I remember being 14 when a Swedish friend said: “Fortesa, you’re not like the others, you’re like us.” She meant I’m not like other foreigners, I’m better than them.
At that time I was relieved and almost proud. I felt like I finally earned my place.
But, today I feel a huge shame over my relief. I also feel sad and angry that I did not understand that her statement was racist.
The constant seeking of identity that the children of the Diaspora go through is not seldom spoken about. We might once have been very sure of our identities — “We’re Albanian only” — we might have argued for our identity with sayings such as “blood is thicker than water” and we might even have gone as far as giving the example of “a dog born in a stable is not a horse.”
But what happens when this certainty about what we are actually starts to crumble?
What baffles me the most in this whole discourse are the identities, and with that the characteristics, given to us and decided for us by others. Paradoxically, they tend to be different in our country of birth to our country of origin.
My parents were quite often attacked with my statement of, “I wish I was Swedish.”
In the West, prejudicial questions about our origins, families and even our way of eating are frequent. Imagine having to tell people in Sweden that the West is not alone in using cutlery…
Back in Kosovo the discussions touch subjects such as material differences, societal wealth and at times accusations of us being spoiled (which, put into context, at times cannot be denied).
I’ve come to understand that in Kosovo there is this perception that simply because we live in developed countries far away, all ties are cut from Kosovo and we are completely separated from our culture of origin.
At moments during my adolescence, I sure did wish that to be true — my parents were quite often attacked with my statement of, “I wish I was Swedish.”
Regardless of the physical distance, we are born and raised in the same culture but in different environments; we therefore have the possibility of alternating between worlds.
We might take pride in our origins but we should also be critical.
Encounters with patriarchal mindsets are not nonexistent even if you grow up in a liberal family. If you do not encounter this at home, you will outside of it — with your extended family, or friends.
Visiting my father’s family in Kosovo, we used to stay at my grandmother’s house until she passed away.
I remember one specific day, when at first one of my uncles came into the living room and the women of the family, including my mother, suddenly stood up. After him, my other uncle came in and the procedure was repeated. Later came my father and the women stood up once again.
I couldn’t understand why the men didn’t greet women in the same way when they came in.
I’d noticed this pattern of standing up and I asked my mother loudly, “Why are you standing up? You never do this back home.”
She didn’t answer me, because before going to Kosovo, she had told me that when she didn’t answer my questions immediately, she would later when we were alone. So, what did I do next? Ask even louder, of course.
For me, this used to be a strange phenomenon. I couldn’t understand why the men didn’t greet women in the same way when they came in.
It was also strange to get asked as a kid if I helped my mother out at home. At that time I couldn’t understand why they asked this to me, but my instinctive response was to ask why I should, when my dad does.
During my feminist awakening, when I was around 15 or 16, I tended to criticize everything about our culture. Almost making it a free time activity. Needless to say, at that age, my understanding of the socio-economic legacy was not fully developed. And it hit me like a truck when I understood that a lot of things I had considered to be the pillars of our culture are… bad… misogynistic… harmful…?
To this day, I think we all know girls who have left their jobs, education and dreams in their hometowns when they got married, in order to move to their husband’s — in the name of tradition. When it’s the other way around, it is frowned upon. Because in our culture, the man, apparently, is the norm and the one to whom us women should adjust.
I used to adore the fact that when Albanians get married they stick together, out of love and loyalty. Albanians work things out instead of leaving, I thought. Only later on did I understand that it’s not always love that is the miracle of these marriages, it is in fact the “culture of shame” — the “marre” — and the fear of social consequences that keep people together.
What happens when customs you’ve associated with your culture are suddenly misogynistic and harmful? What happens when you suddenly do not agree?
And this shaming is mostly aimed toward girls and women. A couple splits up — shame on the wife! An Albanian girl marries outside of her ethnicity — shame on her mother who did not raise her better!
What happens when you criticize culture to the point where the only response is, “That’s how our culture is, that’s how it has always been, and we can not change it”? What happens when customs you’ve associated with your culture are suddenly misogynistic and harmful? What happens when you suddenly do not agree? Do you become less of an Albanian? Do you become more Western?
In her book, “We Should All be Feminists,” the Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “Culture does not make people. People make culture.” And truer words are yet to be spoken. Culture should not be preserved through harmful customs; we should question them, understand where and when they come from and leave them if needed.
Our culture is more than neglecting women and children of their rights, it’s more than a strong macho culture, and it should be more than having the man be the norm.
Us criticizing this does not make us more Western nor less Albanian. We should cherish our origin and culture through always demanding changes and progress in order to collectively flourish.
No, you are not less of an Albanian because you are not conventionally traditional. No, you are not more of an Albanian because you are conventionally traditional. (How does one even measure “Albanianness”?)
The seeking of identity is most likely a never-ending path. What we certainly do not need on the way is other people telling us how much of this or how little of that we are.
The feeling of “inbetweenness” may always be present, but that is both a blessing and a curse, which we, the children of the diaspora, will have to handle.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.