“I’ll feel like a movie star,” I said.
“Really you’ll be like Mafia,” Yevgen replied.
This small interaction – funny to both Yevgen and I – was the first hint that I was going to meet a very different people in Ukraine; different, but wonderful.
Weeks after Facebook messaging and emailing on numerous occasions, there Yevgen stood, with his Ray-Ban pilot sunglasses on, and a sign with bold letters reading, “FINCH.” I knew long before we met face to face that Yevgen would be an excellent guide during our one week in Kiev, and I hoped that we might become friends as well. I think we did. He was our first introduction to the people of Ukraine – and he certainly made a good impression on all of the students and me.
The second reason that the Ukraine trip is amazing is certainly its people. From Yevgen our guide and companion to the cab driver who wanted to walk me to my door to make sure I arrived home safely, the people of Ukraine are very hospitable and generous.
Since we arrived in Poltava after a week in Kiev with Yevgen, we have been able to interact with the people of Ukraine at an entirely new level. The students on this trip are staying in the homes of Ukrainian nationals from two universities we are working with here in Poltava. The biggest complaint I have heard from my students recently is that the hosts feed them too much!
The hosts often go to extreme lengths to make sure that our students are having a good experience. One host that does not have WiFi sat with one of our students for two hours in a café that did have WiFi while the student worked on blog post assignments. The host had nothing to do, but stayed with the American student to “keep her safe.”
Another host family gave up their bedroom for their American student.
Several hosts have provided more food than the students could handle.
I could go on – we are treated as honored guests.
While Yevgen’s guidance and friendship was a fantastic introduction to the people of Ukraine, in Kiev we were really still on the outside of the culture looking in. We saw sights, tasted tastes, and were basically tourists – outsiders – still living with our American habits, friends and associations. Now that we are in Poltava working with the Universities and living in the homes of Ukrainians, we have a glimpse into the real human lives of the locals. This is more than tourism; it is a true cultural experience.
Now this is not to say that the students and I have not experienced any culture shock. There have been several shocking aspects of Ukrainian culture that the American students have adapted to admirably. The first and foremost difference is the amount walking expected as normal in Ukraine in general: we walk everywhere – regardless of the weather. I would dare to guess that we walk between 5 and 15 miles every day. I walk at least three quarters of a mile just to get from my apartment to the university every day – and many students are with hosts who live further away from the university than I am.
For me at least, the second thing I had to get used to was the lack of air conditioning. I have problems with heat, so the 85 degree days without air conditioning and with extensive walking have been trying to say the least. I think the students may have adapted better to this than myself, but we all have expressed how difficult and different it is to be very sweaty and hot all day long. But…everyone is sweaty – you certainly can tell on the busses (it’s a little smelly some times!) – so we fit right in!
The only thing that we might do more than the Ukrainians (at least I do!) is complain about the heat! The Ukrainians seem to take it in stride to a much greater degree – though now that we are in Poltava I have heard a few complaints from Ukrainians! (in other words, they are still human – it’s been hot!)
Living conditions might be a third difference that shocked some of our students. I have heard stories of “bucket baths” where the hosts boil water for the students and then the students wash in a large bucket/small tub. Others had no hot water, something that is normal in the summer in Ukraine. Stories have circulated about a slightly lower level of cleanliness that has worried some of our students, but so far only a few bugs have been spotted! At least one student lives in a one-room apartment with her host and her host’s mother – just one example of the closer quarters that are normal here. I could go on. The students have all adjusted admirably.
Another interesting thing that we have encountered that still seems foreign to most of the students is the difference in non-verbal communications. In Ukraine there is what we Americans might consider a gruffness about how people treat each other in normal day-to-day interactions (at shops, in school, etc.). It really is often just different verbal and non-verbal cues, but it seems…almost rude to Americans who are used to “service with a smile.”
I have had more experience in Ukraine, so I see the subtleties a little more perhaps, but I am certainly still learning. I look at the eyes. If the person’s eyes look angry or seriously gruff, then they might be upset (really they might not – it’s sooo different!), but if their eyes look kind then they are probably being gracious and helpful.
I was at the train station for about two hours with Katia, one of the teachers at a university we are working with, and she said to me, “it’s a good thing this clerk is in a good mood, or she’d be yelling at us for taking so much time.” Now the clerk never smiled, and from an American perspective looked sort of angry, but she was patient and her eyes were kind. I don’t know how to explain the differences in the nonverbals beyond this – but suffice it to say there are major differences!
One interesting thing that might illustrate the differences in verbal and non-verbal cues is how we greet each other.
When an American is asked, “how are you?” we default to the answer, “good!” with a smile – and will always say that we are “good” unless something bad has happened.
When a Ukrainian is asked, “how are you?” they commonly respond “narmalna” which translates “normal,” with no smile. They will not say they are good unless something particularly good happens to them.
It is sort of the same with their expressions. They will not show positive emotion on their faces unless they experience something particularly positive – but that does not mean they are angry, it just means they are normal. Narmalna.
Experiencing the people of Ukraine here in Poltava really takes this trip to another level. We are no longer outsiders looking in, but are participants – making friends and interacting with a world of people who see things completely differently than we do at times, but who are a wonderful slice of humanity who can teach us how to see the world through their eyes – and also who are wonderful and kind hosts!
While some trips give you memories, this trip is amazing because it gives you friends.
(note: quotes and facts are from memory – not necessarily exact)
P.S. Thank you Yevgen and all of my other new Ukrainian friends!