American President, Ukrainian President

Nothing makes me want to vote less than doing research on this season’s American candidates.

Nothing makes me want to vote more than talking to my Ukrainian roommates.

One of them caught up with me on my way back from putting my absentee ballot application in the mail. “You’re voting from outside the country?” My brief explanation of the American ballot system evolved into a conversation about what little about American politics we both knew. She asked my impressions of the candidates and shared her own; I described what I could out of my own (incomplete) observations and opinions.

The extent of my cynicism became clear even to me as I explained: “I think most Americans are voting for one candidate or the other not because they like them, but because they don’t like the other even more.”

She nodded, and mentioned no one is happy with the government in Ukraine either. But no one is going to vote, because voting isn’t going to change it.

The power structure in Ukraine is corrupt. About a week before putting my ballot in the mail, I and one other American student had sat stunned as we listened to my roommates describe the scandals, deceit and death knolls that plague Ukraine’s election season. The men in power have been in power for a long time, and will probably remain that way.

It’s dangerous to be a political newcomer in Ukraine. At best, your opponents will set you up to look foolish, then use their own paparazzi and media sources to condemn you in the papers. Serving drinks at a party, then leading guests into staged situations where they can’t react as sharply is a common strategy.

At worst, if you still don’t go away, accidents might happen. Car accidents, specifically: “They’re hard to prove it was intentional.” And even if someone did go seeking proof, legal cooperation would be hard to find: The KGB lives on in Ukraine. Under a different name, but with the same sort of relationship with the government—and the people.

And of course, the ballot box is more a prop than a tool for democracy.

“The people are hopeless,” my roommate reiterated. “They have no hope. They know their voting won’t change anything, and they don’t feel like they can change anything.”

I asked her what she thought it would take to change something in Ukraine. She explained the last revolution was in 2005, but it didn’t get very far and with such a “hopeless” population, it would take awhile before anyone could be rallied into stirring things up again.

The phrase “your vote counts” is a popular one in the States. But that phrase never clicked with me until I talked to someone whose vote doesn’t.

The men vying to become America’s new president are not stellar candidates. They’re both tweaking statements to appeal to whatever majority they think they’ve found. They’re both making promises they can’t keep. They’re both making a mess and inheriting a mess, and no matter who wins, they’ll remain entrenched in the power plays and politics that make up running a country (whether in the leading role or as a supporting character).

But they are not tyrants either. American voters are not afraid of their leaders. Our presidents don’t use force to keep the control they’ve seized once their contract is up (and despite the alarmist rhetoric out there, I don’t think they’re about to start). Our candidates are eliminated by primaries, not car crashes.

Our system isn’t changing, but it’s for reasons very different than the ones in Ukraine.

I can’t say I feel optimistic about casting a ballot this season, but I’m certainly more grateful and humble than I was when I arrived in Eastern Europe. Whoever wins this election, it’s at least going to a candidate aware of his limitations, accountability and responsibility to the people.

Not every citizen is that lucky.

Eastern European Hair Talk

New rule: new friends aren’t allowed to look at pictures of me that are more than two years old. More specifically, new friends aren’t allowed to look at prom pictures. Prom pictures, as it turns out, give a very inaccurate picture of who I actually am. Or at least what I actually look like.

I looked great at my prom. I probably looked better on my prom night than I have during any other point in my 20-year-old life. I don’t claim this out of conceit; I claim it because it’s true. A bittersweet truth, because I never looked that good beforehand, and I certainly haven’t looked that good since. I have neither the motivation nor the know-how to create my prom-self again.

But my Ukrainian suitemate didn’t know that the night she came into my room to talk. I was asking her about her travel experiences and her impressions of American culture, and she mentioned how much she loves “American prom.” We talked about the dresses and the dances, and I decided to pull up an old Facebook album of my own prom to show off a bit (and clarify some descriptions I was shooting for, because while my vocabulary is decent, Dress Terminology isn’t one of my strong suits). The gushing commenced, then a comment was made:

“Your hair—it used to be long? It’s beautiful! Why did you cut it short? Have you grown it back out? You should grow it back out. Seriously.”

“Seriously,” the word used over and over again. It wasn’t a suggestion: she was insistent. There was, apparently, no reason for me to cut my hair short and keep it short when I could have it long.

“Not that you don’t look fine now, but seriously, it’s like a Before and After picture,” she went on, gesturing towards the screen at my 18-year-old self as the after part of the equation.

