As a child, it was a question the other kids would ask her. As an adult, it was something she needed to figure out for herself.

A young girl, perhaps 7, was peering down the west steps of the Capitol, wondering what all those people down there, chanting in protest, were yelling about. She couldn't understand their message, and so she asked her father: "Are they saying 'We-don't-know'?" It kind of sounded like that.

"No," her father said. "They're saying, 'Free-dom now!' "

The crowd below stood with flags, big flags, little flags, two flags, six flags, eight zillion flags it seemed: The overall effect was a sea of yellow, green and red stripes, all blowing to the right. The people began a new chant. "Nyet, nyet, Soviet!" Some held signs. "Same Crap, Different Czar," one read. "Don't Sell Democracy Support Lithuania," read another. "Oppression in Lithuania will not bring world peace," read a poster held by a priest who also wore a bumper sticker across his stomach: "No tanks in Lithuania." One old man, all alone, shuffled back and forth, a Soviet flag tied around his ankles.

The girl wanted to know who those people were.

"Lithuanians," her father said.

"What's Lithuanians?" she asked.

He seemed stumped. I thought it an appropriate response. I am stumped myself. Who are these people? I used to think I knew what a Lithuanian was.

It was a game to me. A funny thing. I loved saying it. With great pride I would announce to teachers and fellow classmates: "I am Lithuanian!"

"What's Lithuanian?" the other kids would ask.

"It's sort of like being Irish or Italian," I would answer, "only it's Lithuanian." Being Lithuanian was a special thing, pure and simple. Because nobody else was Lithuanian. Because nobody ever even heard of it. Because it had to do with my family. "Is my dog Lithuanian?" I wondered back then, longing to understand just how the world was divided up.

And now look what's happened. The world is redividing itself, the Cold War having fizzled out, and we're all stumped, like curious children whose arms aren't long enough to get around an answer. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Where are we supposed to stand?

"If you're true to yourself, how can you be indifferent? And now look what Bush is doing. Trade is more important to him. Trade? When it's the livelihood, the life itself, the lifeblood of a nation?

"I have screamed to my husband, I have cried, I have been frustrated, I have been tense, I have been depressed. And it's been in cycles. And one day I told my husband -- I said, 'I'm telling you in marital confidence: I'm ashamed to be an American.' "

-- Danute Harmon, Falls Church

WHEN THE SUPERPOWER SUMMIT blew through town last month, clogging the streets like some really popular circus, people of Lithuanian descent came from all over North America -- nine bus loads arrived from Chicago alone -- to raise noise. They came to support the Lithuanian independence movement. To get some media attention. To show the people back in the homeland that even though our president isn't particularly vocal on this issue, some people in this great land of liberty support them. To shout to Gorbachev: "Liar! Hypocrite!" To shout to Bush: "Do something, you wimp!" To shout to the American public: "Stand up for your principles! Don't sell out!"

They were very excited. Did anyone even notice? They were a blip on the TV news, I think.

But the story was a lot bigger than a blip. I had come to see it for myself, because I am Lithuanian. And because I wanted to know what a Lithuanian is.

On the night of the first demonstration, the police kept order. "You Armenians are crazy!" a beefy cop yelled into the crowd. This was on 16th Street NW, about two blocks down from the Soviet Embassy. Gorbachev and Bush were due to drive by, on their way to dinner. The people were gathered, hoping to be at least a flash in the corner of a president's eye.

"This is not Armenia!" a lady yelled to the beefy cop. "This is Lithuania! Don't you know your geography! Huh? Don't-you-know-your-geography?"

"I don't answer no questions," he said, and disappeared into a gathering of fellow cops. They rolled their eyes, sighed and discussed the situation among themselves. "These people are crazy," one said. "They're not so bad," responded another. "It's the antiabortionists I hate. They come here like they got God on their side." Said another: "No, the gays are even worse." And another: "I don't mind the gays. The worst is the KKK. They bring so much hate."

You can tell a lot about a people's character, by its style of demonstrating; 16th Street that night was a dandy display of nationalism. Soon the Armenians arrived, and they filled in a small area inside the Lithuanians. Dark eyes, dark hair, they were fewer in number but much louder than the Lithuanians. Then came the Cubans, with darker complexions and fiery eyes and cries louder than even the Armenians'. This was all happening in front of the America's Best Contacts and Eyeglass store, where, as advertised, you could get "2 pair frames, plastic lenses, and eye exam $49.99 complete."

The Cubans decided to take on the cops, marching in unison; they were going to storm the Soviet Embassy!

