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Island Wind by Laima Vince

 

By Laima Vincė

I am a furious code-switcher.

When you are comfortable in two or more languages, code-switching comes naturally. As you seek to express yourself in one language, but know that the person you are addressing is also multilingual, your subconscious mind scans your inner vocabulary, picking and choosing the perfect word to convey exactly what you mean to say. This is code-switching. It cannot be faked. When it is, it rings false.

In my case, being equally comfortable with Lithuanian and American English—usually New York English—I do not code-switch because I lack linguistic competency in either language. Or because I cannot quite put a grammatically correct sentence together in either Lithuanian or English, but because it is my language of the heart. It is my language of shared experience. I grew up at a time when Lithuania was locked behind the Iron Curtain. Code-switching Lithuanian and English was our secret way of speaking to each other. It was our language of community.

Code-switching is a form of inner expression that is creative, playful, naughty, edgy. However, in order for it to be effective, it relies on complete trust that the listener will catch your meaning, and will not accuse you of slaughtering one language or the other. Code-switching carries the danger of coming off wrong if the listener is uninitiated. If the listener is not someone who has your trust. Or if the listener has not shared your experience of living with dual cultures. You run the danger of coming across sounding like a total idiot.

And so, code-switching is linked to a deeply rooted sense of shared cultural identity. It only works with those who share that identity. It only works with those who are willing to accept you with all your identity confusion and conflicted narratives.

My mother, who like me is American born, and I have always spoken with each other in a mixture of Lithuanian and English. It is how I speak with my own kids, although they grew up and went to school in Lithuania a number of years and are fluent in Lithuanian. It is how I speak with the friends I grew up with in the Lithuanian-American community. If you become close to me, I will code-switch, and I won’t be able to stop myself either. This is how I unconsciously begin to speak with those who are closest to my heart. It is my language of intimacy.

All standard rules of communication apply to the many roles I’ve taken on in life. The way I speak as a Professor or a professional writer is entirely different from how I speak when I slip into that edgy talk New Yorkers engage in. With Americans I speak a clear standard English. With New Yorkers I speak like a New Yorker. With Lithuanians I am careful to line up all my declensions, not slip in a Vilnius-style Russian word here or there, not to curse, and to consciously erase any American accent lurking behind my Lithuanian.

I’m told I speak Lithuanian nearly without an accent. But then, I don’t know if people are just being kind. I’ve been told I speak with my father’s Suvalkiečiu pronunciation, which would make sense, but I’m not sure if this is a false compliment either. I wish to be perceived among Lithuanians as one of them.

I have two identities at least. One American. One Lithuanian. I’ve lived and worked in China four years—two in Hong Kong, two in Beijing. So, there is something of my Asian experience in me as well. I’ve lived on a small island in Maine, population 900, accessible only by ferry, and taught at University of Maine for years. I can pull off a harsh Maine accent if I want to, but it is not natural to me.

Technically, I am Lithuanian-American—if one were to apply labels. But I feel as though I cannot comfortably claim that identity either. I have spent too many years in Lithuania. I am too close to people in Lithuania with a closeness that comes from decades of shared history. Besides, to be Lithuanian-American means to live heavily invested in Lithuanian-American organizations, schools, camps, dance clubs, etc. Although I have participated, I am too innately shy and introverted to be that loud, beer-slugging, folk dancing Lithuanian-American with a tricolor flag blazoned proudly across my chest.

When I pull out my birth certificate and take a look, I see that my name is Laima Vince Sruoginis. I was given my pagan name, Laima, for my mother’s best friend. I was given my Christian name, Vincė, for my paternal grandfather, Vincas Sruoginis, who died a few months before I was born. My official documented surname was never Sruoginytė, but Sruoginis, which is very odd in a Lithuanian context, where as a woman I would need to have a ending tagged onto my name to denote whether I am married or not. A social convention rooted in the linguistic.

In the end, my identity boils down to one sound—the dot over the “e” in Vincė. If the dot is there, I am Lithuanian. If it is not, Vince reads as an American surname that I can pass off to biased publishers who are suspicious of East Europeans in general.

Do my two identities ever merge together into one? Probably not when I think about it. I am always either one or the other, switching back and forth as the situations calls for. When I am alone with myself I am just me, Laima, and I don’t think about identity at all. It is only when I am in a social situation that I am challenged in this way.

As a Lithuanian woman I accept all the social rules that come with that role and I behave accordingly. I hook into a Lithuanian worldview, built from Lithuania’s cultural and historical experience. At the same time, as an American woman my perceptions can be entirely different. I can be a New York liberal on the one hand, and a Lithuanian conservative on the other.

Is it a burden to carry two identities in one body? Certainly. Does it ever make me depressed, moody, irritable? Of course. I am never fully accepted as a Lithuanian in Lithuania. The minute I open my mouth and my accent comes spilling out or my body language betrays me, I am “Othered,” in the post-colonial sense of that word.

