Stares. Heads turning. The people here don’t just stare — they STARE. As we walk down the street, strangers — mostly men — look at us, at me, and keep staring, until they are far enough away that they have to crane their necks to continue staring at our backs as we walk away.
It’s obvious enough that Albania doesn’t get many foreigners. Even in the capital, Tirana, where we live, I’ve only seen one or two touristy-looking groups. And if they don’t get foreigners, they definitely don’t get anyone who looks of Asian descent.
I have never been more aware of my ethnicity than I am here in Albania.
When I was in Ecuador, I had a few people double-take when they learned I was, in fact, from the United States, and not from China or Japan. I even had a group of Colombian men ask me if anyone had ever told me that I look Asian. (haha seriously? I hadn’t noticed.) But Ecuadoreans don’t stare half as much as Albanians, and they definitely didn’t say anything as I walked down the street. Here in Tirana, I am self-conscious every time I walk outside.
It’s not a bad thing, really. No one has harassed me (I guess, unless you count a little boy sticking his hand out into my face as I walked by and almost slapping me — excuse me?) and I know it’s out of ignorance, not out of hate, that people notice at all. I haven’t been threatened, and I haven’t (really) felt unsafe. I know that when I compare this to the problems happening with racism in the US, my experiences are insignificant. However, at least in the US, the hate is born out of a diverse, heterogeneous population. Other countries aren’t as “progressive.”
It’s hard to feel one emotion about the locals, because when the men aren’t being ethno-ignorant, misogynistic jerks, everyone is very hospitable. A lady I sat next to on a mini-bus who didn’t speak English smiled at me, tried to make conversation, and grasped my hand and said “ciao” when we left. Another woman welcomed us into her restaurant and thanked us for coming to Albania — thank you for being so welcoming! Everyone at the National Coastal Agency, where we intern, have been very friendly as well, and most of my experiences are overwhelmingly positive.
And yet, when my friend and I were walking down the street one evening, a group of men passed by; mutters of “China, China” followed me. I couldn’t help myself, and I spun around and gave their backs the finger — but, being Albanian men,* of course they were still looking at me, so my middle finger caught their laughing faces and I spun back around, terrified that the stories of men stalking women or foreigners who pissed them off would come true right in that moment. Thankfully, it didn’t. But the adrenaline carried me all the way back to our apartment.
Albania so far is great, but there are just a few little things that have made my stay here a little not-great.
DISCLAIMER: I’m actually Taiwanese. They can’t tell the difference?!? (joking; I don’t blame them)
*Trying not to stereotype Albanian men; I’m sorry if I offend.