No-they-most-certainly-were-not! The cops battled them back. There was a rumble. The Lithuanians, blond, fair-skinned, looked on. Their style was different. They swayed in unison. They held candles. They sang. One man looked up, as a helicopter flew overhead, and said simply: "Please, Mr. Bush, can you hear me? Free Lithuania."

"WHERE ARE THE LATVIANS?" a lost woman shrieked, her protest sign all bundled up in a blue bag. A car with a giant piece of broccoli on top came driving by, honking. "LaRouche says, Eat it George," the sign said. It was dusk.

Children found a grassy area and practiced cartwheels, one saying, "I did it!" and another answering, "No, you bent your legs."

The summit was in town and the whole world seemed topsy-turvy.

"How can {the Lithuanians} back off? They think this would be a greater tragedy than the events of 1940 when they were invaded. Because, by suspending their declaration of independence and saying, 'We will follow the Soviet constitution,' they of their own free will would be saying 'Yes, we are part of the Soviet Union.' And they simply can't do that."

-- Victor A. Nakas, Falls Church

IT USED TO BE SO MUCH SIMPLER. I KNEW WHAT A LITHUanian was. I knew what the issues were. The main issue was: church clothes. Did we have to wear them all day? We were going to Lithuania and I wanted to get changed.

Lithuania was where you went on Sundays, after church. We'd all pile into my dad's black Corvair convertible and leave our land of suburban happiness, where lawns were perfectly green and the sun shone perfect yellow, and we'd head on out, over the "stinky bridge" that spanned the oil refineries. There were no flowers where we were going, and no willow trees. Just people who spoke words I couldn't understand. It was a place of old people, tired people, worn-down people.

Like my grandparents. It was because of them, I was told, that I was Lithuanian. They spoke Lithuanian. They made Lithuanian foods, good bread and weird potato things, but mostly what we liked were the Milky Ways. My grandparents owned the corner grocery store and they'd give us meat and Milky Ways to take home, and my dad would stand by the car, shouting "No more Milky Ways! No more meat!" to my grandmother, who would keep coming out with boxfuls. And my grandfather would sit back and smoke, and my sister and I would twirl around the neighborhood, slapping our Sunday shoes on the pavement, and, breathless, we'd run up to all the neighbors. They were old people, sad people, sitting out on stoops. I wanted to cheer them up; I danced for them; I loved them. I loved this whole place -- despite the oil refinery smell that made me sick, despite the itchiness I felt from wearing my church clothes, despite my frustration at never understanding a word anyone was saying. Lithuania was exotic compared with back home, where the lawns and the sun were. Lithuania was so romantic.

Some time later, my sister explained to me that this was not, in fact, Lithuania. This was South Philadelphia. My grandparents had fled Lithuania in the early 1900s, then settled in this tight Philadelphia neighborhood, an enclave of Lithuanian immigrants. The news came to me right about the time that Santa Claus was also found out.

Shattered fantasies leave an indelible mark on you, like a birthmark; you look at it and remember how you once were. Being Lithuanian is a birthmark on me.

Other people have it too, only I think they feel it many, many degrees more intensely than I do. For me, it has mostly been a romantic thing, a thing about childhood and innocence. It was a way for a young child to be special, distinctive, apart from the crowd. But when I came to Washington and went to the demonstrations, being Lithuanian became the opposite. It became a matter of figuring out how to join the crowd. Did I have the right? Compared with these people, I was a watered-down Lithuanian.

Many Americans of Lithuanian descent -- there are at least 750,000 nationwide, with the biggest concentration in Chicago -- tend to be rigid and passionate about holding on to their cultural heritage. These people grew up attending Lithuanian language classes on Saturdays, where they learned about their cousins back home, and where pride was instilled.

"We were brought up with the feeling that your aunts, your uncles, your cousins are living under occupation and it is your duty to maintain your cultural heritage," said Victor A. Nakas, Washington branch manager of the Lithuanian Information Center. In the Washington area, there are about 400 families of Lithuanian descent. "Because they are oppressed, and you are free, and you must not only speak out here in terms of the political situation, but you must also retain the language and know the culture. It was your duty."

"To us, this is the time we've been waiting for," said Darius Suziedelis, of the local chapter of the Lithuanian-American Community. There are 75 such chapters nationwide. "Our parents have been waiting for this time, our grandparents. This is our moment."

And so about 5,000 dutiful Lithuanians gathered in Washington that weekend.

