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” and so I read the book (same title) on which the series is based. Perhaps it isn’t nice to compare the Peace Corps to prison, but I was really having trouble drumming up sympathy for Piper Kerman and her fifteen-month prison sentence. (I was like, “Oh, her family visits her in prison every week? I haven’t seen my family in months!”) Once I got over my own superiority complex, though, I enjoyed the book.
  • I watched The Shape of Water. Though I didn’t love it as much as Guillermo del Torro’s other fairtytale, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I enjoyed it and think it is worth seeing.
  • I watched The Disaster Artist, and it was every bit as funny as the book. If you’re a fan of the cult movie “The Room,” you really should see this movie.

And finally, I crocheted this Hello Kitty toy from the book Whitney sent in my recent care package. Toys are so hard to make! I have a much easier time with scarves, headbands, and purses!

crochet hello kitty

Happy weekend! Talk to you Monday.

Classroom Activity: Circle of Friendship Hands

This is an easy classroom activity I found on Pinterest (where else?). Students trace, color, and cut out their hands, and then write their name and an adjective that describes what makes them a good friend.

friendship circle of hands

Then, you gather all the hands and tape a “friendship circle” to a wall or door in the classroom.

Friendship circle of hands classroom activity

Here are some other activities, materials, and lesson plans I have used in my classroom:

 

Belgrade, Serbia

I was able to spend part of my time off school traveling to Belgrade, Serbia. Three major highlights were the Nikola Tesla museum, the Church of St. Sava, and the Belgrade fortress.

Belgrade 1
Tromp L’oeil
Belgrade 4
Pretty morning light
Belgrade 2
Republic Square, Belgrade
Belgrade 3
Republic Square, evening

“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone; that is the secret of invention. Be alone; that is when ideas are born.” — Nikola Tesla

Tesla 4
Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade
Tesla 1
Nikola Tesla
Tesla 5
Tesla’s belongings
tesla 6
More of Tesla’s belongings
Tesla 2
Energy demonstration
Tesla 3
Coil, Tesla Museum
Sava 3
St. Sava Cathedral description
Sava 1
St. Sava Cathedral
Sava 2
St. Sava Cathedral
fortress 1
Belgrade fortress
fortress 2
Belgrade Fortress

I greatly enjoyed my time in Belgrade, despite suffering from a massive cold. I hope I am able to go back and visit again before I leave the Balkans.

Friday Gratitude: The Last Semester

I started the week with a typical vacation “hangover,” meaning I was feeling blue about returning to work and Kosovo after spending time in London and then Serbia. However, I am happy I started my last semester of teaching! 🙂

Media Consumption this week …

  • I finished re-reading books 4, 5, and 6 of Harry Potter.

I’ve been feeling all Blanche DuBois lately, as I have had to depend on the kindness of strangers:

  • The bus ride to Serbia made several stops. At one station, I got off the bus to use the bathroom. Well, it was a pay toilet and I didn’t have any Serbian money. The money collector actually turned his back on me when I tried to offer him Euro. Then, another woman joined the line behind me. I explained my predicament to her, and she paid for me to use the bathroom.
  • When I turned down my road on Tuesday, I came upon a dog. Several months ago, I was almost attacked by a stray dog on my road, so I have been particularly wary of dogs since then. I turned around and walked the short distance back to the main road. A man walking by saw me pick up the rock, noticed the dog, and then he also picked up a rock and walked me all the way down my road until we safely reached my house.

I am grateful to have more Dunkin’ Donuts coffee! Sierra spent Christmas in the States and brought us presents! (You know you’re getting old when coffee, thermal socks, and floss excite you.) Thanks, Sierra!

grown up gifts.jpg
Grown-up Christmas gifts

You know what’s awesome? When your care package arrives on a day when you were at the Peace Corps office anyway … it’s only happened to me twice. Yesterday, I got this awesome care package from Whitney:

peace corps kosovo care package
THANK YOU, WHITNEY!

The package contains basically everything I could ever want: chips and salsa, Annie’s mac and cheese, my face cleanser kit, a tote bag for my yarn, a Hello Kitty crochet book (WHAT!?), Hershey’s and Reese’s candy, Muddy Buddies, and TWO board games (Clue and Sorry … I cannot wait to play these with my 13-year-old host cousin!)

Thank you so much Whitney! (Here is a close-up of the Hello Kitty crochet book. OMG, two greater mediums could not exist.)

hello kitty crochet book

I also got cards from my friend Katie and my uncle. I am feeling extra loved and adored this week. 🙂 Thank you, everyone!

Happy weekend! Monday’s post will be all about my trip to Belgrade, Serbia, so stay tuned! 🙂

A Walk Around Skopje, Macedonia, Part Two

“If you want to know your future, look at your past.” — Macedonian saying, as told to me by a Macedonian I know

Fun Fact: Macedonia and Kosovo are the only Peace Corps host countries that share a medical unit. This means that, thanks to a persistent ear infection, I have been visiting Macedonia frequently.

Here are some photos I took during walk(s) around the city.

Macedonia ship
Controversial “ship” that might be removed
Macedonia stone bridge
Stone Bridge
Macedonia river
River
Macedonia Alexander the Great Statue
Expensive and controversial Alexander the Great statue

Macedonia has been undergoing a lot of political change lately. There is talk of removing its controversial statues and other monuments. You can read more about it here.

Here is a previous post I wrote with more pictures of Macedonia:

Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence

So, Macedonia totally gets props for having a museum with the longest name of any museum I have ever visited. 😉

Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence

The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence focuses on Macedonia’s rebellion against the Ottoman Empire (early 1900s) through World Wars I and II until the end of its communist rule in 1991.

Macedonian constitution
Macedonian Constitution

Some interesting things I learned:

  • Ellen Stone was an American missionary living in Macedonia. She was kidnapped and held captive for 6 months by a revolutionary group looking to fund their uprising against the Ottoman Empire. They eventually got the money they wanted and set Ms. Stone free. This is considered to be the first time an American was ever held hostage overseas.
  • During the second world war, Macedonia was not recognized as a country. Macedonians fought with the armies of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece.
  • In 1944, Macedonia was recognized as an independent state and its language was finally recognized.
  • The Macedonian declaration of independence was signed in 1991.
Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence stairway
Front staircase in the entryway: Important figures from Macedonia’s history
museum exhibit 1
1944 — Macedonia was recognized as an independent state
museum exhibit 2
Soldiers + war scene
museum exhibit 3
Photographs hanging above a stairway depict the victims of communism (sorry it is so blurry!)
Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence ceiling
Ceiling to represent the indigenous peoples of Macedonia

A few things to note about The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence:

  • Entrance fee: 300 Denar (about 4.80 Euro)
  • You can only walk through the museum as part of a guided tour.
  • The museum offers tours in English.
  • No photos are allowed inside the museum aside from the entrance hall. I was bad and snuck around the corner to snap three photos inside. Normally I try to respect “no photography” rules but this one just seemed excessive.
  • Mannequins are heavily used in the exhibits.

Note: I took notes as best I could on my phone while I was touring the museum. Apologies if any information is incorrect (though I think what I have posted is accurate).