10 October 2007

A Reflection on 2 Years in Ukraine

I keep thinking about how I need to start packing, to start sorting through the binders of lesson plans and classroom materials, the drawer of mail from friends and family, the CDs and tapes of photos and memories we’ve accumulated. But I find myself fighting the urge to get ready to go, almost as if to slam on the brakes and slow down the countdown a little. Time has never moved as fast in my life as it’s been moving for me lately.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really looking forward to being home, seeing family and friends, driving my car, eating Mexican food, and readjusting to life in the U.S. But right now it’s hard to imagine being on the other side of this experience. One of the things I’ll miss is how every day is an adventure. At home we take for granted the small interactions and experiences that are made challenging here by culture and language. When viewed with some distance, I know these moments will be funny and interesting, though they can be crushingly frustrating at the time.

I will also miss this experience because of the lifestyle I have maintained during the last two years. I live in a beautiful apartment with high ceilings and a sunny balcony and sleep in a comfortable bed. I walk everywhere, usually 6-8 miles per day, with an occasional trip on public transportation when necessary. I eat fresh, local foods that vary by season. I cook more than I ever did before, and I appreciate the time and love required to make things from scratch (and re-heat them without a microwave).

Last week in class I was teaching about cross-cultural communication. We discussed different aspects of culture and likened culture to the metaphor of a tree. There are parts of a tree that you can see, like the trunk, branches and leaves, and there are the parts you can’t see, the roots. Without the roots, the tree would die or fall down, or would never have grown in the first place. We compared this tree to culture, attempting to demonstrate that the aspects of culture that we can observe, such as clothes, holiday traditions, and amount of touching, are a result of the invisible aspects of culture, such as concept of beauty, religious beliefs, and concept of personal space.

Living here for two years has given me the ability to begin to understand the roots of some cultural behaviors that I would otherwise view from an outsider’s perspective as weird or illogical. Many things can be explained by history, religion, or some other unobservable aspect of Ukrainian life. This experience has also given me a chance to reflect on my own culture in more depth.

Often when you are walking through the Center of L’viv on a weekend you will see numerous wedding parties getting their photos taken in front of the town’s monuments. Sometimes there are 3 or 4 brides lined up just steps away from each other at the same monument, waiting to have their picture taken on their special day. I’m sure that in some of these wedding day photos, there is a stray bride in her white gown and veil in the background of another couple’s picture. Perhaps it’s the only child in me, but I would never want to share my special day with other couples, especially not in the backgrounds of my photos! I would have run the other direction if we had met another wedding party on the beach in Monterey on our wedding day. I suppose this attitude is similar to the motto on packed Ukrainian marshrutkas, “there’s always room for one more”; Ukrainians are really good at sharing space.

I never realized how much I relish my personal space until I came to Ukraine. Even in Spain, where people would often bump into you on the street without saying “Excuse me,” I never experienced the stifling lack of space of my daily life here. This situation has made me realize how irrational my attitude toward space really is. I view it as “my” space, as if I own it. The fact that I haven’t been able to relinquish ownership on the space around me during the last two years shows me that this personal space bubble is really a part of me. I have begun to embrace it, along with trying to keep a sense of humor about it. When people sit on my lap at concerts, tell me to scoot over and share my small seat on the bus with someone else, or hip-check me on the street I try to visualize these wedding photos and remind myself that it’s good to share.

That said, I am really excited to go home and maneuver my personal space satellite through the streets of Monterey and the San Diego Zoo, the aisles of El Comal, and in the roomy interior of my Galant. I’m going to eat myself silly while trying to maintain my walking policy whenever possible. I’m going to bask in the comfort and convenience of a washing machine and never again complain about saving quarters for the Laundromat. Soon I’ll probably join the ranks of those complaining about gas prices and a lack of free time, but I will do so with the knowledge and appreciation that it can be and has been another way.

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