They continued swaying and singing, there on 16th Street. Soon the Latvians and Estonians arrived, while the Cubans continued to take on the cops, and now the Armenians were cheering on the Cubans. "Go Cuba!" And the cops came at them with the dreaded yellow tape -- "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS" -- surrounding them. And the Lithuanians cheered on the Cubans. "Go Cuba!" There was confusion, until pretty soon everybody was back in place, and, as was surely inevitable that night, solidarity happened. Cubans, Armenians, Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians joined forces, screaming together: "What do we want?"

"FREEDOM!"

"When do we want it?"

"NOW!"

The superpower motorcade made its way to the embassy, skipping that block, the presidents perhaps preferring not to deal with any of this nonsense.

"Pure hypocrisy! And I'm FRUSTRATED. Because the American public is so easily duped by this charismatic character Gorbachev. They're duped. No wonder the kids are turned off and have taken to drugs. There's no leadership. No one standing for principles. Free Lithuania."

-- Antanas D'Alfonso, Philadelphia

THE WORD "LITHUANIA" KEEPS APPEARING ON THE FRONT pages of newspapers, and every time I see it I feel an eerie, if undeserved, sense of pride. Like, that's my country. Like I'm playing a game of Risk, and this is my corner of the board. I am probably more of a Lithuanian fan than I am a Lithuanian.

The net effect is that I have taken a keen interest in the politics of Lithuania. Where should I stand? Where should any of us stand? It's not easy to figure out.

Some analysts thought the Lithuania question might become a pivotal one at the summit. (It didn't.) Could the United States sign a trade pact with a Soviet government that was suffocating a peaceful, freely elected democratic nation? In a confidential letter sent before the summit, Bush had warned Gorbachev not to expect him to sign, citing the public and congressional reaction to the economic blockade. (He signed.)

Not that this was a simple matter of national self-interest winning out over idealism. Well-intentioned leaders argue that, in the interests of disarmament and world peace, we'd better cheer Gorbachev on. They figure Gorbachev will eventually free the Baltic states, once the chaos in Eastern Europe settles down some. They figure the United States had better stay out of the Baltic independence movement, because any direct tampering might cause Gorbachev's demise -- and who knows what kind of character might then come into power.

So we're walking on eggs, around the Lithuania issue. Here is a country which, first of all, was illegally annexed by the Soviet regime half a century ago. Between the two world wars, the Baltic countries were independent democracies. Then came the Hitler-Stalin pact, and they were occupied. Now Mikhail Gorbachev comes into power, saying this is the end of party rule; a constitutional government must prevail. So the Lithuanians abide by the constitution, and exercise their right to secede. On March 11, 1990, they claim their independence.

And Gorbachev says, "No. You must abide by the laws."

"What laws?" the Lithuanians wonder. Gorbachev writes some laws. "Approval by referendum is required," he says, in so many words, "plus a transitional period of up to five years, and then you'll need final approval by the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, and, here you go, here are all the hoops you must dive through."

"Well, this is ridiculous," the Lithuanians respond. And they figure surely the Western world will agree. Surely the West will help out with this -- not with arms, not with money, but with, simply, words. Words they had been using for half a century. Why should now be any different? For 50 years the United States has refused to recognize the annexation of the Baltic states. As far as the United States has been concerned, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were never part of the Soviet Union.

Now the Baltic countries are claiming their independence -- announcing their very legitimacy -- and what does the United States have to say?

"Um, er, ugh." These are our new words. Gorbachev imposes economic sanctions, depriving Lithuania of fuel and food and medical supplies, and here we are just sort of ignoring all of that, like, well, we don't want to offend the man, and who are we to say what he does with his own country? And so we're shaking hands with him. Bringing him over for dinner. Giving him good deals on computers. Saying, yep, we're on your side. Nudge, nudge. But hey, you gotta work that Lithuania thing out, okay?

Who knows, maybe things will work out; as I write this, Gorbachev has at least agreed to negotiate with Baltic leaders. He even gave Lithuania a few tiny squirts of fuel, making, at least, a symbolic gesture of hope.

But I wonder how we Americans can really justify putting support for Gorbachev above the immediate freedom of the Baltic people. How can we take a neutral stance between freedom and tyranny?

"America is all contrasts. In dress. In attitudes. In places you go. I was surprised to see this. I hope in 10 years Lithuania can be like this. Not economically. We couldn't be. But morally. Spiritually. This is free. We don't have this.

"In Lithuania everything is all the same. Everything is down. Pushed down inside."

