For as long as I can remember, I have thought of myself as “half-Lithuanian”. My father came to Australia after WW2 as a “Displaced Person.” He was only 7 years old. When he arrived, there were no ESL classes, or modifications made to assist students who didn’t have English as their first language. Rather, my dad was thrown into a class of students who had spoken English all their lives, and expected to survive.
That’s what happened then.
I have incredible admiration for my father. His parents worked extremely long hours, doing manual labour, to support the family, and he effectively had to bring himself up. He was an exceptional student, and won a scholarship to the University of Sydney to study to become an English teacher (note the irony).
It might sound weird, but I have always STRONGLY identified as being from a working class, migrant background. (Aside- one of my favourite Australian authors is Christos Tsiolkas, because I think he “gets” what it means to be a migrant, and how you kind of fit in, but kind of don’t). “Stasa” is not our real name. Rather, it is an Anglicised version of Stankevičius, which was too difficult to pronounce. As an unmarried daughter, my name should be Stankeviciute. But, well, it’s not…
Sometimes, I feel incredibly angry about the whole situation. Why should my grandparents have changed their surname, because people were too lazy to pronounce something different? Why am I running around with what is effectively a “fake” name, which sounds like the East German secret police (the Stasi)? I don’t know. Perhaps for the same reason that László Ürge, the football commentator of Hungarian background, calls himself Les Murray?
My upbringing was not what you would call “distinctly Lithuanian.” Sure, my grandma spoke with an accent. There was Lithuanian memorabilia around the house. Every Christmas, we would go to the Lithuanian Club’s Christmas party. I know what kugalis and borscht are. But I can’t speak the language, apart from saying “hello” and the colours of the flag (to show I’m a true patriot- the irony, again).
All the same, I do FEEL Lithuanian. Or at least partly. When a Lithuanian rider is in the Tour de France, I cheer for him. And, I am not ashamed to admit, sometimes, in the basketball, I support Lithuania over Australia, because they are such a small country, and winning a match means a lot more to them.
My father has never wanted to go back to Lithuania. He remembers the rotting horses on the road through Vilnius, and the terror of the war. When a knock on the door in the middle of the night could mean your salvation or your death.
But I have always wanted to see what it’s like, because I feel that it’s a part of me. About 10 years ago, I visited Scotland, where my mother’s family is from, to see if I felt something for that country. Although I loved the landscape and the people, I didn’t feel anything particularly profound. Will the same happen in Lithuania? I honestly don’t know. It may leave me cold. I may end up feeling more Australian than ever.
Anyway, I am going on Friday to see what it’s like. It may be the best experience of my life, and leave me feeling like I know where I belong. Conversely, I may end up feeling more adrift than ever. Who knows? But I think it’s something that needs to be done.
Wish me luck!
(P.S. Did you know that Anthony Kiedis is also half-Lithuanian, on his father’s side? I guess it could be MUCH worse!).