Sunday, March 1, 2015

Voices of the Cherokee People

Yulia introduced me to an interesting show the other day called, Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People. It is a new TV show made by the Cherokee about their own culture. The show discusses news and history.

One of the interviews that caught Yulia's attention the most was an interview with Roy Boney Jr, an artist. He explains how many people often question his artwork. "If you're a native person, you need to do this kind of art," they say, giving him a picture of an Indian in a head dress on a horse. Instead he paints in his own style and infuses his paintings with traditional themes and the Cherokee language itself.

Yulia said she can relate to this. She also paints and doesn't like to feel that she has to conform to any school or style that already exists. When it comes to our being Ukrainian, you may have already guessed from other posts we have written that we also try to resist Ukrainian stereotypes like the vyshyvanka (the traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt) and the whiskered kozak on horseback. Yulia and I like these aspects of our culture, but we also don't think they should be the beginning and the end of it.

Being from Ukraine, Yulia feels a certain connection with American Indians. For her, it was always easier to connect with them than with Americans with European ancestry. I'm also interested in their culture, but perhaps on a different level. Either way, we both enjoyed watching the first episode of this new series. It helped take our minds away from war, terrorism, and politics (which dominates Ukrainian news right now) for just a little bit.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

This Old House

As a second part to our post titled, "Home buying and home repair TV shows," we must add our recommendation of This Old House. I remember watching this show many, many years ago with my parents, but the show has new meaning to me now that I am fixing my own house.

For a do-it-yourselfer with no experience, it was initially a little hard to me to watch teams of workers with every tool imaginable take on a project in a fraction of the time it takes me to stumble through something similar. I annoy Yulia several times each episode with comments like, "Wow! There's literally a special tool for every kind of job out there! I would have never imagined!"

I also envy the professionalism that building contractors have in the United States. We hired a team of three workers to change our roof last summer and were not totally pleased with the result. Several weeks ago I had to climb up to our chimney to examine our internet cable and antenna and saw that they lied to us about caulking around the chimney. I'll have to do it myself and replace the flashing that is already beginning to detach.

But Yulia and I have warmed up to the show considerably after getting over the shock of how much money, resources, and skill are available in America. We are fixing our house for a fraction of what it takes in the States, and we are paying close attention to the experts on This Old House for when the time comes for us to take on similar projects here. I'm already thinking how to better waterproof our house when we replace our siding in the summer.

In general, the show is not only about the construction site, but about different themes. Usually, the homeowner has some sort of style or preference, and the hosts of the show explore those themes in greater detail by traveling to different places to learn more about history, style, and building types. So far we have watched projects that explore the "Scandinavian Modern" style (which can be found in the video above), "Universal Design" (that is, designing for elderly and disabled homeowners), and the history of the "Dutch Colonial" home.

The show has turned out to be a hit for Yulia and me. Whenever we find some spare time, Yuila suggests we watch This Old House. It's not only educational, but interesting and entertaining.

Thanks to our reader, "Saint Coemgen," for recommending this show to us! You were right on in your recommendation!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chaos for the sake of chaos

Like most Ukrainians, Yulia and I want to get on with our lives. We are not interested in living in a state of perpetual war. We moved to Ukraine to grow a beautiful garden, fix an old house, and maybe even enjoy ourselves. We are doing that and try to blog about it whenever we get a breather from our very busy lives.

But we also came to Ukraine because we love the country. We love the land and the people. I have more family than I ever realized living here. Yulia and I try and treat everyone with respect, whether it be family or strangers. We are doing our best to be responsible caretakers of our land.

Along with that responsibility comes the job of protecting it from people who want to destroy it. We have attended protests and railed against international fossil fuel companies who were planning on drilling for shale gas in our immediate area. Thankfully, that threat has passed for now. Unfortunately, war has been spreading across our country for quite some time now, and we can't ignore it. We do not relish writing about it on our blog. We wish we could write about eating healthy and planting trees (and we will). But I just wanted to share some thoughts that came out of a conversation Yulia and I had not too long ago.

Like many people who live far away from the battles, we read about the war in the news. I was particularly sickened by the attack on Mariupol, where rockets were fired from behind Russian lines into the city. Thirty people were killed. All but one were civilians who were going about their daily lives when they were suddenly killed.