-- Rita Sermuksnyte, Kaunas, Lithuania

I'VE BEEN TO LITHUANIA ONLY ONCE. This was five years ago, when I toured the country along with the rest of my family. It's odd to take a trip with your family, as an adult. I'm not sure why my brother and sisters and I went, except we were curious, and I think we wanted to see my father look pleased. He had often talked about going to Lithuania.

The city of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, was decorated. Big banners with the number 45 written on them adorned buildings, and enormous red 45 sculptures filled up whole city parks. This was the 45th anniversary of Lithuania's annexation, and, incredibly, the Soviets were celebrating it -- sort of like throwing a big party on the anniversary of somebody's death.

Some of the banners featured giant, imposing pictures of Lenin, and giant imposing pictures of other late great Soviet leaders. Everything was imposing. My father was disgusted. He was disgusted when he spoke, all prideful, in Lithuanian to a man, and that man answered him back in Russian. He was disgusted to see the churches all boarded up, or turned into museums; one was an atheism museum. He didn't say anything about being disgusted, but it was all over his face.

I made a friend there; her name was Rasa. We went shopping one day; I was a desperate capitalist in need of souvenirs -- which were anything but plentiful in Lithuania. Finally, I found some brooches, red pins with Lenin's face emblazoned in gold. I grabbed a handful; I would take these back to my friends. It would be sort of funny, sort of camp, sort of hip.

Rasa looked at me, horrified. "Don't do it!" she said. "Please don't take those back from my country."

That was the feeling in Lithuania, a low rumbling of dissidence. Of desperation. The countryside was beautiful, but it looked sad, worn, like it was so depressed it just wanted to sleep.

It is very hard, I think, for an American to really get this. Eastern Europe is a land where enormous hardship has occurred; these are living memories, horrifying songs that cry out of the hillsides. It's hard for us to really contain this, to even conceive of what these people have witnessed. In 1941, about 40,000 Lithuanian people were gathered up, put in sealed boxcars and dumped, like rotten potatoes into some garbage pail, in Siberia.

And that was before the Germans came. (After the onset of World War II, the Baltic states experienced three successive occupations: first the Soviet Union, then Germany, then the Soviet Union again.)

"Some kind of machine drives up to the doors of a house, doors are opened, and music floats out," writes Riva Levy, a Lithuanian Jew now living in Israel. She has been writing the story of what happened to her life, her heart, her homeland, during the 1940s. She was young, in love. And then all hell broke loose:

"The German entices the child with sweets, candy. The mother wants to go with the child. And what is the matter with you, woman, have you lost your mind? You are not a small child . . . The doors of the machine close, the gas jets are opened, and your child will go to sleep, lulled by the music. And you, madwoman, you will stuff your clothes to make a doll -- you will sing him lullabies, little songs, tell him little tales. It will be your fortune to have your hair turn white in the blink of an eye, and God will take away your mind. You are lucky, your hardships are ended. If there is no mind, there is no suffering. And what happens to your body -- that is not important at all."

I've read many of Riva's tales about her life. And I've looked at her -- she has a warm, knowing smile that sometimes makes her seem in charge of the whole world -- and mostly what I've felt is fear. Like, "Why do you have to have these awful stories?" Erase them! I can't contain them! Do I put them in my mind, in my heart, in my soul -- where? It seems I have no vacancy. Some things we can understand for only one instant at a time, before they bounce off.

Worse, we get jaded. Like, "Oh, another holocaust story." Oppression gets boring. So a little country like Lithuania isn't getting fuel now? So what? I mean, really. What's that in the grand scheme of things?

We haven't an inkling of the depths of emotion that are stirred when, having lived through Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and the rest, a place like Lithuania says: "Enough already! Everybody just leave us alone! Let go!"

This is the ground from which their frustration swells. They look over the Baltic Sea. They sniff the cool breeze blowing down from Finland. Finland!

They could have been just like Finland -- free, independent, peaceful, a fair trading neighbor -- if they hadn't been occupied most of the time.

And so now they're finally having their revolution. It's being called "the singing revolution." Here is a country barely the size of West Virginia, taking on one of the mega-warhead-loaded superpowers and it's doing it with . . . songs? They have initiated no violence, no bloodshed. When the Soviets were coming to occupy a building in Vilnius last April, the Lithuanians gathered around the building, held hands and sang.

When planning their independence drive, didn't they know Gorbachev would retaliate? Surely they knew. Was this a purely naive move? It seems almost like a fairy tale revolution, part Gandhi, part Martin Luther King, part Mister Rogers.

