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In my previous life as a restaurant and bar owner, a man from Hungary named Chungor arrived early in the mornings to clean for me. I would stumble in tired, and all-too-often hung-over, at about 8:30 each morning as he was mopping up spilled beer, chew spit, and the occasional puddle of vomit off the floor.
He was in his late 20s, and back home he was a biology professor, but he would make more money cleaning my floors in four months than he would as a professor in a year.
Chungor was much smarter than I, yet as I waded my way through my thick head of fog each morning, he was cleaning the mess I had helped make the night before. I couldn’t help but feel humbled, and I always assumed he must have been seething beneath his smile. I wanted to ask how he felt about it, and about us, but I think I was afraid of the answer awaiting me, and never did.
This summer I’ve come to know a trio of Lithuanian students who work with my girlfriend Alison at her parent’s grocery store, the Fish Creek Market, and at Digger’s Grill. I recently sat down with Dalia Abaraviciute, 21, Asta Bumbaite, 22, and Rita Bajevaite, 22, to try and get a glimpse of what we Americans look like from the outside.
The three girls hail from Vilnius, the burgeoning Lithuanian capital city of about 550,000 in the southeast region of the country. As we talk, they laugh constantly, even when complaining about instances when they are treated bad or unfairly. They are soaking in the experience.
Each is nearly finished with their schooling – Asta to become a Library Information director and Rita and Dalia to become lawyers. I asked what it’s like for them, and other Europeans like them, with or nearing degrees to cross the ocean only to be at the bottom of the totem pole.
“Sometimes I will be doing dishes and get really pissed,” Dalia says. “I think, ‘I am studying to be a lawyer! Why am I doing this?’ But it’s only three months, and here everybody does it.”
The blow is lightened by the fact they are meeting new people and making good money, but also because so many Americans are doing the same thing. The pride Americans take in any manner of job has been one of their biggest surprises.
“Here, waitressing is a way of life,” Rita said. “At home you would never see a waitress over 30.”
In Lithuania there is a stigma attached to certain jobs and a fear you will get “typecast” if you stay in one.
“I would never be a dishwasher in Lithuania,” Asta explains. “Or a prep cook, and definitely I would not work at Wal-Mart.”
Such jobs are reserved for the uneducated they say. “It’s pointless,” Rita says, because it’s rare to climb the ladder out of the position. Plus, “it’s easy to find a better job.”
Many in Door County assume the large contingent of Europeans who migrate here each summer are motivated by prospects of a financial windfall, but Asta said that’s not the case. After they pay the $2,000 they estimate it costs to come over, their take-home is not so robust. The primary purpose is to experience a new culture and improve their English, and they say there’s no better way to do the latter than to work in America.
“You have to find some way to communicate,” Dalia says. “I will be all alone in the deli [at the market] and someone needs something and I have to figure out what she needs and how to communicate with her.”
The process of getting from Lithuania to the United States is arduous. It took each of them no less than six months of filing paperwork, making calls and planning before they were aboard a plane bound for Chicago.
“You fill out so many documents,” Asta said. “They ask everything about your family, everything about you. They can pick any reason not to let you go. They are very afraid you won’t come back.”
Those fears, Rita explained, are well founded. A decade ago many wouldn’t return when their visas expired.
“If ten went to the U.S., nine wouldn’t come back,” she said.
Once here, they were quickly familiarized with the assumption of many in this country that their goal is to get married to an American and stay here. Customers at the Fish Creek Market or Diggers will bring it up to them casually, but all three are vehement this is not their intention.
“No way,” Dalia said. “We really, really want to go home! There’s no question about that. We want to go home and create our life in Lithuania.”
An Honest Mirror
When speaking to the girls you’re struck by how many little things we do without a second notice that seem so odd and inexplicable to a foreign culture. Asked what immediately stuck out most about Americans, their answer came without hesitation.
“Smiling. Americans are smiling all the time,” Rita says, exasperation in her voice. At first I think this is a compliment, but it’s not, not necessarily anyway. “You never know what they are thinking,” she finishes, and Dalia picks up the point.
“Sometimes I think Americans are two-faced,” Dalia explains. “They may say one thing to you then something else when you’re gone.”
Finally, Asta details the difference in simpler terms.
“In Lithuania, if you don’t like someone, you don’t talk to them,” she says.
In America we call such niceties smalltalk or just, well, being nice. To these young women used to the much more blunt way of treating each other in Eastern Europe, it arouses suspicion. It conjures an image of a culture where no smile is wasted.
But the facades they see don’t always fool them, they say.
“In the U.S., there are two groups,” Rita says, “those who love the accent, and those who hate it.” By “the accent,” she means foreigners, and they say it’s fairly easy to pick them out.
“The ones who hate us will pretend they don’t understand us even if we’re being clear,” Dalia says.
In the next issue: The girls share more on the differences between the United States and Lithuania, and their thoughts on their own country as its people struggle to bridge the generation gap from life under communism to capitalism and democracy.