Published on: Amended:
Taipei (AFP) – The small handful of Lithuanians living in Taiwan are suddenly all the rage among islanders after their tiny Baltic nation did something Taipei has long staked its identity on: stand up to China.
In the months after Taiwan opened a de facto embassy in Vilnius, Richard Sedinkinas says he started getting applause in restaurants once waiters realized where he was coming from.
Never mind that the 41-year-old boxing instructor, along with around 20 other Lithuanians living in Taiwan, had nothing to do with their country’s decision.
“People like to show their appreciation – they appreciate someone supporting Taiwan against this giant country (next door),” Sedinkinas told AFP.
China considers democratic and self-governing Taiwan to be part of its territory, and it balks at any international support for the island’s sovereignty.
Lithuania took the bold step last year to allow Taipei to open a representative office under the name of Taiwan, a major diplomatic departure that has angered Beijing, souring Vilnius’ relations and stalling its exports.
However, in Taiwan, Lithuanians say they have been greeted with toasts, handshakes from strangers and free taxi rides.
“It feels like we’re celebrities now,” Sedinkinas said. “We get so much love.”
Other public displays of affection included a drone show in February, when a huge yellow, green and red heart formed in the night sky of Kaohsiung city – the colors of the Lithuanian flag.
And when asked which country she would most like to visit after the pandemic, President Tsai Ing-wen didn’t hesitate.
“I think Lithuania is a very brave country,” she said in November. “I would love to go there.”
– ‘Like a sister’ –
Despite the great distance and cultural differences, illustrator Mangirdas Riesuta says Lithuania and Taiwan share the experience of living in the shadow of a communist superpower.
Now a small member of the European Union, Lithuania was the first nation to declare its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
“(Since then) we have Russia on our side, which is always harassing us,” the 34-year-old told AFP.
“Lithuania regards Taiwan as a sister,” Riesuta said. “We’re going to set the example we can (crack down) against bullying.”
Accustomed to pressure from Beijing, Taiwan has lost several allies to China in recent years, the latest being Nicaragua, which changed allegiance in December.
On the other hand, several Western democracies have taken steps to strengthen ties with island democracy.
In 2019, Prague rejected a sister city agreement with Beijing and signed one with Taipei.
Then Slovenia announced in January its intention to exchange representatives with Taipei.
“They should support democracy and that’s why they should also defend Taiwan,” said Ausra Andriuskaite, head of the Lithuanian Community Association in Taiwan.
– “Let’s stick together” –
At a Lithuanian-themed bar along the Tamsui River in Taipei, drinkers clink glasses with Voruta black currant wine as the country’s national anthem blares from the loudspeakers.
Bottles of Gira beer, Ozone vodka and Propeller dark rum – none of which would look out of place in a Vilnius pub – line the shelves.
Owner David Yeh says his bar Little-One – a homophone of Lithuania’s Mandarin name “Litaowan” – began to attract more attention last year after Vilnius became the first EU government to do donation of vaccines.
“A Lithuanian mania has spread among Taiwanese who want to know more about the country,” he says.
The wave of goodwill also meant that 20,000 bottles of Lithuanian rum, salvaged by Taiwan’s state liquor company when it was blocked by China, sold out quickly among drinkers on the island.
Irena Marazaite-Lin, a German-Mandarin translator, says growing interest in her native country means she is now getting jobs as an interpreter using her native language for the first time, both with a government agency and a local company that thinks about Lithuanian food imports.
“It’s easy for China to bully a small country like Lithuania, but it won’t be so easy if all democratic countries can stick together,” she said.
© 2022 AFP