The Russian side has been called many names since this conflict started. People say that they are "zombified" (due to the high level of brainwashing happening in the Russian world) and refer to them as potato beetles because of the orange and black striped ribbons the separatists often wear. However, the fact remains that they are human just like all of us. I believe that very few people are actually evil by nature.

What would prompt someone sitting in a truck to fire unguided rockets into a city of 500,000 people is beyond me. Trying to understand a person with such a mindset has been sobering. I've lost my former naivete. I no longer think our enemy in this war is just trying to build what they think is a better country. I think they are trying to create an environment of chaos as their end goal. Up until now they had a chaotic environment provided for them by Ukraine's criminal presidents (most notably Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych). Now they face the prospect of Ukrainians building a more enlightened, democratic society, and they are frightened that they will have to start living like responsible adults.

I shared these thoughts with Yulia, and she said she thinks that this war began long ago. It has grown out of a collective culture which allows people to act without fear of consequences. I think she's right. These are broken, traumatized people whose psychological disorders have never been addressed. Their sicknesses did not just develop overnight, so I don't think it is accurate to say that these people are simply resisting the democratic changes that have swept Ukraine in the past year. The sooner the Ukrainian side realizes this, the better. Their psychological wounds have been festering for a long time. Sadly, Ukraine still faces a long road of collective rehabilitation after the violence stops.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

VIDEO: "Russian Myths About Crimea"

Yulia and I live in Ukraine, and we are often let down by non-Ukrainians' misunderstandings about our country. If we hear that Ukraine is just a province of Russia one more time, we may scream.

The video above takes on the myths about Crimea that are circulating due to Russian propaganda right now. In several weeks, it will be one year since Russia invaded, staged a referendum, and annexed Crimea. It's important not to forget this first step in the Kremlin's attempt to dismantle Ukraine.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Ukrainians and their gardens

Yulia and I like to write about our own garden here on our blog, but in doing so we realize that we may take the focus off other Ukrainians who are just as passionate about their gardens. So here are some pictures of people's gardens we've seen around Ukraine.

This is a view from Yulia's parents' kitchen window. Their neighbors have a very diverse garden, and it creates a beautiful view for us!

Here is another view of the same garden. A small paradise in the midst of the big city. The neighbor is quite the morning person. We often hear splashing water at 6 am. It is the neighbor who starts every day by pouring a bucket of cold water over his head!

When I first arrived at Yulia's grandparents' house, I was greeted by a bush of luscious red berries by the front gate. I found out they are called red currants, something I rarely, if ever, saw in America. I liked that I could grab a handful for myself whenever I walked past them--such easy access to food!

Here is a garden path by their house. There is a grape growing on the trellis on the left and a cherry plum tree on the right. I had never tried cherry plums before moving to Ukraine. They are delicious! 

I went on a walk on my second day in Ukraine and was amazed by a landscape totally different than that of the United States. People had gardens all around their houses. In the photo above, you can see potatoes, beans, and corn.  "If Americans lived like this," I thought," they would be considered hippies, back-to-the-landers, or homesteaders." 

The outskirts of many villages are made up of private garden plots. Yulia's grandfather grows hay for his cow on his. In July Yulia and I helped him make haystacks.

And even father away from the village farmers grow crops on a large scale. 
If you look over the crest of the hill in the last photo, you can see the tops of high rise apartment buildings. When he was middle aged, Yulia's grandfather had the opportunity to move into one of those apartments for free because of his job in town. Many people in Ukraine do not see much value in a village lifestyle. They jump at such opportunities to be closer to "civilization." 

This was not the case with Yulia's grandfather. "I'm not moving there just so I can stand in line for bread everyday," he argued. He is the kind of person that you cannot separate from his land.While I do not want to paint an overly rosy picture of gardening or village life, it does not mean that they are a misery for everybody either. There are people like Yulia's grandfather and grandmother who would not trade their garden and their animals for anything.

And that kind of love shows.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A new doorway

Last fall we shared pictures of a home made door we made for our kitchen.

Well, this past fall we changed the doorway once again. The result isn't so much a new door, but a new entryway into the kitchen.

Along with the doorway, you may also have noticed that we changed the light switch. I point it out not only to open up the opportunity for me to brag about all the work it took (it took a day or two of digging and boring through the wall), but also to show how high up in the air the old light switches used to be. Yulia and I often wonder why all the light switches were placed level with an adult's forehead. To keep them out of reach of small children? To use less wire? If any readers know why, please let us know.

