Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do we actually LOVE Ukraine??

By Michael

A number of years ago, during a job interview for an English teaching position, I was asked, "What I'm trying to understand about you is, how does a person from a more prosperous country make the decision to move to a less prosperous country like Ukraine?" The question was blunt, and it took me by surprise. 

What was most surprising to me about this question was that it assumes that you only move to another country for your own sake. This makes sense, and I'm not questioning the motives of somebody who makes such a move. I'm pretty sure my grandparents, for example, made the decision to move from Ukraine to the United States partly for these reasons. I at least never heard them say they moved to the US because they wanted to help make it a better place.

As for Yulia and me, we also decided to move to Ukraine partly for self serving reasons. First and foremost, we wanted a certain kind of lifestyle, which involves getting a good chunk of land, avoiding many of the restrictions that are in place in many parts of the United States. We were interested in building a cob house, for example, and that is simply against code in many places. 

The price of living here is much less than that of the US. Food is less expensive, and our house cost about as much as our car (i.e. it was cheap). In some respects there is much less red tape here than in the States as well. We can make renovations to our house, for example, without much interference from the state. We can go to the hardware store here and find goods from many different markets--the EU, Turkey, China, North America, and Russia (although we boycott all Russian merchandise). My father-in-law, who has lived in both Ukraine and the US, confirms that Ukrainian stores have a much better selection than in America. 

We also just like a lot of things that are Ukrainian. We like the culture, and we like the traditions. The Christmas holidays just ended, and Yulia and I had the pleasure of watching a group sing traditional Christmas carols--known as колядки (kolyadky)--while we shopped at what is otherwise a standard Western shopping mall (Yulia found the group on YouTube. They're called Курбаси (Kurbasy)--simply beautiful! Their sound is both ancient and modern at the same time).

We like that Ukrainians are avid gardeners. We wrote about Ukrainians and their gardens in this blog post

We also enjoy the beauty of Yulia's hometown--Lviv. Yulia and I sometimes go to the city just to walk along the narrow cobblestone streets and randomly go into shops. 
"Sisters" Dress Gallery--stylish, Ukrainian-made clothing
This past week we went to Lviv and watched a blacksmith at work with a hammer and anvil. We never know what curious things we'll see when we're downtown. You may have noticed our love for Lviv in many of our blog posts. Yulia dotes on Lviv in this post and ends it, unambiguously, "Lviv--my dear hometown--I love you!!"

So if we supposedly love Lviv--and Ukraine--so much, why are we so harsh at times? Here are some examples:
  • "I noticed that there was something different about Ukrainian men. They seemed more sullen, cranky, and disrespectful than what I was used to. I began to despise their attitudes. They expect women to cook and clean, but never lift a finger to help with children or housework. I noticed these differences in attitude were accompanied by physical features as well—swollen bellies and grey skin from drinking too much and a body odor from not washing and smoking cigarettes." (source)
  • "These two chauffeurs represent a way of doing things that I hope is on it's way out the door in Ukraine. They show no respect for the people around them. They pester and they lie and their actions only make people more distrustful of those around them...These aren't corrupt, high ranking politicians in Kyiv. These are ordinary people from western Ukraine. People like these two men will only rot Ukrainian society from the inside out." (source)
  • "Many villagers are cutting off their noses to spite the faces. They want to show that they will not be taken advantage of by what they perceive as rich city people. In reality they will hold on to their land so tightly that they will never sell it. After they die their land will become government property at no cost to the government, and their families will remain a few thousand dollars poorer." (source
There are many aspects about Ukraine that really bother us. Yulia and I despise the male chauvinism and selfishness. We hate it when people litter. We don't like that people tend to stare at others in public. We wish "dressing up" for the winter holidays wasn't synonymous with wearing fur.

So if we hate it so much, why don't we just get out? Maybe go to a more "prosperous" place? Well, it's not so much a question of living or not living someplace because we either love it or hate it. Truthfully, we love some things about Ukraine, and we hate some things about it. 

Why the decision to move here then? To answer that question, I'll refer to someone known as "à-bas-le-ciel" on YouTube. In the video below he discusses vegans and their portrayal of Thailand in their own blogs:

"And what I fundamentally don't understand or don't relate to is this idea that because you like a place, because you care about a place, you're going to pretend that its problems don't exist--that' you're going to engage in a sort of cover up as if you yourself were a nationalist or a propagandist for that place. I think it's really useful to shift the verb from love to care about. If you care about Thailand, can't you also care about the oppression of its indigenous minorities?"

In a similar way, we are here in Ukraine because we care about it. We care about its beauty and traditions as much as we care about its problems.

There are wonderful things to see here. Come visit Lviv and drink some gourmet coffee and look at beautiful old world architecture. We'll happily put on the hat of tourism promoters. 

But we won't act like there aren't some things that are wrong with Ukraine. It's not alright with us that fur coats are fashionable (mainly with older people, but still). It's not alright that kids go to our village spring to eat ice cream and leave the wrappers there. We care enough about Ukraine to want to encourage other people not to wear fur and not to litter.

After police beat protesters and forcefully broke up the incipient "Euromaidan" uprising in Kyiv on December 1st, 2013, we were in Lviv a few hours later with thousands of other people. Ukrainians made it a point to occupy public spaces en masse 24/7 from that point on to make sure police wouldn't be able to do such a thing again.

We were responding to something that was deeply wrong with our country--but we were doing it with love and patriotism. We were waving flags and singing the national anthem, but questioning some of the deepest flaws in our society. 

Yulia and I moved to Ukraine despite not liking everything about it because we care about this place. We came here for the things we like as much for the things we dislike.


  1. Great blog! I understand as I care about and dislike my beloved South Carolina. Hope you Yulia are well. Best wishes

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks!! :)
      We enjoy your blog as well!

  3. Your post -- same for me in Hungary.

    But, I am curious: What answer did you give in the interview, and did you get the job?

    As for myself, in my mind, I would have thought and basically answered: "What an improper question: why I choose to come here is not relevant, only my qualifications of being able to do the job or not it what is important". And in central Europe, with such an answer, I probably would not have gotten the job.

    And this is what I consider the difference between a society that is based on principles of a meritocracy (what you know, and your skills to do a task, is more important than who you are) versus one that is based on "being one of us", despite lacking personal qualifications to actually do the job, which leads to a mediocrity. And that is one reason why things do not progress well in such societies.

    1. I basically answered that I moved here because I like Ukraine and am excited to be here during a time of change. The question wasn't really an official interview question (at least I don't think). The interviewer was just curious. I brought it up in the blog post because it gives an insight into what strangers think about when they meet an American here.

    2. And, yes, I got the job (but didn't take it).

    3. In my experience as an American living in the Czech Republic, most people who ask this question are either just trying to start a conversation or (more likely in a job interview context) trying to detect whether you'll adapt well and stay in the country long enough to be a good hire. It's not about deliberately favoring "their own" over qualified foreigners -- it's about how employers have seen their share of culture-shocked and homesick expats who bail after a few months and cause more trouble than they're worth. If this happens, other job skills and qualifications are a moot point. An expat who seems sure of their reasons for being here is a safer bet.

  4. So I guess I can see where the interviewer is coming from, even if the question does seem intrusive. Also, around here, there are enough expats that schools are not desperate to hire every American or Brit who shows up.