“Thanks…I think.”

I tried to explain it only looked nice in that picture because that was the one time I bothered making it nice for a special event; more often than not it looks boring and unkempt when it’s long because I never style it.

“Well then start styling it!” was her response. “You’re a woman, you’re supposed to like doing things with your hair.”

For most of that evening, her comments rolled around in my head. They were good-natured, I have no doubt of that, and also pretty amusing. But they also made me a bit shakey about how I’m “perceived” here—because I’ve recognized I’m way behind the curve when it comes to feminine aesthetics in eastern Europe. The women here take great care in their appearance, even if it’s just to head to class for a few hours. Heels, hairstyles, and make-up are commonplace, five days a week. Even jeans are usually dressed up with a blouse and some jewelry. I’ve been doing my best to dress up my own jeans with the few blouses and pieces of jewelry I’ve packed, but most of the stuff with me (heck, most of the stuff I own) has more to do with convenience, travel and comfort than style.

My hair is no exception. Here’s the problem: I give, and have always given, zero shits about my hair. I’m not even sure where to get shits to give about my hair. A best friend haranguing me in high school didn’t work. Two boyfriends didn’t work. Secretly wishing I looked like Tina Fey (and/or the short-haired version of Rapunzel) didn’t work. The desire is there, but it’s a desire the way wishing I knew how to sword fight is a desire. It would be awesome, but I don’t care enough to put any sort of effort into it.

But here I am in eastern Europe being challenged to break stereotypes, both my own about them and theirs about me. But what if the stereotype I fit—in this case, a chronic case of American informality—is one I don’t really care about breaking? The idea of dressing up just to go out in public isn’t one of my priorities. But my priorities aren’t the point here. I’m supposed to be challenging myself to step back from the reflexes and habits I’ve created and give a new culture a chance, perhaps especially when it seems strange.

My hair is a trivial example, but it’s one that’s gotten to me. What if it isn’t as silly as it seems? Okay, it is, but what if something more important arose, something I care about as little as my hair, but that meant much more to the people around me? Would I be able to let put my own opinions aside and at least act the part? Should I?

I guess I should at least try, as long as I’m trying my hand at this cross-cultural thing. It still seems strange to me, especially growing up with an individualistic, “Just be yourself” attitude preached everywhere from Sesame Street to Community. I do think it’s a valuable mentality, on a grand scale. But I think I’m starting to realize a little respect, a little flexibility, a little compromise towards the locals’ way of doing things can go a long way. With just four months to play around with, at least I’ve got a safe place to start.

And upon some consideration (and finding some pretty dang easy-looking style tips online), I might try growing my hair out a bit. I still don’t personally give any shits about it, but that also means I don’t mind indulging the few people who do.

Chatter Chatter Chatter

This post comes with a disclaimer: I’m writing parts of it in a room full of other LCC students, all of whom have washable marker mustaches on their faces. It’s the hall rule this evening: step foot in the common room, get a mustache. Eight of us are currently here; two more are roaming the halls with Crayola-colored facial hair, and a few fast-moving (or knife-wielding) individuals managed to escape clean-shaven.

About half the floor has made an appearance, and the camaraderie is good this evening. It’s a good night for camaraderie to be good, because I actually walked in to write about something that’s been frustrating me even before I went abroad: how hard camaraderie between international students can be.

Chinese students come to the States and hang out with each other. American, Ukrainian, Russian, Belarussian, Latvian and a whole host of other nationalities come to Lithuania and do the same. Everyone speaks the language they know, to the people they know, from the culture they know.

It’s a natural reaction, gravitating to the people you connect with. And when things are already so different and foreign, it’s all the more comforting to just be comfortable with someone like you, someone who understands both the place you’re coming from and the words coming out of your mouth.

But when everyone’s doing it, it makes making friends outside those boundaries pretty hard.

I’m hardly immune. Before being shanghaied into the mustache gang late this evening, I was doing homework and walking around the city with another American student. Most of our conversation involved processing our states of culture shock and weighing the probability and consequences of spending our time here with peers from our own country.

On the one hand, we came to Lithuania to be in Lithuania — to meet and talk and learn with eastern Europeans, not North Americans.

On the other hand, when in Lithuania, do as the Lithuanians (and Russians and Latvians and Moldovans and Ukrainians) do. And by that I mean speak your own language and congregate with your own kind.

