Something Better

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Chapter 5

Being an exchange student, away from all that is familiar back home – not to mention being away from your usual social circle – can get pretty lonely. As a result, exchange students tend to find ways to congregate most of the time.

And that meant plenty of gatherings, where people could mingle – in other words, parties. Lots of parties.

That was how I found myself in yet another crowd of exchange students on the Friday night two weeks after the beer-drinking competition with Kjell and the guy from Czech Republic – I had run into him again at the dorms one day and learnt that his name was Ondřej. He had laughed at my dismal pronunciation of the letter 'ř' and told me that, for me, he would tolerate being called André. In response, I pointed out that it was unlikely any non-native would be able to pronounce it correctly either, which meant he would have to put up with it from other people as well. He had laughed again and told me not to second-guess a guy when he was trying to flirt. When I had asked him about the outcome of the competition neither Kjell nor I could remember, he had admitted that his memory of it was blurry as well, and then added that he had probably been the winner.

It had been a very entertaining conversation. He had been a very entertaining guy. It was a pity he didn't seem to be at this party, because I could've used an acquaintance. Kjell and David were likely present – we hung out together often and they had told me a few nights ago that they would be coming – but there was no way of finding them in this crowd.

Instead, I decided to find myself a bottle of beer. Maybe, this time, I would be the one to strike up a conversation with someone.

At the refreshments table thoughtfully set up by the International Students Committee, the student group in charge of organising such events, I met a girl. She was Asian, with dyed brown hair coming down to her shoulders, and she came to me holding an unopened bottle of beer.

"Hi," she greeted me cheerfully, as if we had known each other for ages, "do you know how I can get this thing open without an opener?"

"Um, sure," I said, reaching out for the bottle. She handed it over and I bit the cap off before returning it to her.

"Thanks," she said, grinning at me. "I don't know how people do that. It scares me a little."

I smiled. "Practice, I guess." I tossed the cap into one of the bins beside the table, then held out my hand, "I'm Emilie, nice to meet you."

"I'm Louisa," she said, shaking my hand firmly but quickly. "It's nice to meet you too. Where are you from?"

You are not a real German. "Germany," I said, after clearing my throat to dislodge the lump that had formed there. "You?"

"Germany! That's cool. I'm from Singapore," she said, smiling, looking at me with the same expectant look that I supposed I had every time I mentioned the city-state my mother had come from. She was waiting for me to profess quizzically that I didn't know where it was.

"My mother was born in Singapore!" I divulged, then coughed, embarrassed by my own enthusiasm. When I spoke again, it was in a calmer tone of voice. "I used to live there, long ago."

"Wow," she said, looking me over with wide eyes. "You're mixed race? But you look so... European!"

I laughed. I hadn't heard that one in a while. "Really? Europeans only ever talk about how Asian I look."

"Well, I guess people tend to focus more on differences," she remarked sagely, "and since you're a little bit of both, it makes sense you'd seem more Asian to Europeans and more European to Asians."

"I've never seen it that way," I mused. "But that makes sense. It's easier to spot differences than similarities, I think."

She laughed, "Yeah, like those spot-the-differences pictures, you know. They don't make spot-the-similarities pictures, do they?"

That made me laugh.

Our conversation was interrupted by a shout from a little distance away.

"Lou," a short girl was tiptoeing to peer at Louisa over the crowd of people blocking her, waving an arm impatiently, "what are you doing? Hurry up."

The corners of Louisa's lips turned down. "Sorry," she said apologetically to me. She rolled her eyes, "I gotta go, my friends are up to something. But it was nice meeting you!"

"Yeah, it's been great talking to you," I said, giving a lame wave. "See you around."

She grinned. "See ya."

I watched her push through the crowd to get to her friend, who grabbed her hand and started pulling her in a different direction. How nice to have a group you knew you irrevocably belonged to, a group that would come searching when you'd been away too long.

Shaking my head at my own thoughts, I took a swig of my drink. Then I grimaced, because I really, really disliked the taste of beer.

"This beer is good, isn't it?" A light, female voice spoke up from behind me. I turned and came face-to-face – or as close to her face as I could get with someone who was a head taller than me – with one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen. Blond hair, pixie-like features, a fair complexion topped with rosy cheeks, and deepset brown eyes that deviated enough from the typical blond-haired, blue-eyed ideal to be intriguing. To top it off, she was tall and slender, with the kind of body that would garner a second or third look from every heterosexual male in the vicinity.

Heck, even I was in danger of developing a girl crush on her.

"Um," I said, "yeah, I guess."

"Tatiana, Finland," she said, as an introduction.

