I am a New Yorker. I am also a war refugee from Kosovo. But, in order to understand the virtues of being the latter, I had to first become the former. This may seem like a paradox. English isn’t my first language; Albanian is my native tongue. Teachers hesitate before saying my name on the first day of school, and not one has successfully pronounced “Valë” on the first attempt. My values are a fusion of the traditional Albanian culture, which I grew up in, and modern American principles, which I’ve encountered outside of my parents’ household. Throughout my life I’ve lived in Prishtinë, Kosovo; West Hartford, Connecticut; and the Bronx, New York. No single location has served as my permanent home; however, each town has taught me that home is a place where you are safe and comfortable in your own skin.
I spent the majority of my childhood in West Hartford, Connecticut. West Hartford fits the stereotype of a suburban town with white picket fences and an exceptional public education system. The prevailing religion in West Hartford neighborhoods is Judaism, and the median family income was reported to be $107,359 by CNNMoney in 2012. According to areavibes.com, a website that collects demographic data, the town is 85.99% Caucasian. Although West Hartford attempts to promote diversity by hosting International Night at Aiken Elementary School (Schassler) and founding the Multicultural Club at Hall High School, CNNMoney’s racial diversity index suggests that West Hartford is less diverse than the national average. I can attest to this index. While there were around 1,600 students enrolled at my high school, only eight nationalities were represented at our annual “Around the World” event.
Based on personal experience, I have found that West Hartford welcomes people from all nationalities, races, and cultures. The problem is that the embrace is often not a sign of acceptance but rather of possession. My classmates and teachers enjoyed learning about my heritage, but they had trouble relating to my family’s lifestyle and our customs because some had never traveled outside of New England, let alone outside of the country. The children in West Hartford are sheltered by their parents, and it is common for a foreigner like me to be viewed as an outsider in their eyes. As a kid, all I wanted was to be accepted by my peers, and so their opinions troubled me. Little by little, I found myself altering my appearance and views to match those of other kids. I traded my necklace, which was adorned with a gold, Albanian eagle pendant, for a Pandora bracelet. I swapped the Albanian music on my iPod for the latest Justin Bieber album. I refused to speak Albanian outside of my house once I perfected the English language, because I didn’t want to attract attention to my difference. My parents’ heavy accents bothered me, since they were another reminder of how I’d never be quite like the others. While my desire to assimilate helped me to build friendships, it also steered me away from my heritage and offended my parents. If I wasn’t proud of my roots, my parents assumed I was embarrassed of them and that I didn’t appreciate all they’d sacrificed for me. At that time, I thought their accusations were irrational; today, I can better understand their views.
As a resident of New York City, I am now surrounded by a large Albanian community of about 250,000, as reported in the New York Daily News. My apartment is only a block away from Lydig Avenue in the Bronx, which is also known as “Little Albania” (Sabbagh). I cannot spend a day without seeing a familiar face on the street or hearing the sweet sound of the Albanian language. If I crave food from Kosovo, I can find it at the local market. If I want to talk about events back home, I can chat with a neighbor. People around me can relate to my experiences. I no longer need to make an effort to fit in, because I do so by being myself. West Hartford’s lack of Albanians prevented me from celebrating my Albanian heritage. The Bronx has given me the opportunity to live the dual identity of an Albanian American, for my traditions and past are accepted and shared by others in the community.
Albanians are one of many immigrant groups that thrive in New York City. For me, New York City captures the essence of Kosovo and provides me with a temporary home. Here, I am free to express the person who I am today, a young woman whose set of principles draws from both Albanian and American traditions. Here, not only do I meet persons with whom I share a common culture, but I also learn to appreciate difference. When one takes a stroll through Arthur Avenue, she is bound to hear several different languages. Although I am eager to hear fellow Albanians conversing on the streets, I do not drown out the sound of Spanish, French, Russian, and Italian speakers. The linguistic dissonance of the Bronx is attractive, and I, like most New Yorkers, am intrigued by the diverse people who I encounter. The prominence of a large foreign population in New York City enables us to create alternative communities such as Little Italy. The development of such neighborhoods has made city dwellers aware of the clash of cultures around us, which has in turn made New Yorkers more accepting. Experiencing life in the midst of people from all around the planet is beautiful, and that is why I find solace in New York City’s embrace.
“Best Places to Live.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 2012. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.
Schassler, Kathleen. “West Hartford’s Cultural Diversity Celebrated atAiken.” Westhartfordnews.com. West Hartford News, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.
Sabbagh, Mahmoud. ““Little Albania” in the Bronx.” Bronxink.org. The Bronx Ink, 15 Dec. 2011. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.
Samuels, Tanyanika. “In Bronx and Beyond, Local Albanians to Mark The 100th Anniversary of Independence from Turkish Rule.” NYDailyNews.com. Daily News, 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 Oct.2013.
“West Hartford, CT Demographics.” Areavibes.com. AreaVibes Inc, 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.