Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Albania

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Peace Corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Albania, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Albania.

Outside of Albania’s capital and a few larger regional towns, residents of smaller towns and rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. Albanians are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community where you live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Albania, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers will not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff members will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Albania

Peace Corps staff in Albania recognizes that adjustment issues come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, we will offer several sessions to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms for dealing with unwanted attention. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Gender stereotypes are much more evident and accepted in Albania than in the United States. By tradition, women are expected to cook and to look after the needs of their husbands and children even if they work outside the home.

Albanian women lead much more restrictive lives than American women do. Women do not go out alone at night, and jogging or walking alone for exercise is uncommon. Outside of downtown Tirana and in the larger city centers, women almost never smoke or drink alcohol in public. Young women are sometimes verbally harassed by groups of men in the streets, and looking foreign or walking alone on the street will heighten the likelihood that harassment will occur. Your adjustment to Albanian customs will be difficult and frustrating at times, but you must modify your behavior to avoid compromising yourself and your host family.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

There are very few people of color in Albania, and many Albanians have never met anyone of color. Some older Albanians may have met Chinese technicians and workers in the 1960s and 1970s, when Albania was aligned with China. They may have unpleasant memories from that period. Although there are currently foreigners from a variety of countries and races in Tirana, there are very few people of color in the smaller towns and rural communities. Many Albanians will not know what to make of a person of color who calls herself/himself an American. If you are of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent, you will probably be the only such person in your community and might be the only such person within the group of Volunteers in Albania. There may be no role models for you among the Peace Corps staff.

You may encounter varying degrees of harassment in your day-to-day life because of ignorance, stereotyped cultural perceptions, or Albania’s historical involvement with certain countries. You may be evaluated as less professionally competent than a white Volunteer. You may be stared at, pointed to, and commented on. You may hear comments that would be considered completely inappropriate in the United States. Children and teenage boys can be particularly insensitive and hurl comments or even rocks. In those situations, your greatest support will be your host family and local counterparts—people with whom you have established strong relationships—who consider you a friend. They will introduce you to others in the community and intervene with children and others who may bother you. You will have to learn to live with a constant level of attention that you’ve never had to face before. It can be very difficult.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

Respect comes with age in Albania. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. There are situations that senior Volunteers will find challenging, however. Younger counterparts at your assigned organization may feel that the Peace Corps let them down by not assigning them a younger and presumably more energetic, eager Volunteer. It may take some time for them to see that age has nothing to do with energy or eagerness. Older people in Albania generally are less active than older people in the United States, and your Albanian friends may assume that you would rather stay home than socialize. You may also feel isolated within the Peace Corps community because the majority of other Volunteers are likely to be in their 20s.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

On whole, Albanian society is homophobic, but some are open to the idea of different sexual orientations. This perspective is mostly divided between generations. The older generations are more closed to differences in general. The younger generations have a growing interest in LGBT issues and ideas. Since March of 2009, there has been and active and ever growing LGBT community, mostly located within Tirana. The LGBT community is fighting for a freer, more open Albanian society and a place within the population at large. There are currently two active LGBT NGO's working in Tirana. The LGBT community is welcoming of foreigners and especially of Peace Corps Volunteers.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Albanians’ religion generally varies by location. Some areas of the country have more Muslims, some have more Albanian Orthodox people, and some have more Roman Catholics. Though Albania is sometimes characterized as 70 percent Muslim, this refers more to heritage than to religious beliefs and practices. Most Albanians identify with one of the three religions because of family history, but tend to be non-practicing members. All religions are fairly well tolerated in Albania, and practicing your religion is not likely to be an issue. The Peace Corps forbids Volunteers from proselytizing or participating in other religious activities that could impair their effectiveness as Volunteers.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

As a disabled Volunteer in Albania, you will face a special set of challenges. People with disabilities are often kept out of public view in Albania, and there is very little infrastructure to accommodate those with disabilities. There are no ramps in public places, and roads and sidewalks are uneven or otherwise in poor condition. Traffic throughout the country is chaotic. Nevertheless, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Albania without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Albania will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, and job sites to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers

Married couples in different sectors may be required to live separately during their pre-service training. If you do live separately, it will be a matter of logistical necessity based on the design of the training program. It is not intended to unfairly burden married couples. Reasonable efforts will be made to accommodate proximity and visitation concerns. All married couples will live together following pre-service training, when they move to their permanent sites as Volunteers.

Married couples may face challenges stemming from traditional Albanian gender roles. A married female Volunteer may find herself the object of gossip among older Albanian women, who may wonder whether she is taking proper care of her husband, can cook and preserve enough vegetables for the winter, or spends too much time with other men. While the wife may be expected to do all the domestic chores, the husband may be expected to assume an overtly dominant role in the household. In addition, the independence exercised by each member of an American couple may be perceived as immoral behavior. Still, married couples are serving effectively in Albania without having to make unreasonable compromises.