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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Column: Stories of an ambassador

“Where are you from?”

My foreign friends and I hear this question all the time. But people’s reactions to our replies differ dramatically. Over winter break I was traveling with a friend and conversations with strangers would usually go like this: I’d say, “I am from Lithuania.” They would nod, and then turn back to my friend. “So, you said you’re from England. How cool, tell me more!”

This non-reaction was driving me crazy and by the end of that trip I actually made up a new country: Maironia. The response would be exactly the same, but I was at least having fun.

As a foreign exchange student you take on a role of an ambassador — for your country, for your university.  You are a representative, willingly or not, knowingly or otherwise. For the local students, you might be the first and the only of your countrymen that they will ever meet, especially if you come from a small place. Inevitably, you’re seen not only for yourself and who you are, but also as a specimen of the group you represent.

There are so many things that I find fascinating about my country: our ancient language, our rich cultural heritage, our thousand years of wars, tolerance, great losses and resilience. And I want to share it all! I find the stories of my fellow exchangees all so exciting, too. About their cuisine, their Easter traditions, the public transportation in their hometowns, their childhood landscapes. Interestingly, because of these stories I can’t wait to go back to Europe and explore it more.

But it’s hard to be an ambassador. Ambassadors are judged both on what they say and do. They are expected to know a lot about their countries but also to not bore people with too much information. Their stories need to be positive but also accurate and not misleading. But ultimately, all you want is to be memorable and leave such an impression on people that they want to come and visit that mysterious land of yours.

I could talk for hours and hours about my country, but no one seems to want to listen! (I’m not that terrible a storyteller, am I?) The problem is that our generation is very impatient and self-absorbed. We listen to others talk, but only because we know that it’s going to be our turn next, essayist Edgar Watson Howe once said. We read only abstracts and headlines, we skip and skim, we don’t get invested. What saddens me is not the fact that people don’t know where Lithuania is or that Russian is not our first language. What saddens me is the overall lack of interest.

Maybe I am taking this whole thing too much to heart — after all, I have a tendency to take things too seriously and overanalyze everything. We come here to have fun, we meet all these different people, we listen to their stories and when it’s our turn we tell ours. A little familia of ambassadors. To make people care more is a challenge but it is one that I am ready to accept.

Then again, where you come from and what you represent doesn’t have to define who you are. I’m a sister, daughter, older cousin; I’m a scientist, an ecologist, now apparently also a writer; I am very interested in linguistics, I watch too many American TV shows, I can sing along to most hit songs from the past 10 years or so and at the moment I am reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and I love how crazy it is. Oh, and I am Lithuanian. And that is cool as well.

Nonetheless, it’s fun to be an ambassador. Despite what I’ve said before, a lot of people actually respond positively, appreciate your otherness and ask good questions. I cannot wait for UC Davis-bound students from my home university to contact me and ask about what it’s like to be here. I promise I’ll tell exciting stories that will make them want to come here even more. Because that’s what good ambassadors do.

If you’d like to learn more about Lithuanian, which is the oldest living Indo-European language, or discuss Sal and Dean’s travels across the States, you can reach KRISTINA SIMONAITYTE at ksimonaityte@ucdavis.edu.

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