The sweet sensation of being abroad

Article published on April 22, 2009
community published
Article published on April 22, 2009
Today I read about this lecture that will be given by Daigo, a "free moving student", as he calls himself, from Japan (see lecture 3). I met him last summer in Vilnius. Having heard that he's planning to stay, I was very enthusiastic to introduce him to new people and help him around, hoping also to have a Japanese conversation partner before I leave for Japan.
However, after a heated email debate about my comments relating to a written piece he sent me, our communication stopped. "You sound like an ideological person", he threw into my [virtual] face :P I still haven't figured out what it means, but I guess it's the biggest insult in his connected world. Anyway, it's not important now. What really moved me is that Daigo says, "many anonymous Lithuanians on street, bus, market etc. have always given me so many happiness and beautiful smiles. [...] It would be my great pleasure if I can contribute to construction of the country." It made me think about living abroad again. I mean, I would be happy to swap countries with Daigo. Anonymous people in Lithuania don't give me beautiful smiles. And, subsequently, I'm not so enthusiastic about making a contribution in the country, although I've been trying to do something for it for good four years.

They do give me beautiful smiles in Japan though. Almost every time I buy something other than food, I hear that my Japanese is very good and that I have beautiful eyes. I usually get help when I need it, unless I don't speak enough Japanese and they don't speak enough English. But it feels more or less the same as getting lost in Vilnius and trying to find my way in Russian or Polish when I was a first-year undergrad student :) Nobody has high expectations from me, I am allowed to make mistakes, as long as I can show that I sincerely try not to. Nothing about me is taken for granted - each step I take towards being closer to the people in this country is appreciated. People enjoy me speaking Japanese, admire that I speak several other languages, are pleasantly surprised to hear that I like their food, and shower me with compliments.

It was different in Hungary. I looked very local - apparently, it's possible that I look more Hungarian than anything else. But still, each step was marked with a sense of achievement, and being able to fully blend into the crowd gave a pleasant sense of belonging. The way they eat, dance, travel on the metro - it was all a discovery, something which is exciting to learn and master. I still remember the joy of having my first 30-minute-long Hungarian conversation. Nothing special. I still don't know how to for a past tense in Hungarian. I was telling some things about my country, that's it. But it was an achievement.

And ah, Sweden, the sweet taste of the first time of living abroad, marked with lots of exploring and friendships that last until now... In each of the countries my moving in the space is different, and my lifestyle heavily dependent on the way me and others move in space, yet these three happy periods in my life (the Hungarian one was the most complicated and not always so happy though) share something in common.

Thinking about this from the perspective of Daigo's words I must admit: I just like being foreign. I enjoy the sense of discovery and the process of drawing a mental map of the space I find myself in. Even routine is exciting - it gives me a feeling of getting used to the country and finding my place there. It relates to memories of one interesting talk about Lithuanian emigration, given by a psychologist. She was claiming that people who write comments in news portals from abroad often construct an opposition between those who have left and those who stayed: those who stayed are portrayed as passive, while those who leave imagine themselves as people who have actively crafted their lives. In sociology we would call it agency. In a not very convincing article another psychologist claimed, without using this word, that Lithuanians, facing frustration, realise their agency in three ways: suicide, aggressive behaviour on roads, and emigration. I.e. self-destruction, aggression and departure. I wouldn't go that far, but I would agree that emigration is a very important way for many Lithuanians to start believing that they can take a more active role in directing their lives. Unsurprisingly, emigrants writing those comments usually use the verb "to sit" as a signifier of a passive state: "those of you sitting in Lithuania..." (for the sake of comparison - it is also common to hear that a housewife is "sitting at home" or "sitting with a baby", even though she might be working all day).

The truth is, not always Lithuanians become what they want to be once they are abroad. Yet they seem to feel that at least it was their decision - leave everything and try something new. And even coming back to Lithuania, after making this decision, is again an act of "agency" - an important decision that they make, and not someone (the situation, the government) makes for them. If it's true and widespread, I guess it helps people to maintain their dignity even when facing frustration.

Yet, coming back to me :) , it's not exactly the case. I have more chances of becoming what I want to be in Lithuania. Nobody doubts my linguistic abilities, and it's much easier to express my ideas to the society and be heard. Yet I often feel that I would trade this for... "beautiful smiles". Had I wanted, I could easily say that the atmosphere in Lithuania is depressing as such: the crisis hit it really heavy, people are losing jobs, governments are cutting on their budgets, which means less lighting in the streets (that's no joke!) and more crime. Hordes of unhappy people radiate their frustration on buses, streets, shops, hospitals and everywhere. Grumpy administrators of dentist clinics, sour faces of people squeezing into a bus on rush hour, exhaustion, written into each face of shop assistants, who hate their jobs but can't find anything better, and floods of bad news from the media - it is, however, only frustrating to locals, to those who care about it.

Otherwise I think Lithuania is a perfect place to spend a year or two. Not to travel for a week though. Most tourists go to Vilnius, which looks like any other European city in everything what's good in it, and worse in everything that is bad. The seaside is much, much better, but not all tourists reach it. Some beautiful sights, but not more than in any other country in the region. Yet half a year or more is a time to enjoy discovering non-touristic spots, showering in people's hospitality, making new friends, which is not so difficult, and in general, experiencing the pleasures of being among Lithuanian people. Without competing for jobs with the locals, a foreigner can feel very welcomed. And it's true, most people like foreigners.They understand that a foreigner can feel a little lost, needs translation, introduction to the lifestyle, and, of course, needs to bring home only positive impressions. So most people would do their best. People's hospitality and strength in the face of everything they have to go through is something that warms my heart when I think of Lithuania. Yet as much as they try for foreigners, they would not do it for Lithuanians. And I'm coming back to where I started. I miss "beautiful anonymous smiles" when I'm in Lithuania. This silent appreciation. I miss the excitement of discovering, too. I miss being appreaciated for learning the language, not making mistakes, trying to make a tiny contribution, whatever it is, and for just being there in general.