Representative Jacket and the Ducks

October 20, 2010

My Lithuanian friends keep writing me depressive letters. Actually, no one is writing me anything, because all the letters I receive end as soon as they start: “My life sucks, I’ll write you another time, don’t want to explain this time. I received your photos – they are beautiful, you’re having a great time…”

Yes, I’m having a great time. I’m seasoned with Lithuanian dampness, so humidity and plus 8 degrees Celsius in Peking is a perfect reason for cozy melancholy and dreamy strolls in Beihai Park. My African classmates are chattering their blindingly white teeth and wear five sweaters on top of one another. They say they can’t quite grasp how it could be so cold and sometimes (often) even gloomy until spring. And I tell them: now is the perfect weather. 

I guess they are twirling their imaginary black index finger near the temple. My Eskimo temple, because Lithuania must be somewhere around the Arctic Circle. 

Each time I head for the wash basin at the end of the corridor to wash my hands, I mumble a hundred how are you, because the residents of my floor are promoting American etiquette. They are normal, cheerful girls: they compliment each other’s clothes, sing Aguilera’s songs, flock to the nightclubs after painting each other’s eyes, gather together to cook and smoke. Not being a company person, at least I try to be polite. However, I can’t be bothered to talk with the Chinese. They don’t realize I’m in my second month of studying. They think that I’m just like that German professor of sinology, Stefanie, who can keep a conversation in their language on any topic. Conversations usually spark at the canteen, during the lunchtime, and I was raised not to speak while eating, but to eat and properly chew. Anyway, I’m fed up with answering where I’m from, if I like it here, what have I seen in Peking, whom I share the room with. Finally, at the end of the dialogue (actually, monologue, as I’m not speaking while chewing – my answer is rolling eyes), I receive a dessert – dobryj den’!

Dobryj den’, druzja, let’s drink a stoparik of vodka. 

When the conversation turns to cold weather and strong alcoholic beverages, why is everyone’s eyes on me? Do I look like the snow queen? Is my nose blue and swollen?

The teacher takes me aside and gives a mysterious wink: “I visited Russia four years ago. The women in your country are very beautiful”, – and she shows a span with her fingers – so high were the heels those beauties wore. Meaning – they’re always shaped up. Then she compliments my jacket and asks if I bought it in China. No, I reply, in Lithuania. She gives me a double thumbs up. That’s only logical: women in Russia are beautiful and love to dress up. I’m from Russia, therefore I’m no stranger to pretty things myself. That’s why my jacket is so cute. 

I can’t blame her: does everyone have to be interested in geography, history, or at least once in a lifetime open up the world map? In the end, nothing is important. This entire text proves me being egocentric: such a snotty young lady, who gets offended (and I honestly do get irritated) when asked about her nationality – now that’s a hard-boiled patriot.

I’m not a hard-boiled patriot. I do not sing the national anthem while doing dishes, adorn my walls with portraits of Lithuanian dukes, or watch Independence Day broadcasts from Vilnius. Quite the opposite – while in Lithuania, I never spared my homeland a bitter word. But here, in China, I feel an urge to tell everyone about my Baltic sea, hill forts of giants, forests, lakes, the green leaves of rue. Yet I don’t. Not because I don’t know the English or Chinese word for “rue”. Nobody really cares for the Baltic sea, which according to the patterns of tourism esthetics isn’t even attractive – neither emerald, nor azure. My African classmates have red seas of their own, the Sahara with its most beautiful sunsets in the world (according to the Algerian guy), waterfalls, and wild beasts; the Dutch boast the entire Flemish heritage of mills and bicycle farms, stylish quarters of Amsterdam and the lustiest corners of the red-light district. So maybe I shouldn’t struggle and say I am a Russian? At least I would impress them with the vastness of my alleged homeland. Oh, and with my jacket.

Nationality, I’d say, is a relative notion. Our identity exists beyond this category, so sensitive to historical changes. When you find yourself in a culturally diverse environment, you become a Stranger. The others, trying to identify you, start the scanning process with your nationality. It’s silly, but I did the same thing. When I hear “German”, I wait for my new acquaintances to shine with precision or reveal their deeply lurking fear of unsanitary conditions. At least Stefanie, the German girl, justified my expectations: she is very accurate and respects hygiene.

With the word “Lithuania” inquirers receive a riddle, which, based on uncertainty and echoes of the past, is immediately solved: “Lithuania = Russia”. And I receive an imaginary ID card: “cold and vodka” (missing only a bear). 

When I deny that Lithuania is Russia, I ruin the associative field. That means, I delete “cold and vodka” from my ID card. What will be written there next, depends only on me. I become the personification of my country.

Many years will pass, and everyone, whom I ever encountered in China, will hear about Lithuania and say: “Oh yes, I know, those Lithuanians hardly speak a word, wear cute jackets, properly chew their food, never go out at night, do not smoke and are not afraid of the cold.”

Either I should change my behaviour, or be as it may – I’m from Russia. I’m not sure which is more representative. In her gloomy letter my friend V. admitted that Lithuania must be the most inappropriate country to read philosophical literature. Anyway, autumnal frosts and upcoming heating season may prompt you to substitute your Sartre with a razor blade and use the latter outside the existing function (beard, armpit area) for the existentialist function (vein area). 

Listen, my friends, I say let’s put on our cute jackets and go feed the ducks. 

You feed them so you don’t feel sad, and I feed them so everyone in Peking would say: Lithuanians are kind to birdies. 

An excerpt from Vaiva Grainytė, Beijing Diaries
Translated by Emilija Ferdmanaitė