As I adjust to life in Kosovo, it’s easy to come up with a list of things about the culture that strike me as odd. But that’s not entirely fair. The cultural perceptions go both ways.
What about how the American volunteers are perceived by the Kosovars?
I decided to start asking around my site to see what people considered odd about me and other Americans. These are some of the things they mentioned:
You know that thing you may have seen in movies where people kiss someone on their cheeks three times when saying hello or goodbye? Yeah, that’s what we do in Kosovo. Typically you shake hands and then lean in, touching/kissing cheeks two or three times.
When arriving at school, the teachers go around and do the handshake/hug/kiss thing with nearly everyone in the teacher’s lounge, even though they see each other almost every day. My host mother and sisters do the hug/kiss thing every time I leave the house or come home. Americans, on the other hand, reserve hugs for close friends or family we haven’t seen in a while. An American teacher would arrive at work and say “hey” or “good morning,” sometimes with a halfhearted wave.
Because Americans are less physical in our greetings, I’ve been told that we come across as cold and distant. Sometimes when I’ve greeted people the “American way” by waving and smiling I’ve been told that I come across as rude. So I’ve been trying to imitate the Kosovar style of greeting, but I’ll admit that the hugging and cheek kissing makes me uncomfortable at times, causing me to feel a bit like Ron Swanson.
When I asked people at my site what stands out to them about Americans, I repeatedly got this response: “You don’t care what people think of how you dress.”
But in comparison to people here it is definitely true. People in Kosovo take their appearance very seriously, especially the women. In America we tend to be a bit more casual, especially when we are not working. It’s not uncommon to see people, especially those in their twenties, wearing t-shirts, sweatpants, shorts, or no make-up.
In Kosovo that is a rare sight. I brought a lot of business casual clothes, but I still get comments from family or coworkers about my attire. So future Kosovo PCVs, heed my packing advice and bring nice clothes!
Turns out going for a run is a very American thing to do. If you go outside for a run, you will face far more strange looks than normal. A lot of volunteers are avid runners and have funny stories about the reactions from locals. Some people point and laugh, while others may stop you to ask, “Are you afraid?” or “Are you running from the stray dogs?”
When you tell them you just like to run, people will be very confused and may suggest joining a local gym.
Joining the gym
Speaking of joining the gym, this is another largely American phenomenon. One of the reasons is that Americans are a lot more sedentary, so we have to set aside a time and place to be active. In Kosovo people walk a lot. Many people don’t own cars, so they walk to and from work or school daily. It may not seem like much, but all of that walking adds up. Even simple things like going to the grocery store become a form of exercise.
Kosovo has gyms in the larger towns and cities, but most of them are heavily male-dominated. If you are female and decide to join one, people will automatically assume that you are trying desperately to lose weight. I’ve had to explain repeatedly that I go to the gym to be healthy, not because I think I’m fat.
Working out was never a priority for me in the States, but here it has become my go-to stress reliever. (And it helps counteract the bread-dominated diet!) I hope it is a habit I’ll carry with me after my service ends.
Odd facial expressions & endless smiles
Maybe this relates to us being more laid-back about our appearance, but I’ve been told that Americans are extremely expressive, especially when it comes to making weird facial expressions.
I’d like to blame YouTube or Snapchat for this phenomenon. We’ve spent so much time watching strange YouTube stars or testing out Snapchat filters that we make strange faces by default.
On the positive side, Americans smile a lot, especially compared to Eastern Europeans. We therefore come across as very approachable and happy, at least until someone tries to hug us and we get weird.