When I am in Lithuania, as long as I am buffered by my circle of friends, who’ve known me since I first came to Lithuania as a young girl in 1988, searching for my Lithuanian identity, I feel a certain sense of belonging, but it is a thin veneer. The moment I step outside that circle and out onto the street that security dissipates. When I get into a taxi, or need to deal with some mundane detail of everyday life, or make a public appearance as a writer or educator, I get that thinly veiled polite probing question: “You speak with an accent. Where are you from?”

I could divide Lithuanians into two categories—those who ask me that question and those who want to ask it, but hold their tongue.

The question unnerves me. My Lithuanian friends soothe me and say, “They are only curious…” But the question unbalances me because it immediately sets up a wall that implies: You are not one of us. You are not from here. We have no shared experience. And whatever experience you've had, it must have been better than ours.

I am a perpetual guest in my own country.

It is this core fundamental question of not belonging, of continually having to explain myself, justify my existence every time I open my mouth or smile too warmly or gesture in a way that is somehow not Lithuanian, that erodes my inner sense of security—or perhaps which never allows an inner sense of security to develop in the first place.

When I am truly honest with myself, can I say that I ever feel secure anywhere? No, I cannot. At my age certainly I should have a solidly formed core identity and a sense of security that I can draw from no matter where in the world I find myself. But I do not. Although I am very strong, tough even, it is the strength of a street fighter, and not of one who is at peace with herself.

As a writer I have written novels, plays, poems, essays about Lithuania. But I have also written about living and working in China. I have written about America from an American perspective. I’ve written about Maine, which is yet an entirely different America. However, when I stack up my books and look at the content, still, I’ve written an inordinate amount about Lithuania. Why?

Perhaps because it was my way of exploring my Lithuanian identity—one of the reasons why I began translating Lithuanian poetry into English. Perhaps it is because I want to tell Lithuania's untold stories to the world. A twice-told tale is never interesting, after all. But then, I question myself: Am I really Lithuanian enough to tell Lithuania's story?

At the Beijing Literary Festival at the famous expat BookWorm book shop in Beijing, a European writer asked the poet Marius Burokas how I, a Lithuanian-American, was different than a Lithuanian.

“Is her Lithuanian language less fluent?” he asked.

“No, Laima speaks Lithuanian well,” Marius answered.

“Then what is different about her?”

Marius thought about it a moment and then answered: “She smiles a lot.”

As though I smiled more than most melancholy Lithuanians from the rain-soaked homeland because I’d grown up in America? After all, being American, I must have lived a charmed life. As a matter of fact, my life has been as challenging as anyone else’s. I smile merely because I smile. I smile from a place of my own inner bliss that I always carry within me. My smiles have nothing to do with me being an American or Lithuanian or anything else.

And so it has been since I first spent a year in Lithuania while it was still part of the Soviet Union in 1988-1989. Any quirk of my personality was attributed to my Americanness. But then in America my quirks are attributed to being Lithuanian.

A year later I am back at the Beijing Literary Festival. I am at an event together with my Lithuanian friend, Tautvilė, who has lived in Beijing five years, speaks good Chinese and fluent American English with a flawless accent. As we socialize with a slew of international writers, as writers at these events are wont to do, others immediately recognize Tautvilė as a Lithuanian, despite her very convincing American accent. No awkward questions about identity arise. But me they see me as an American, although Tautvilė and I speak Lithuanian together.   

And so they ask, “What is this Lithuanian thing?”

What can I say?

They continue to pry: “Were you born in Lithuania and then emigrated to the United States? Are you an immigrant trying to pass yourself off as an American? Or is it the other way around? Who are you?”

Who am I?

I can never adequately answer this question, try as I might. Who am I? Where do I belong? In which culture? In which language? In which literary tradition?

Tautvilė, who comes from Ignalina, tells me that for her the answer is simple. Being Lithuanian gives her a layer of psychological protection that buffers her from the ups and downs of expat life, even in a place as daunting as China.

But I never feel that buffer. Life for me is always raw and immediate and I must take it as it comes.

A student from Vilnius University told me about how she was sitting in a park in Vilnius reading one of my books. A random woman she’d never met before came up to her, saw the cover of the book, and said: “That Laima Vincė. She knows nothing about how much we have suffered in Lithuania.”

How does this woman know what I know or do not know? And why does being American, or Lithuanian-American, or even Lithuanian, or whatever, open me up to such public probings? Finally, what is this “woundology” people in Lithuania like to engage in: Let me show you my wound. My wound is bigger than yours, and that makes me more worthy.

Perhaps it is time for us to bandage our wounds. Lithuania is free now. It is time to take responsibility for that freedom, such as it is.

The only answer I can come up with is this: Just accept me as I am. And please don’t ask me too many questions that I do not know the answer to. Just accept me as I am because in the future there will be more and more Lithuanians like me—Lithuanians with multiple identities, languages, global experiences, all contained in one single life—a kaleidoscope of ways of being Lithuanian. And that holds the possibility of boundless creativity. That can only be good for Lithuania. How simple it would be to live out my life with just one identity. How simple, and how boring.

 

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