“No! Litoo-aynia, Yoo-kray-nia, Roo-may-nia – this way!” a Frankfurt airport staffer yelled as I tried to scan my biometric passport. She wanted to direct me to a line at a counter and away from a machine that serves EU passports exclusively.
I promised her that the biometric scanner would accept my passport. “Well, congratulations,” she said, as the machine beeped amicably; and I was reminded suddenly of how I have started taking so many rights for granted — rights I did not have when I came of age just before my country joined the European Union.
Triumphantly, I walked across the gate reserved to the exclusive club of countries. Yet the next moment a guilty, gloomy feeling took over. Now that my passport scans as privileged, what good does it do for me to distance myself from “Yoo-kray-nia and Roo-may-nia”? People from these countries, aspiring globetrotters and young professionals like me, are just as upset as I would have been when shoved into the non-privileged sector. Romania is in the EU, but not yet in Schengen zone – the passport-free travel area. Ukraine is struggling to obtain visa-free travel with the EU. Despite different political statuses, all of us are emerging from the pile of stereotypes all too slowly.
The craving to un-lump Central and Eastern European countries is political.
In Estonia, another Baltic country, there were even debates to request the country’s English name changed to Estland. This is how it is called in Germanic languages, and it would sound more like Finland and less like “Something-aynia”, which is associated with Eastern Europe. My Facebook feed beams with joy whenever one of our countries is classified as Nordic rather than Eastern European in various foreign listings (for example, in White Guide, a Nordic restaurant directory). Countries of the region invest into busting stereotypes and promoting themselves as modern, tech-savvy societies rather than post-socialist theme parks.
Travelers from these countries know all too well that stereotypes about us are deeply gendered. Try to imagine having to prove you have nothing to do with mail-order brides or mafiosos with golden teeth (a nearly complete low-down of stereotypes is presented in this youtube parody). For people outside the region, these stereotypes and stereotypical characters in real life seem cute and exotic. Doesn’t it feel smartass to tell a female companion that “women are very beautiful” in her country, expect her to take it as a compliment, and then add, “But why do they dress like prostitutes?” Isn’t it fun to ask a male buddy, as the parody suggests, whether he has already had “vodka and beer with his cornflakes in the morning”? Yet for travelers and expats, especially the region’s budding middle class, being pushed to respond to stereotypes is simply microaggression.
My country, Lithuania, joined the EU when I was 20. Before it happened I couldn’t afford to travel on my own means and was not yet accomplished enough to travel far on scholarships. My first overseas trip happened that same year, in 2004. Thanks to an international essay competition, I was finally able to visit my dream country, Japan. I met other participants during our transfer at Frankfurt airport. After a long flight, we lined up to several counters to leave the airport. I am not sure whether other Eastern Europeans experienced the same at other counters, but where I stood with several of my new friends, I was the only one asked to open my suitcase and explain what I was carrying, and I was nervous that the group would leave without me. It must have been a “random check,” one of those that do not need any particular reason, but later I found various hints that Lithuania could have been blacklisted due to a number of women working illegally as bar hostesses in Japanese bars.
Five years later I was back in Japan, this time as a journalist, and one of the stories I wrote was about these entertainment workers.
While this trend continued in Japan, Lithuanian diplomats assured me that after entering the EU the numbers of women either getting arrested or reporting that they had fallen victim of human trafficking decreased. As I went for an evening walk in Kinshicho, Tokyo’s entertainment district, bouncers of entertainment clubs kept offering me jobs. When my curiosity got the better of me, I went into one to talk to a manager, and she explained that women had to get married to secure a visa for working there. “All the women you see are married,” she said. I saw two white and two Southeast Asian women. Later I got in touch with a Japanese man who frequented clubs like this. He told me that he knew some Lithuanian and Slovak hostesses, but they “looked somewhat sad.”
Indeed, five years into EU membership, co-nationals of these “sad” remaining Lithuanian and Slovak hostesses were all around the EU, finding legal jobs in various industries. They had better chances of supporting their families at home or returning with substantial savings to buy an apartment or start a small business. They no longer needed a man to get a visa in a rich country. In Japan, the entertainment industry is one of the few relatively accessible niches of unskilled labor for foreign women, and women from countries left behind during the EU enlargement of the 2000s are still looking at it as a viable opportunity for a financial breakthrough. When I spent two months in Japan in 2009, I had every reason to be hopeful that I will be treated as a young European professional and not a desperate aspiring entertainer, looking for a fictive marriage. “Very cold,” was the most common reaction people had when I told them where I was from. I can live with it.
Growing up as a teenager with a passion for languages and media, I learned that human trafficking from my country was a big deal internationally. “Liebesdamen aus Litauen” (love-ladies from Lithuania) said one German newspaper headline, and the article was about human trafficking for sex work. Why would they use the word ‘love’ for such horrid slavery, I thought to myself. I had only started learning German. It hadn’t dawned to me that in the West, where many of us aspired to be at some point, various forms of gendered migration looked like a spectrum. Some women are trafficked into slavery, some would choose it for money, some would migrate to find a rich patron. All of them wear heavy make-up.
