Part of my job as a PCV is to integrate into the Albanian community. But no matter how hard I try, there will always be a hidden side of this culture and every culture I inhabit as a foreigner. Even though I speak Albanian relatively well and have lived and worked side-by-side with these people for 2 years, I am still American. I’m still an outsider and I always will be.
9 times out of 10 this works to my advantage. I’m just now coming to realize that part of the reason I love this country so much is because I’m not actually Albanian. Strange, right? Because I’m a foreigner, I get to do things that native girls would never be able to get away with. I can walk the streets at night with my friends after everyone has gone to bed without fearing for my safety. I can order 3 beers at a bar without judgement. I don’t have to worry when a car full of men drives by. I can wear what I want to school and not get in trouble for dressing inappropriately. I can demand respect from men who are older than me. I could hold hands with a boyfriend and even announce I had a boyfriend in public without retribution. The list goes on.
You see, Albanian women do not have these small luxuries. The Albania I experience every day is very different from the Albania that have lived in their whole lives. They are much more limited by social expectations and gender roles than I ever will be, because I have the eternal excuse of “yea but she’s American.” I was always aware that I was treated differently for being a foreigner, but I never understood to what extent this impacted by impression of Albania until last week when I was with a group of teachers having lunch after school.
We were all gathered around a table eating, drinking, and talking when all of the sudden things got a little tense. I couldn’t hear what was going on at first because the DJ was blasting folk music at a decibel that should be illegal, but I quickly got the gist of it. The woman sitting next to me, who I respect more than anyone else in this country, was being ridiculed by the elderly men across the table. I could feel the air instantly shift as her back straightened and she leaned forward across the table to defend herself. I sat there helplessly, not knowing what to say, as this incredible female role model of mine was being verbal attacked. Afterward when she told me what they were discussing I became so ashamed. Ashamed that my Albanian wasn’t good enough to defend her and ashamed that I wasn’t brave enough to stand up to these men like she was. I just sat there and watched.
These older male teachers were telling her that she was a bad woman and a bad wife for not having a son. They went on and on about her role in her family and the shame she brought them by not having a son. They told her it was her obligation to have another child and give her husband a son. They were so adamant that it was responsibility and her fault and her greatest failure in life that I was struck speechless.
Never in my life have I witnessed a conversation like this in Albania. People always told me it’s an undercurrent of society and happens all the time, and I always nodded along like “yea, sure, I know, but not the new generation, that’s something the older people had to deal with.” But here was a young teacher I respect and love like a sister facing it herself. Right in front of me. I couldn’t believe the audacity they had to ridicule her like this in the middle of a celebratory lunch in front of all her peers, coworkers, bosses, friends, and everyone else. Moreover I couldn’t believe they thought it was their business what happens between her and her husband. But somehow it was.
My friend handled the entire situation with grace and dignity (yet another reason why I idolize her). She thanked them for treating her like a sister and taking an interest in her life. That’s right, she thanked them. Talk about diplomatic. But at the same time she remained firm that she was proud to have two daughters and loved her husband and they were both content with the family they had. For 20 minutes they harangued her and she sat there and took it. She never backed down and refused to admit it was her mistake.
This is the hidden side of Albania that I will never have to face. And I’m so happy that I won’t have to, but at the same time I feel guilty that I’m able to walk through my city with freedom and liberty that these women never will (at least until the next generation takes power). It was then that I realized that I love this country so much because I get to live like and American, not an Albanian. Albanian women still suffer social stigmas and repressive gender roles that my grandparents and great grandparents faced in the USA. It’s like living in the history books and reliving the stories I heard about my ancestors growing up. That day was such an eye-opening moment for me that I will look at every Albanian woman with a new level of respect and sympathy for the rest of my time here. They are so strong to face such opposition. They are so brave to face such a mentality. They are my inspiration for working even harder to give new opportunities to the youth of this country. My only hope is they also learn from these experiences too and make a promise to change things when they are parents some day.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”