Archive for March 16, 2010

Question about Ukraine, My “Short” Answer

The following is a question I got through someone who knows my aunt in North Carolina. He will be a Peace Corps volunteer soon in Ukraine, another land I lost my heart in.

I understand that you were a Peace Corps volunteer and lived in Ukraine.  I am getting ready to leave on March 29th for my training in Kiev to hopefully become a Youth Development volunteer.  So I just wanted to see what you did as a volunteer and if there were any pieces of general advice you had for me.  I am sure you can go on for awhile so certainly don’t feel like you have to write a lot!

The following is my “short answer:”

Actually I did my Peace Corps stint many years ago in the Philippines and NOT in Ukraine.  I was a PCV in 1981-83 and then learned to love Asia enough to teach in northeastern China from 1986-88.  Then I got my MA in TESOL at U of Minnesota in 1990 and was awarded a Fulbright grant to Kyrgyzstan in 1993-1995 to teach English at the start of the university that is now known as AUCA in Bishkek.  Then I got married in December of 1994 to a USDA guy I met in church in Almaty, Kazakhstan summer of 1993. We ended up in Alexandria, VA because of his job in Wash. D.C. for three years before we both were awarded Fulbrights in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1998-2000.  But we loved it so much in Ukraine that we stayed on another five years.  Then we ended up in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2007 and have been in this great country ever since.

So the short answer is no, I didn’t do Peace Corps in Ukraine but I know someone who did.  He is now working with USAID in Afghanistan and he has been meaning to come up to visit us here in Astana, Kazakhstan.  He is from the same area of North Dakota that my aunt is from.

What you REALLY need to bring with you more than the metal hangers that we get from dry cleaners is flexibility and tolerating the most infuriating things about the host culture.  Like when the drivers try to mow you down at the pedestrian crosswalk or the cars drive on the sidewalk so you not only have to look left and right but also behind and ahead of you for oncoming, careless drivers.

The Ukrainians have gone through a LOT in their long history but most heartbreaking are the last 100 years.  They are deeply divided over the Russian version of their history, especially the more west you go towards Poland.  Ask them about their grandparents or their grand grandparents, ask them what they went through with the famine of 1932-33, the Holodomor. Ask about what they endured with the Great Patriotic War, some will be willing to tell you.  Other babushkas have such painful memories that they go into a deep, troubled silence.

Knowing their history, I think, helps to explain the corruption, bribes, all the other dishonest things that go on that seem normal to them but outrageous to us westerners.  Plagiarism is not frowned on at national universities, cheating is the way you succeed at university and some of the students boast about it.

So, you have to pick your battles and love the people for who they are, not what you think they should be according to what you learned in your university training or elsewhere. Mainly if you learn their language and their culture, they will love you back.  I think you will find all the material things you could ever want. The main thing to do is bring books with you because you won’t find the kind you may want to read or use as textbooks in Ukraine.

Hope that helps.

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