Finding Yourself With the Aid of Albanians

Watching the Albanian artists pushed by MTV this month, got me thinking about identity. I didn’t look into their biographies other than finding out they’re Albanian, and watching / reading the odd interview, because while I do like their voices and songs, I’d rather use them for inspiration than read about them. It’s nothing personal, just an innate instinct to spin the story rather than get all the facts. I don’t even know that many Albanians, and certainly not any in either the UK or the States. But I did work with an Albanian manager at a restaurant in Germany. He was a nice guy. I liked him mainly because he never made me feel inferior, but we really bonded over the fact that we both used our school tune for more useful purposes, he to go to the movies (or rather sneak in), me to go to my favorite café if I happened to miss the bus (which happened about once or twice a week, though public transportation was actually quite decent during the daytime, well, until 6 p.m. anyway). There were some other Albanians working at the same place. They were all a few years older than me and mainly there to make money.

The point was, they identified as Albanian because that was the country they’d moved from. They weren’t planning on staying in Germany for the long haul, though some of them did, so that was really their only point of reference. If I sound like I’m overstating my point, I probably am. At the same time, even as a full-fledged bona fide grownup, I’m still no closer to unraveling that particular mystery. But it’s not for a lack of trying. A cousin I mentioned recently grew up in the Midwest, American schools, the works. But once a week she still attended a school that taught her the language and culture of her mother’s passport country. She actually told me that she felt more connected to it than to America, where she’d grown up. It’s a country I feel absolutely no connection to, other than speaking the language. It’s at the point where I won’t even mention it on this blog, because I don’t want anyone to assign any alliance on my part to that place. I don’t feel connected to Germany either, it was just a place where I did time.

But I do feel connected to Chicago and New Jersey. Out of all the states we lived in, these are the ones I feel connected to, the others were just places I stayed in, great places, full of friends and adventures, but places I visited rather than lived in, even though we stayed there long enough. Ask me the same question about Paris, and I’ll identify with it straight away. And I’ve already covered my connection to Hungary, though it is true that I identify more with Budapest than with Transylvania. A few years back a friend told me she was the president of her region’s student union. Where American universities have sororities and fraternities, Finnish universities have student unions, based on the region the students are from. As this friend put it, “we all hated where we grew up, but we decided there was nothing we could do about it, so we might as well make the best of it.”

So is it a matter of the luck of the draw? You have several ethnicities in your DNA and just pick and choose? Providing you have that opportunity. Most of the friends I had growing up in the States, were something-something American. I’m sure that played a huge role in why I felt much more comfortable around Americans. But they also had the added advantage of being brought up in one culture, with the cultural heritage of their ancestors providing the additional trimmings.

Or is it how others perceive us? There is one part of me that most people pick up on, which I’m sometimes ok with, and at other times tends to bug me. Because enough people commented on it, it’s made me identify with that part of my heritage. Imagine having one quarter Choctaw blood. You’re proud of it, but at times you question if you identify as Choctaw because you feel a connection to your grandparents, or because everyone constantly tells you how much you look the part. The part at 8:41 sums it up perfectly. “You can’t do it, you’re too white.” “Bebe, you’re Albanian.”

Don’t get me wrong. It sounds like I’m whining, but in reality I like having this smorgasbord to choose from. It gives you time to explore a particular side of you, really get into the details, to the point of exploring the culture hands on. Before moving on to the next. It’s much easier now, when there are more of our kind, and people are more educated about these matters. Though accidents, in the guise of stupid, thoughtless comments, still happen. The key then is to just accept that you will never be 100% anything. Anything but mixed that is, or as a very close friend’s grandmother called me, “a proper cocktail.” You will always continue to search. But that precisely is the beauty of it. The goal doesn’t really matter, it’s the way there that counts.

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