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.

4 thoughts on “Shades of Kosovo: Handling Racism as a Peace Corps Volunteer”

  1. I often use humor to deflect harassment (generally unwanted professions of love) in Swaziland. I have a standard response in siSwati that works well. It’s so much less stressful than being defensive or angry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really love this post. I think it’s so important to talk about the diverse experience of PCVs, as not all of us have the same experiences or come from the same backgrounds. Thanks for sharing another person’s perspective–super powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

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