An Azeri student in Kaunas: a cultural perspective

Toghrul Sabzaliyev from Azerbaijan. Photo from personal archive

“Before coming to Lithuania, I only knew that it was small, green country and was one of the past Soviet Union countries. I used to confuse capitals of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia,” Toghrul admits. Now, he knows a lot more about Lithuania and even learned some daily Lithuanian words and phrases as a result of active participation in various activities.

Social activities – the way to adapt to a new culture

It is often said, that the more activities we pursue – the better we plan our time. In addition to his studies, Toghrul is an active member of several organizations and proves that the saying is true.

Sometimes he goes to parties with his friends to relieve the stress of studying. For a while, he was member of AIESEC KTU and he is a member of ESN (Erasmus Student Network) KTU. During that time, he provided assistance to foreign students needing advice or help getting settled at KTU. He is also a member of AYOL (Azerbaijani Youth Organization of Lithuania).

“Under AYOL, I joined some activities designed to introduce our culture to other nations. A visit to an orphanage on our independence day on 18 October is one such activity. We also celebrate our national holidays here with our friends from Lithuanian and other countries.

We organize events to increase awareness about Armenia’s invasion of our lands and aggression toward our countries. We specifically highlight the Khojali massacre, one of Armenia’s many mass killing campaigns against us,” says Toghrul.

While participating in various activities, Toghrul got to know Lithuanian culture better and find similarities and differences to Azerbaijan. “There are some differences in cuisine. Our [Azeri] cuisine consists of more oily meals. Despite that difference, my experience was that Lithuanians like our traditional meals, especially dolma and our sweet schekerbura.”

Toghrul has tried his hand at making the Lithuanian cold soup called Šaltibarščiai, to delicious effect!

Different brands of politeness

The differences in cuisine were not such a big surprise, but Toghrul encountered confusing social differences when he moved to Lithuania.

“It surprised me that here it is not normal to give your seat to young girls, only to old people. During my first weeks, I had problems after I gave my seat to a girl… In my country, guys always give their seat to woman, regardless of her age. [To Lithuanians], my actions seemed strange,” recollects Toghrul.

But this was not the one different thing he faced. “The main cultural difference between my country and Lithuanian is that teenagers are more free here. After they turn 18, parents set them free, they can even move out. But in Azerbaijan, it is even possible to live with your parents after marriage. In general, Western culture is more independent-minded and is based on rational thinking. In contrast, Eastern culture is more focused on feelings. For us, who come from Eastern culture, Lithuanian’s attitude toward guests looks cold; Eastern people are more hospitable.”

Differences and similarities of traditions

When talking about festivals and celebrations in both countries, even though cultures are so different, it is possible to find similarities.

“I was surprised at the similarity of one Lithuanian Christmas Eve traditions to those surrounding our spring holiday in Novruz. During Novruz, people listen to other families’ conversations, if they overhear something positive or good, this year will be good. I was surprised that Lithuanians have same tradition. One difference I’ve noticed is that at wedding, the groom will toss an object out to the other men and the man who catches it will be the next to marry. In Azerbaijan, we have the same tradition, but the groom throws something out to the ladies instead.”

Wedding ceremonies are totally different in the two countries, says Toghrul. “There are some steps before marriage in Azerbaijan. First, one or two women from man’s side are sent to woman’s house. Their mission is to tell the woman’s family that the man intends to woo her. The next step a meeting of representatives from both families. The man’s father visits the girl’s house with some well-respected people, no more than three or four. The woman’s father doesn’t consent to the courtship until he’s spoken with his daughter. If she doesn’t speak out against the courtship, it is a sign that she agrees.”

After that, the families learn about each other, they discuss the potential union with their relatives. After all this, the woman’s side announces a final decision to the man’s family. The next step is called “Hə” (Yes), where the couple’s relatives come together in the future bride’s home to get to know each other. The next step is engagement which takes place at the woman’s home. On this day, some 25–30 people gather together: the bride’s friends and her peers. They all sit down around of the bride and groom. Then the relatives of the groom arrive to deliver a ring, a kerchief, and sweets. The woman’s side gives a ring to the groom as well. The next step is the wedding. Some families agree to organize the wedding together but some do two separate parties for the two sides of the family.

In both weddings, people from both sides participate, but the majority of people in the bride’s wedding will be her relatives and vice versa. A few days before the groom’s wedding there is one ceremony held at the bride’s house called “Xınayaxdı” (hennaing), in which only girls and women from both sides of the family gather together for a celebration. In that ceremony, all the girls and women, including bride, wear henna on their hands. Finally, bride moves to groom’s house after the groom’s wedding.”

Lithuanian education system is cheap and practical

Similarities and differences are not only found in traditional celebrations or daily life. There are differences in the education system, too.

“There are more international students in Lithuania.Here we are given a lot of practical knowledge. In Azerbaijan, the education system is much more theory based. I like that we can sign up for consultation time with professors easily if we have questions outside of class.

I think the main reason foreigners come to study here is that it is one of the best and easiest ways to gain European-level education with cheaper tuition fees and living costs. As Lithuania is already in Schengen zone, there are some perspectives for a future in here,” says Toghrul.

New culture’s influence for personality

Lithuania not only helped Toghrul get good education, but it helped him grow as a person, too. “After finishing secondary school, I decided to continue my education abroad. I did not expect that it would change my life so much, because I came to abroad only to get a better education. However, it also helped me understand who I really am, and where and who I really want to be.

After coming here, I broke out of my comfort zone, I started not to feel embarrassment and shy anymore about giving my ideas and opinions. That helped me show my creative side more and made me more self confident. It helped me be more brave in communication with any random person that I meet and I learned how to behave and speak with people of different characters and cultures,” remembers the young Azeri.

Toghrul says he will go back to Azerbaijan after graduation and make his career there, but believes that Lithuania is a great place to study and live for any foreigner.

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