Indrė Viskontas, American Lithuanian: our traumas can be cured by helping those in need

December 12, 2017

Indrė Viskontas, an opera singer and a neurological scientist, learned how to speak English when she was 7 years old. It wouldn’t be odd if she lived in Lithuania, but she wasn’t – Indrė was born and raised in Canada – currently residing in San Francisco, where To Be LT caught up with her for a chat.

Her parents and grandparents created such a unique Lithuanian environment at home, making Indrė feel like an outsider when she moved out on her own, as if she was a foreigner living in Canada. Similarly, she felt at odds with her environment when she visited Lithuania. Some interesting thoughts about the continuation of Lithuanian traditions when living abroad; being Lithuanian and the importance of that heritage in the context of what Indrė would like to pass on to her sonJurgis Didžiulis: Indre, please tells us about your connection to Lithuania.

Indrė Viskontas:  Both of my parents were born in Lithuania. I was born and grew up in Toronto, Canada, which has a relatively big Lithuanian community. My grandparents were very keen on keeping strong ties with Lithuania, helping everyone who lived there. When I was growing up, we spend a lot of time initiating help for Lithuanian independence, and so we’ve spent a lot of time protesting. All of my world was Lithuanian – I didn’t learn English until I was 7 years old. I was a scout and a member of Youth Catholic organization “Ateitininkai”, I danced the traditional Lithuanian dances, sang in Lithuanian choirs, every Saturday I attended the Lithuanian school and all of my friends were Lithuanians. At school I felt quite lonely, as an immigrant girl – unlike in the Canadian Lithuanian community, where I felt at home.  That said, when I visited Lithuania when I was 15, once again I felt like it wasn’t fully my homeland, despite the fact that everything felt surreal and all the signs were written in Lithuanian.  When I returned, I realized I was a person without a homeland.

Jurgis: I totally understand how you feel. How did you solve this issue, or are you still struggling with it?

Indrė: I am still struggling. I am now a mom to a 3 year old toddler with whom I try to speak to in Lithuania since his birth .  But I am the only person in his life who is speaking Lithuanian – my mom is far away, and here in San Francisco there aren’t that many Lithuanians, and we don’t have relatives around who speak Lithuanian, which is not helping the process of keeping up with speaking the language with my son. My heart aches that he barely speaks any Lithuanian, but it is also crucial that I have a strong bond with son – doesn’t matter in what language.

Jurgis: Yes, I have heard this from other people living outside of Lithuania, who have the same issue: the choice between speaking to the kids in the language of their environment to ensure a strong bond or keeping the strict Lithuanian code (language, school, etc.). Was it difficult for you, or were you, for instance, angry with your parents for forcing you to speak Lithuanian?

Indrė: Yes, I was angry,  and I think I wasn’t just angry with my parent, but with the entire Lithuanian community.  When I studied at the university, I first discovered that there were people in Lithuania who did not behave well during the second World War, that there were so many Jewish people who suffered there. But when we were taught Lithuanian history at the Lithuanian school, nobody spoke about that part of history. Until then, I was very proud that I was Lithuanian, but meeting different people, especially the Jews who left Lithuania, I realized that some things were somehow omitted in my history lessons. I was upset with my teachers and my parents, because I felt that even if it wasn’t their fault that tragedies had occurred – they still had to teach us the ‘unfiltered’ history.  Although I am very proud of Lithuanian culture, art and language, we should not ignore any parts of our history. Therefore, when I talk to a person of Jewish origin whose parents or ancestors are from Lithuania, I feel that I have to apologize to them.

Jurgis: Yes, it’s a very weird feeling, but it’s still clear that we can not bear the blame for other people’s actions. Please tell me what are the Lithuanian communities, that make you feel at home?

Indrė: In Toronto, I was very active in the Lithuanian community, I knew everyone and all of my friends were in it also. But when I left Toronto I felt that I had to put my roots in the new ground and connect with the people who surrounded me.  I am very active in the community where I live and work. Now, I’ve lived in San Francisco for nearly ten years, and I rarely interact with Lithuanians. But I do feel it’s a pity, because if I did have more Lithuanian, it would be much easier for me and my son to maintain the Lithuanian upbringing. When I return to Toronto where my community is, I certainly feel at home there.

Jurgis: Is everything we got from our parents we have to pass on to the next generation?