Although we are unsure about the old light switches, let us explain about why we made the old door and why we changed it.

We made the old doors using available materials. We have a lot of scrap wood here, so instead of buying wood and dealing with the difficulty of transporting it to our house, I thought I would recycle what we had. Our house was in much rougher shape back then, and we didn't have many places to store things like cat food and cucumbers (strangely enough, our cat, Laska, is crazy about them). We needed a door to keep the cats out whenever necessary.

I enjoyed making the door, and I learned a few things along the way (you can see some rudimentary trimming, a new concept to me at the time, on the bottom half). But since the door was very heavy and imprecisely made, it was not a long term feature for our house (if you would like to read about it, we actually wrote a blog entry at the time we made the door).

We made the arch by first making a wooden frame. We fixed two 1x2 centimeter planks at a 45 degree angle on each corner of the doorway. Then we hung two pieces of chipboard to these planks to create a mold for the clay to dry on.

We put plastic bags under the chipboard, so that it would separate easily from the clay after it dried.

After we removed the chipboard, we smoothed everything out with a layer of clay plaster and painted everything white.

Looking back on them, the pictures of the archway in progress are rough. When you're doing a project like this, it takes a bit of faith that the result will turn out alright. We've learned that this all comes with the territory. When you do it yourself, you have to learn to trust yourself and know when a job requires a little muscle and when it requires accuracy and finesse.

Yulia and I like the hand sculpted look of the archway. It helps soften the harder edges that the other materials of our house have. It's also a nod to the arched window of the old door. It only lasted us a year, but we'll always remember it!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Postcolonialism and Ukrainian identity

Right now, in the midst of war and annexation in our country, I see a lot of confusion about the very definition of Ukraine. The video below addresses certain aspects of this confusion coming from Russia, which in turn prompts me to consider other ways in which I see outsiders completely misunderstanding  the identity of Ukraine. In this post, I not only want to share some sharp thinking coming from Ukraine, but also want to address some of the duller thoughts on Ukraine that I hear coming from the United States. I'd like to suggest that right now may be a good time for pro-Russian commentators (American, Russian, European) to think about postcolonialism in the Ukrainian context. They should consider their own colonial biases as they grapple with trying to understand the national awakening of a formerly colonized people.

In this video, Zoya Zvynyats'ivs'ka from the citizen's organization "Parental Control" talks about a couple of things that often get overlooked in the national conversation: childhood education and Ukrainian identity.

She takes on the myth of the vyshyvanka (a traditional embroidered shirt) wearing villager depicted in her children's school books and argues that modern children can't relate to the people depicted in these books because, basically, this is not the Ukraine they see in the world around them:

"What bothers me about the school book is the image of the world that it portrays to children. Ukraine is a paradise where there are white houses with cherry orchards. Ideal families live there. Father is in a vyshyvanka. Mother is in a vyshyvanka. The children are in vyshyvankas. Mother is always cooking food or washing the dishes. Modern notions about a woman's role in society are not there...It portrays a world that is not the world they know, and that is why it does not interest them."

From experience I can attest to the importance of children's books reflecting a student's personal reality. As an undergraduate doing field work at an inner city school in the city of Boston, I saw the dramatic difference that appropriate teaching material can make. Most of the time I watched and attempted to help as the teacher struggled to get her students to sit still and take standardized tests.

If you are unfamiliar with public schools in America, you may not know that teachers and schools are evaluated and allotted money according to how well they perform with regard to standardized tests. The schools in the most impoverished areas--like the school I was at--suffer the most from this system. The students are at a disadvantage to begin with (because of their race and poverty) and are punished with a lack of funding because they continue to do poorly on these standardized tests. The tests don't reflect their everyday lives, and, as a result, the students do not engage with the tests on any meaningful level.

On the other hand, when it came time to read, we had more freedom with what to do. The students would completely transform whenever I would read a book that dealt with the subject of being black in America. They would sit on the carpet in the reading area with rapt attention as I read to them. They were naturally eager learners with a strong, curious spirit! All they needed was something that related to their own reality.

