Before sharing this piece with you I wanted to issue a fair warning: unlike many other articles I write, this one is not based on research or scholarly material. This is more of an opinion piece and therefore is certainly more open to interpretation and discussion.
Before I ever came to the US in pursuit of graduate education I spent two summers in a row doing the infamous Work&Travel USA program. This massive operation involves luring hopeful students (mostly from Eastern Europe) into laboring a summer away at seasonal minimum wage jobs in towns and cities primarily along the East Coast of the US. Places like Norfolk, Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, Rehoboth Beach, and others are known destinations for W&T students. Employment ranges anywhere from McDonald’s kitchen to lifeguarding pools and beaches.
My first summer was spent in Virginia Beach working for a pool management company. Three of my friends and I supervised and cleaned neighborhood pools for something like $7.24 an hour (it was in 2006). We worked long days in hot weather for little money, but it was lots of fun and we got to explore the US and its culture as well as meet wonderful people. Some of my most fun (and a little crazy) memories come from that time.
But the experience I wanted to share for the purposes of this article involves us meeting Nadia – a second generation Ukrainian living in VA Beach. I cannot quite recall how we met her but she was very sweet to us and almost took “patronage” of us and helped us out with things we didn’t understand about the US, and would frequently invite us over to her house for tea and dinner (we could not afford a whole lot of nice food then). Nadia’s mother and father came from western Ukraine before she was born, and her and her brother were both born in the US. She spoke fairly good Ukrainian and visited her parents’ hometown a few times.
After one of the dinners, we sat with Nadia on the porch of her beautiful house drinking delicious herbal tea when she said “Girls, you must not stay in America. You must go back to Ukraine and help raise our country to its former glory”. I remember almost dropping the tea cup from my hands, felling close to furious. “Must be nice for you to say that”, I thought, “sitting in a rocking chair in Virginia Beach. How about you go back and raise Ukraine to its former glory?” I remember thinking how dare this person pass judgment on what we should do and what kind of relationship we should have with Ukraine – when she herself has lived her whole life abroad. At that moment, I vowed to never do something like that, and never apply my judgment onto how someone should relate to Ukraine or its culture or living there.
But life has a very funny way of testing our own commitments, and I got a chance to experience that firsthand. In March I got to visit Ukraine for the first time in 3.5 years. I was transferring from my student visa to optional practical training, to H1B, to applying for a green card through my marriage (and waiting 13 months for an interview) – and all in all spent over three years without the ability to visit home. As you can imagine, going home for the first time in so long was beyond exciting. I was dreaming about walking around Kyiv and seeing all of my favorite sights, visiting my beloved cafes, and stocking on as many vyshyvankas as my suitcase will hold. And even a rude immigration officer could not dim the light of my excitement.
That is, until I hit the streets. I did conceptually understand that things would change in 3.5 years, but apparently, I was not prepared for what I saw. The city was filled with incarnations of Kendall and Kylie Jenner, everyone wanted the newest iPhone model and ate pizza, historical buildings were replaced with skyscrapers, everyone wanted to go to college in Europe or the US, Dominos’ and KFC invaded the food scene, and the conversations I eavesdropped on (and I did that a lot!) revolved around the most shallow things imaginable. I was in shock. Where was my Ukraine? My Ukraine of passionate youth standing in the cold Independence Square and risking expulsion from university for participation in the Orange Revolution? My Ukraine of vushyvankas and revival of Ukrainian language? My Ukraine of Puzata Hata and its borsch and varenyky being the most posh food in town? My Ukraine of long walks in Podil’s twisted courtyards between century old houses?
And then it hit me… I was being Nadia. I was passing my own judgment of how things should be onto others. I was treating the living, breathing nation of Ukraine as a time capsule, expecting it to be exactly as I left it. There is indeed a saying that every immigrant remembers “their” Ukraine, the Ukraine frozen in the moment of their departure, like a time capsule. And believe me: a time capsule, Ukraine is not. It is one of the fastest changing, most dynamic, rapidly evolving countries in Europe. And that is something we have to live with.
Throughout my conversations with Ukrainians in the US, depending on the time of their departure, they all expressed some form of resistance or disappointment to the way things are now. Whether it be language, politics, or culture, we all have strong opinions of how things should be in Ukraine (or how Ukrainian culture should be reflected in the diaspora). Well, I have news for you: you cannot stop time. Modern time Ukraine is Russian-speaking, KFC-eating, iPhone-talking, Jenner-styling, foreign college-going, Instagram-snapping culture. And also a million other things. So the next time you want to comment on current politics in Ukraine, please recall that you do not live there and did not vote. Or if you have very strong opinions about Ukrainians speaking Russian, listen to what most people there speak. Do not get me wrong: I think Ukrainian language is the most beautiful sounding one in the world, vyshyvankas are the most exquisite piece of clothing ever invented, and borsch is the unparalleled king of all cuisines. But I also want to stay in touch with reality and feel the pulse and the heartbeat of Ukraine as she in now, not the way I remember her. Because she is no time capsule – she is ALIVE.