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.