This parallels Zvynyats'ivs'ka's point about school books not reflecting the modern Ukraine that children know. She argues that her child's school books not only portray a rural lifestyle to urban children, but that children are being taught as if they are living in the invented world of the Soviet imagination:

"This is an imperial image of an ideal Ukraine. This is how they understood Ukraine from Moscow. People who live in Ukraine knew the whole time that this was not so. But if you live in Moscow you know that there is a warm country known as Ukraine. Pumpkins grow on the trees there. The people are beautiful. They wear vyshyvankas. The women and girls are beautiful. Ruddy faced children live there. That's how Ukraine was portrayed in the imperial imagination."

She wants the school system to turn its focus to reflecting the post industrial information age that we currently live in. While the image of the idealized villager portrays a fictional Ukraine to students, so does romanticized industrialism. Zvynyats'ivs'ka contends that romanticized industrialism (which she also sees in school books) is just as foreign to most students. Math problems that ask students to count how many refrigerators a factory produces a day further depict a fictional and one dimensional Ukraine:

"The heroes of Soviet labor are no longer relevant. There are workers who work in production. I understand this. But they are no longer the norm in today's society."

Here is an example that she says better depicts today's reality for children:

"A laptop's battery lasts four and a half hours. How many children will be able to write a term paper on Taras Shevchenko's paintings, if, for each essay, a child needs one and a half hours?"

Simple enough. However, she says that when she proposes her thoughts to the Ministry of Education, they understand maybe 50%  of what she is saying. Furthermore, they come up with lame excuses that exemplify just how antiquated their thinking is:

"'What kind of example is this setting? Children cannot look at the screen of a laptop for more than twenty minutes because their eyes will start to hurt.' I respond, 'The cathode ray tube is long gone. Right now there is something called liquid crystals.' They just look at me and say, 'Huh??'"
Zvynyats'ivs'ka has some great thoughts on how to transform Ukraine starting with children's books. Children's books, after all, are written by adults and reflect the mindset of those adults. Sadly, they've internalized the biases of Russian colonialism. Many of the people in power in Ukraine have succumbed to the subaltern status of all things Ukrainian and continue to conceive of Ukrainian identity as trivial and inferior.

Unfortunately, the Russian imperial imagination is not the only distorted view of Ukraine that outsiders have. Since the crisis in Ukraine started, uninformed Americans have been coming out of the woodwork with their opinions on why the United States should not help Ukrainians.

They don't realize it, but they see the wider world from the point of view of a colonizer. They use terms such as sphere of influence (as in "Ukraine is within Russia's sphere of influence") and proclaim that Ukraine shall be a buffer zone. The latter is particularly troubling and illustrates the colonial mindset of those Americans. To say a country is a buffer zone is to say that it is an empty space of no consequence. To an octopus, for example, the American continent is a buffer zone between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. An octopus need not bother with all the facts and nuances of the terrestrial world in between. The same is true for these skeptics.They see the world as a collection of colonizers like themselves. On the radio last week, I heard a caller open his comment with the remark, "We need to look at this from Russia's point of view." Excuse me? This is all happening in Ukraine. What about trying to look at it through Ukraine's point of view? When it comes to understanding the world from the point of view of a colonized people, they are like fish out of water.

Ukraine is home to 44 million people. It is the largest country entirely in Europe. Dismissing the thoughts and opinions of all those people is insulting. I centered this blog post on Zvynyats'ivs'ka's interview to show that Ukrainians have (surprise!) their own thoughts on how they want to live. But even more interestingly, people like Zvynyats'ivs'ka are beginning to define an emerging academic discipline focused on postcolonialism in Ukraine. The idea that the conflict here is a struggle between the United States and Russia is misguided, antiquated, and--honestly--creepy in this day and age.

Fortunately, most journalists who write about Ukraine have actually been here and understand what is happening. They know Ukraine's history, and they know Ukraine's society. Unfortunately, since they report the same facts about what they see here, skeptical outsiders believe that their thoughts and opinions are part of some sort of media conspiracy controlled by the American government. It's difficult to deal with people so out of touch with reality, but we need to be honest with them and urge these people to deal with their bigotry, racism, and control issues before continuing to contribute to the larger conversation about Ukraine.

Post script:

Literally moments after I finished writing this post, I came across this article on Facebook. It is called "Orientalism reanimated: Colonial thinking in Western analysts' comments on Ukraine." While I approach the subject in a roundabout way, the author, Fabio Belafatti, makes an even more explicit argument about Ukraine and colonialism. It's worth a read.