Human trafficking was and to some extent still is a reality in Eastern Europe, regardless of how the middle class feels about being judged in relation to it. However, it is also true that people get entangled in this because this offers a rare chance to make a living in Western countries. Lithuania became mostly a transit country when it entered the EU, and more Lithuanians are now trafficked for non-sexual labor or crimes than for prostitution. Treatment of women from Eastern European EU members changed accordingly – it is no longer common to experience suspicious looks or additional checks when traveling (although merely six years ago a North American friend was asked whether I had been trafficked when he admitted to Israeli airport security officials that he was visiting me, a Lithuanian expat in Israel at the time).
Five years ago I traveled in Egypt and South Korea, last year I went on a reporting trip to Thailand, and this year I spent my vacations in Kenya.
In these places people read me as ‘white’, without sparing a moment to consider regional differences. In poorer countries people treated me and my Eastern European friends as rich, but disoriented, adventurers. “Why can’t they understand that we live no better than their country’s middle class?” my friends and I asked each other when faced with expectations to pay ridiculous sums of local money for touristy souvenirs or taxi rides. It turned out that the best Lithuanian magazine I have written for pays its freelancers less than a local Kenyan newspaper, and a hipster latte costs the same in Bangkok as in Warsaw or elsewhere.
But, after all, isn’t merging into the mass of European travelers and expats the ultimate dream of Eastern European middle classes? Gap years, exchange semesters and backpacking trips become a part and parcel of Eastern European middle-class identity, and in this we are no different than our Swedish or German peers. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why increasingly many people from my region are taking to traveling Asia and Africa or looking for jobs there – they are treated as Europeans there, rather than funny Easterners who have just had their vodka with cornflakes.
Street vendors in the Middle East and Turkey never seem to understand why Eastern European travelers consider it a bliss not to be identified. “Privet!” they shout in Russian when they see Eastern European faces, and the faces immediately frown. “Czesc, Polska!” is their second try, since Poland is the largest Central and Eastern European country in the EU. People from the Baltics never rejoice. They are visibly much happier when misidentified as Germans or Swedes. They feel that whatever knowledge these vendors have about their neighbors most certainly comes with an unfavorable stereotype.
As much as I identify with Eastern Europe, I had to admit to myself that I liked when a passer-by misidentified me as German in Cairo.
We chatted in German about the things we love in Berlin, and he told me about his brother who moved there. Middle class people from my generation do not mind being misidentified, as long as this places them on the European rather than ‘second world’ (the Warsaw Pact countries) map.
Numerous times have I seen people getting visibly upset when someone gleefully bragged being able to guess they were from Eastern Europe by their accent. Watching the famous plagiarized speech by Melania Trump on TV in Nairobi, a traveler from Germany said with contempt, “She has such a strong Eastern accent!” He has no idea how much money and effort people put into learning to twist their tongues differently. Many Russians I met, who aspire for international careers, speak with an almost exaggerated American accent. Sitting next to this German, I almost felt like cheering for Ms. Trump – being rich enough to afford accent reduction classes, she simply didn’t care. Nevertheless, many people do care, as they fear that the next question will be about vodka and beer with their cornflakes in the morning.
No, I don’t own a fur hat. No, our alphabet is Latin. And no, I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about what life was like in the Soviet Union. As far as I knew, trains ran, pigeons came closer if you had bread, parents went to work and planned summer holidays by the sea, and children played like anywhere else. This was all I cared about when I was six. I was not a different species of homo sapiens, and neither are those working class people who indeed look for various ways to move abroad, or enjoy colorful make-up, or use alcohol as the most accessible way to relieve symptoms of anxiety.
Twelve years of EU privileges are changing that. I increasingly meet people from Western countries who have gone backpacking, attended a conference or even went for an exchange semester in my region. We, too, get used to being treated as ordinary Europeans. Then suddenly a seasoned British journalist tells me, “You’ve lived in so many places – Japan, Sweden, Luxembourg, Israel… How come? I smell a love story.” He can’t digest the fact that a young Eastern European woman got scholarships to travel and live abroad. She must have been traveling to sleep with Western men, in one way or another! This comment throws me back to extensive airport screening. Back to ‘Liebesdamen’. Or forward to Melania Trump’s accent. I had nearly forgotten how it feels.
I did not merit my EU citizenship. It landed in my hands when I turned 20, but other people from my region weren’t that lucky.
Perhaps next time, in the next airport, I should not try to prove my belonging with ‘real,’ biometrically-empowered Europeans, but go to the row designated for “Whatever-ania” to tell those people that I know how it feels, and that hopefully we will break out of this together.
Daiva Repečkaitė is a freelance journalist, based in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her work has appeared in Guardian Cities, Politico, Spiegel Online and elsewhere. Her travel blog is at www.daivarepeckaite.com/en