Finland, I thought. Of course.

"Emilie, Germany." I shook the hand that she offered me.

She smiled. "This makes things a lot easier, doesn't it? No need for all the 'where are you from's."

"You're right," I admitted. It had also saved me from the prerequisite query of whether I was from China. For some reason, everyone with asiatic features in Europe was assumed to be from China.

Tatiana glanced over my head, briefly looking at something I couldn't see, before returning her gaze to mine. "So, you're from Germany?"

Inwardly, I groaned. "Yeah. My father's German, mother's from Singapore; I was born in Hamburg, raised partly in Singapore, mostly in Hamburg. Any other questions?"

She smiled. "I like your style."

I smiled back, sheepish. "Sorry. I've been answering this question way too much, lately."

She eyed me shrewdly. "You probably get that question back home, too, right?"

"Yeah." I shrugged, screwing up my face to show my displeasure.

"It's the unicorn effect," she said.

"The what?"

"The unicorn effect." She gestured with her hands while explaining. "There aren't a lot of Eurasians around here, so you're... special. Like a magical unicorn. People get curious and want to find out more."

"I guess. I get stared at on the streets a lot, no matter where I go. I should be used to it, but I don't like being stared at."

"It'd probably be worse in Finland," she admitted with a laugh. "People probably don't mean anything by it, though."

"I know they don't," I sighed. "But it's still rude to stare so blatantly."

"I agree."

Her eyes had slid away from mine to focus on something in the distance again.

"Do you know this guy called Aksel?" she asked suddenly.

That had come out of nowhere. I answered slowly, "Yes?"

She looked thoughtful. "Yeah? He keeps looking over here. He's been doing it for a while."

I swivelled my head around. "Where–" I started to ask, but the question died on my tongue when I caught sight of that familiar head of blond hair. Contrary to what Tatiana had just said, he didn't appear to be looking in our direction at all. He was leaning against the wall near the windows, staring moodily at the beer in his hand. He was, however, not alone. He was standing right smack in the middle of a group of people, one of whom spoke to him as I watched. He made a reply without looking up.

I turned back to Tatiana. She was watching me, like I had been watching Aksel, with an odd expression on her face.

"He's not looking now," I stated lamely.

"Hm." She was looking over my head again. I was coming to realise that she had been looking at Aksel all along.

"Where do you know him from?" I asked, even though Aksel was the last thing I wanted to talk about.

She shrugged, her slender shoulders moving gracefully. "I don't remember. A party like this, I think. He's the only other Finn I've met here so far."

"Oh." I racked my mind for something to say to that. "You must have a lot to talk about, then, being from the same country and all."

She surprised me by laughing. "No, he didn't want to talk to me at all."

"Oh." I shuffled my feet awkwardly, "he was the same with me too." Then I remembered that night outside the dorms, after the intercultural class. He had spoken to me then, hadn't he?

Tatiana was appraising me with a frank eye. "Really? That doesn't make sense."

"What doesn't make sense?"

"It doesn't make sense that he didn't talk to you," she clarified, "because I think he likes you."

I couldn't have been more confused if she had said it in Finnish. "Pardon?"

She laughed at my bemusement. "I said he likes you. I've only been talking to you for ten minutes, and he's already looked over more than five times."

"He's probably looking at you," I said, waving her words away. "Besides, weren't you just talking about the unicorn effect?"

She made a noise of disagreement. "This is different."

"How so?"

"Trust me," she said confidently, "I'm a Finn, I know how Finnish boys look when they're interested."

"He looks interested?" Absently, I wondered how Finnish boys looked when they were interested.


"Then he's definitely looking at you," I deadpanned.

She smirked. "Let's do a test then."


"I'll go over to the other side of the room, and we'll see who he looks at."

"That's ridiculous," I said.

"Game, or no?"

"Fine," I said, just so she would realise how wrong she was. "You go – I'll just stand here and look awkward."

Chuckling, she walked away.

I folded my arms and was beginning to feel rather self-conscious, standing alone in the middle of a crowded room, when Karl popped up.

"Hey!" he greeted. He had a beer in one hand and was looking rather flushed. "How's it going with you?"

"Good, thanks. And you?"

He gestured to his beer, "Enjoying life. Scotland is great!"

I chuckled at his enthusiasm.

Karl's attention had been drawn to something on the other side of the room. "That's that Finnish guy from the intercultural class, right?" he asked, then shrugged without waiting for an answer. "He's not very friendly, is he?"

I looked up and saw that, from halfway across the room, Aksel was looking – glaring, really – directly at me.

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