It’s frustrating, but I don’t know the solution. I mean, on a grand scale, that’s kinda how the world works. Most people live their whole lives within their own “group,” speaking one language in one country, one culture. No one “owes” each other to speak a second language or seek each other out. Even within a single country, people subdivide themselves: monolingual campuses have cliques or subgroups, even if the divisions are more subtle. They’ve got the same mother tongue, but even they aren’t exactly speaking the same language.

But as someone who wants to meet people outside my own group, and someone for whom talking is an important vehicle to achieve that goal, I’m feeling a bit stuck. And yes, I recognize one solution: roll up my sleeves and learn a second language already. But which one? If I want to meet the “locals,” I need Lithuanian (which I am learning, albeit slowly). If I want to talk to my roommates, I need Ukrainian. If I want to talk to the guys down the hall, I need Russian. I haven’t quite pinpointed what language I need for my Thursday afternoon class.

Even if by some miracle I mastered two of those languages in four months, I still wouldn’t understand half the people chattering in my classes. Plus I’ve only got four months here. I don’t expect to get immersed in a culture in so short a time, but it would be nice to at least make some connections with people who don’t own passports from the same country I do.

So what does that mean for my time here? And on a larger scale, what does it take to really make cross-cultural connections? Language—more specifically, a common language—seems like an inescapable part of it to me. But then again I’m a talker, and not everyone connects through talking. It can’t be impossible to do it another way. The blue mustache on my face is at least a temporary testament to that.

Freshman Year, Take Two

“Dear Risk Taker…”

That was how the emails I received from LCC International University started. A small, private college in Klaipeda, Lithuania, LCC got connected with my home university this year, giving me an opportunity to study abroad there. The university appeals to applicants by building them up as adventurers: stickers reading “I am a Risk Taker” are given out during recruitment visits, and the program’s emphasis on change and travel is preached everywhere from its panels to its pamphlets.

When LCC greeted me as a risk taker, honestly, I dismissed it as flattery. I was going abroad, sure, but it wasn’t nearly in as “legitimate” a situation as students who, say, live with a host family or study (and communicate in) a second language. I was going to a private, Christian, English-speaking campus. I’d be in a different culture, sure, but it’s still Europe, still “western” civilization. I saw it as something new, something exciting, something a little nerve-wracking, but not something I’d consider a “risk.”

Now, I give the LCC and its marketing a little more credit. Lithuania may not be unmanageable, but it’s more of a risk than I anticipated.

Which isn’t a terrible thing. It’s a good thing, actually. Getting out of my comfort zone is something I need to do. I just didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly. Classes start tomorrow and I’m actually ready for the routine, just so I can have something I know how to anticipate.

I knew I wouldn’t understand everyone speaking around me. I didn’t know it would be because they’re speaking Russian, Ukrainian, and Latvian in addition to Lithuanian. I knew I’d have to have some trial runs before learning to navigate the city. I didn’t know my first (and hardest) lesson would come sitting at a bus stop from 10:00 to 11:00pm, waiting for a bus that had stopped running 30 minutes prior. I forgot how freaking. exhausting. that first trip to the grocery store can be — and how that exhaustion is magnified when you don’t read the language, you’re waiting for other students, and you’re converting in your head trying to figure out whether the price for tomatoes is reasonable.

But the blessings come with the curses over here. My roommates who could speak circles around me in Ukrainian and Latvian are also know what it’s like to study abroad, so they’re happy to switch and let me into the conversation. The grocery stores are distinctly Eastern European, but their ingredients that are accessible and familiar (even if the fruit I like is a little pricier). And a lot of the unexpected is fantastic, too. A rave-style dance club as an orientation tradition, for example. Or a day trip to a fifteenth-century castle surrounded by a lake and accessible by paddleboat. In six days, I’ve visited four new cities and moved to one new town, albeit temporarily. I’m exhausted, I’m nervous, and I’m very, very excited.

It feels like being a freshman again. And it’s tricky being a freshman. There have already been days when I asked myself what the hell I’m doing on another continent, trying to make new friends and run errands in Lithuanian when I could be at home, speaking English in a town I know with people I know.

But it’s fun too. I’d rather be worn out than restless anyway. I know it’s not over. The tears are coming. They haven’t hit yet, but they will. And that’s okay. They’ll come and they’ll pass and classes will begin and it will be good. They always do. It always is.