Indrė: For me, the main goal is to communicate the language and the customs so that my son has a story, a reference to know about his grandparents a little bit. My dad died when I was pregnant, so he didn’t even know that he would have had a grandchild. We gave my son my dad’s name so that he would have at least some kind of relationship with his grandfather, I do want to teach him the customs. The Lithuanian language, in my opinion, has an extremely interesting grammatical structure, and if my son could understand it, it would help him think more broadly. After all, the Lithuanian language contains words that are not in any other language. I would like to bring him to Lithuania to show him  the land and meet people who speak the language that the mother speaks in – at least when she becomes angry. I may have made a mistake here, because when I get upset, I say it in Lithuanian. My son now has that association – that when his mom  is angry, she is angry in Lithuanian (laughs).

Jurgis: Is there anything you would not want your son to take from Lithuanian culture?

Indrė: You know, I don’t know exactly which direction is Lithuania is currently moving in ideologically, but I have met several people who have left Lithuania and who have told me why they left. Therefore, I often worry that, as in America, there are people in Lithuania who think differently than me. For example, if the ideology in Lithuania were to move towards the homophobia and intolerance, then I wouldn’t want to transfer those values to my son. My friends in Lithuania aren’t like that – they hold the same views as I do, but sometimes, I hear it from other sources, that there are still fractions and political groups that foster intolerance – I just cannot grasp how prevalent they are.

Jurgis: I agree that our identity can be shaped and influenced. I will then ask from another angle – did you notice growing up that Lithuanians are different from Canadians or Americans? Did you encounter this and when did you realize that we are a bit different in America?

Indrė: All Lithuanians I knew were emigrant Lithuanians, and we had an important mission – we had to liberate Lithuania. There always had many different opinions and strong passions among them. It seems to me that Lithuanians are people who really like singing, being together, just living with their lungs filled. Sometimes I see that some of my American acquaintances are quite banal, too contented with their existence. Lithuanians would not tolerate that, for them, everything has to be either very good or very bad – when they sing sad songs, these are the saddest songs, while the happy songs are the happiest songs. For me, as an artist, this passion for life is very close to my heart, and I would not want to lose it.

Jurgis: You mentioned that your parents mission to liberate Lithuania has already been fulfilled, what should be the new mission that would unite the Lithuanian community?

Indrė: Perhaps we need to establish deeper relationships with those people with whom we have a common history with? Maybe we shouldn’t forget and unite to ensure Lithuania would not be occupied again – it is still a serious problem. Or perhaps it is our mission to keep our mother tongue while being here, abroad, which is very unique and important? I am a psychologist, so this topic is extremely interesting to me, because I know that the language changes a lot, as we think. That is,  if we lose the language, lose some of our thoughts, and I do not want to lose my language. It is also important to have a Lithuanian community around the world, and to keep in touch – for example, when I visited a guest in London, I quickly became acquainted with several Lithuanians – it is very important to maintain these links between Lithuanians around the world.

Jurgis: When I lived in America for eight years, it was not very cool to be Lithuanian and I wanted to assimilate as soon as possible. But I feel that what is happening in America at the moment is where the unique heritage is now becoming interesting. Have you observed something like this?

Indrė: It depends on a place in America – there are places where tolerance is rising and differences are valued, and there are places where people are hostile to foreigners. I hope that all of the United States will move towards acceptance and tolerance – and in that sense, being a Lithuanian is a great value. After all, it means being a part of a group that is educated, cultured, interesting.

Jurgis: Okay, then the last question. Do you think that there is a collective consciousness and that trauma can be transmitted from generation to generation? In my opinion, people in Lithuania inherited many different traumas – post-war, post-Soviet, and it is difficult for them to open up, talk about it. As a neurologist, could you suggest ways to get rid of these traumas?

Indrė: Yes, in fact, our genes do carry the traumas of our grandparents – whether it be famine or the Holocaust. To cure any trauma, you need to take each symptom individually and give people all the resources they need. The most important thing is for a person to feel that he/she is controlling their future, so education and opportunities in life are essential. When people no longer have this control – especially if the regime suddenly changes, as it has in Lithuania, that control is lost. One of the best ways to feel better is to help another person, because there will always be someone who is doing worse than you. The feeling of empathy treats us and cures us. Perhaps you should think about a charity organization in Lithuania that would help people who die of hunger in Ethiopia. Lithuanians love people, are social, and perhaps there are ways to use these abilities to help those who need it even more. It would be the greatest gift for ourselves.