"Yes, it is my first demonstration. Six, I am almost 6. It's pretty good. Not really much fun, though. My legs get tired of standing."

-- Nida Degesys, Cleveland

THE FINAL, TELLING MOMENT OF MY stay among the American Lithuanians in Washington didn't occur at any of the demonstrations. It happened on the way to one.

I got stopped by a cop. This was on 15th Street NW. We all got stopped. The cop went "TWEET" with his whistle, and we pedestrians were thus immobilized. We weren't allowed to cross the street, in any direction. "I can't cross the street?" a woman shrieked.

"Tweeet!" the cop responded.

"But I have to go to work!"

"Tweeet!"

And so we all just stood there, shaking our heads. This was not a gathering of Lithuanian Americans; these were just plain old Americans, dealing with rush hour. Many helicopters flew overhead. All the traffic was stopped. There was an eerie stillness on those streets. You could feel it on your skin: Something was about to happen.

Just then, the motorcade arrived. We all craned our necks, preparing to wave to Him. The president of the Soviet Union!

Just then, his limo stopped. In one swift motion he leaped out -- it happened so fast, it was frightening, everything was out of control. This was it! He was here! He was going to . . . shake hands with the American people! The Secret Service men put their elbows out, batted down the crowd. They were big, silent, hulking. The cops were little, squirmy, loud. "Get back on the sidewalk!" they yelled, but this was a ridiculous suggestion; we were already crawling on the car.

The cops hit the people, they pushed the people, as if any of the people had a choice. It was like being caught up in a tidal wave, you had no choice where you would go. You just went forward. The people in the back wanted to get close, and so did the people behind them, and the people behind them, and so people were falling down, people were getting trampled on. "Ouch!" "Let go!" "Look out!" "Would somebody get the bike out of here!?"

"Uh, like, I really want to be here," the man with the bike said, while a woman, trying to get a picture of Gorbachev, leaned in close, too close, and one police officer got upset. "I'll run over you!" he warned, on his motorcycle. "If you don't back up I-will-run-over-you!" She didn't believe him. He revved the engine. He knocked her down.

It went on like this, all of us squished together, groping toward Gorbachev, and all you could smell was human perspiration, and just when it was clear we would not get any closer -- we were jammed in as tight as we could get -- and my head was smushed into the back of some lady's fleshy arm, I figured this really is a good glimpse of America's love for Gorbachev. It's a distinctive love. Kind of like the love we had for the Beatles.

When he left, the reporters took their notebooks out. They wanted to interview the people who had actually . . . shaken his hand. The news cameras clicked on. Local celebrities were born.

"It was a nice firm handshake," said Stephanie Perry, of Mount Vernon. "It wasn't like just a little touch." The reporter was nervous. He was quivering.

"What do you think of Gorbachev?" he asked, shaking, vibrating so hard that Stephanie finally reached out and held his hand.

"Um, I think he's nice," she answered. "I think he is a very good president because he's, like, a really good PR man."

The reporter took her words down.

For journalists, Gorbachev's sudden stop on the street was an amazing moment to hold, caress, milk. At times like these, you don't think about things like Lithuania. Whatever really is happening in Lithuania is a side of Gorbachev few see, few even care about; we're so busy groping toward a celebrity, feeling his firm handshake. He's made Lithuania the backstage of his act, and we've obliged. Are we being duped by a showman? Maybe. Maybe not. But where are the people whose job it is to wonder?

What would I have said had I been one of the ones to speak to Gorbachev? I would, I think, not have wasted any time. I would have looked him square in the eye. I would have said: "Nyet, nyet, Soviet. Free Lithuania."

Rude, but true. That was my urge. Maybe I am a real Lithuanian after all.

After the "Gorbasm" -- as I heard one man refer to it -- was over, I turned my head and suddenly there was a camera aimed at my face. A man put a microphone up. He was a reporter from KYW-TV in Philadelphia. He was interviewing me. I fumbled, excused myself, said, "Wait a second," and thought how I might explain: "Hold it! I'm one of you guys. I'm not in this story!"

Or am I? I'm a journalist. I'm a Lithuanian. I'm an American. And I don't know what to do either. The camera was rolling, and I was speechless, caught in the absurdity of the moment, this summit, this circus, where nobody seemed to hear anybody, nobody knew where to stand, and the journalists interviewed the journalists.

The Cold War has ended and everything is topsy-turvy. Perhaps the girl on the west steps of the Capitol heard the only definitive message to come out of this critical moment in history:

"We-don't-know."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's last story for the Magazine was "Give Plastic a Chance."