Guide to battling stereotypes of Lithuania abroad
The Lithuanian section of the Matador Network's "How to piss off..." guides has recently become a Facebook hit. Having visited 33 countries and talked to people from many more, I suggest a different approach to ignorance.
Lithuanian travelers, Lithuanian expats, people of Lithuanian origin and those who have spent time in Lithuania and feel connected to the place know these stereotypes by heart: Lithuania is a part of Russia, or maybe in Africa, it doesn't have its own language; people drink insane quantities of vodka and have never created or invented anything, which is not surprising, because Lithuania, in the view of many, did not exist before the USSR miraculously fell apart. The USSR and now Russia are central in the cliches about Lithuania, which are nowhere as bad and boring as global cliches about Russia. Or Eastern Europe in general, for that matter.
Yet, as this Lithuanian op-ed rightly claims, small Eastern European countries are associated with poverty, but Russia is not. The author suggests playing along with the stereotypes and having fun in the meantime, making ignorant hotel staff think you might be an oil-money-saturated investor or a dangerous secret agent. I tend to agree with this author.
As exchange students in Sweden, my friends and I often tried to fight ignorance and stereotypes. Sometimes we searched for comparisons in other countries' history. Those times are long gone. I don't think that the approach chosen by the author of the "How to piss off..." guide actually helps - I would guess that most people would think, "If there's all this amazing ancient history, how come I never heard of it at school?" and forget it. You can't cure all the world's ignorance. So why not show ignorant people the truth - that they have to go home and quietly do their homework?
If people asking questions come from another continent - just lower your expectations
Few people know all the countries in the world. Few Lithuanians would be able to place Angola on a map, and I bet that many would not be able to tell Luxembourg from Liechtenstein (which I find absolutely infuriating). So people from overseas should not be expected to know the location of Lithuania or even the basic facts about it. When I traveled in the US and people asked me where I was from, I usually said, "From Europe." It was up to them whether to ask for a clarification - most often they didn't, but some were almost angry that I did not expect them to know countries in Europe. In Japan, most people knew Baruto Sankoku - the three Baltic States. In Israel most people needed no explanation, and if they frowned and thought aloud, "where is it exactly?", it was often enough to say "Where Šarūnas Jasikevičius comes from." Let people from overseas surprise you.
If people from the EU are ignorant, have no mercy
Yes, ignorant Europeans still exist. I've been asked if my country is democratic several times - as if the EU would accept non-democracies. It is absolutely inexcusable for literate EU citizens not to know which countries are in their union. Anyone with higher education should know the capitals and languages of the countries of the union, and where they can travel passport-free. It is useless to explain them about pagan gods and laser research centers - you don't owe them a proof that we not savages, because they are. I suggest it's best to shame those people by using European and EU references, and to play along whenever they display any signs of such ignorance:
- Is your country democratic?
Absolutely not. Tribal chiefs select their supreme leader in a sword fight. In fact, when we had to elect the European Parliament, the idea of elections was so alien to the people that the supreme leader had to tell them they were voting which prisoner should be exiled to a distant island.
- So you speak Russian there?
No, we speak English there since 1990, and if needed, we will speak Chinese from 2030.
- But your language is a dialect of Russian?
Of course it is - and so are Latvian, Estonian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Bulgarian, Slovenian and Croatian. In fact, when we all joined the EU, the term "official languages" had to be replaced by "official languages and dialects", and the Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth had to be renamed Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Multidialectism, and Youth [if they are educated, they should smell a nonsense]. The only problem is that Russians refuse to recognize all of those as dialects and to understand them.
If you are in a tolerant mood (and this is what I usually answer to similar questions): Pretty much like English and French. In the beginning it helps learning the tenses and so on, but then it only causes confusion. I only wish my language was more helpful for learning another language. It took me [X] years to learn Russian.
- You're from Lithuania? Spasibo! Na zdarovie!
[Answer in an exotic language of your choice]
- Your language is close to Finnish, I've heard.
Treat those with respect - they've heard of Estonia. It's enough to say "That's Estonian."
- Your country is not in Europe, right?
No, it's in Southern Africa [pretend that it's Lesotho and invent a tearful story of your emigration - this got my friend a few free dinners]
- Hey, you [don't drink vodka/ are vegetarian/ are short/ have dark hair/ don't like basketball/ don't cook cepelinai/ ...], but I thought that all Lithuanians...
Don't get me wrong - I have utmost tolerance to the more collectivistic cultures. In our culture no individual is required to represent the collective unless they choose to and have been appointed to do so.
- But enough about my country, tell me about yours. Do you have Google there? You should try it - it's pretty neat, you can find a lot of information and even maps.
But there are people who always get it right - the Russians
They know that Lithuania is an independent country in Europe. They know that it has a separate language, and they appreciate every effort to learn Russian. They know that Lithuania is in the EU and that horses are not the main means of transport. Let's give them our due appreciation.
Daiva Repečkaitė is an associate editor at VilNews and blogger at Cafe Babel. Her personal blog: http://www.daivarepeckaite.com.