I’m not even going to lie. It doesn’t feel like a year. As of today, l have been in Ukraine for one full year. I remember looking around the main room in Chernigov and thinking to myself, “OK, these are going to be the people I’ll be with for the next two years…and we’re in Ukraine…what the hell am I doing??” The question wasn’t one of doubt or anything close to that, it was a reflective acceptance reminding myself of my commitment to Peace Corps and the people of Ukraine. Let’s be honest…who hops on a plane and decides for two years they will go serve others in another country??
Sure, the standard is that I am representing the United States – some of you probably just said something to yourself along the lines of “Oh, Dear God!” While that might be true (well…both of the previous two statements), I feel that more intimately, I represent all of my family and friends. This post could really be a novel. However, I promise it isn’t. Already there are so many stories, but like many, some you just have to be there to understand. Some of my Ukrainian friends ask for stories and have actually asked me to tell more about myself since most of my stories are about friends back home or other volunteers in country. So with that in mind, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about myself for a bit.
Something very interesting to see is how different the work is everyone is doing. There truly is no standard organization, school, government office. Sure, there are mindsets and traditions that permeate, but it really is impossible to compare or evaluate based on a set number of “tangible” outcomes. The majority of our service here really isn’t going to be measurable – and I’m totally OK with that. That being said though, I’d like to provide a slight recap of things I’ve done and places I’ve been (that I count as “things” and can remember).
Cities/Towns Traveled to:
- Staryi Bilous (training site…most Ukrainians have never heard of it)
- Chernihiv (closest city during training…love it)
- Kyiv (location of HQ)
- Zaporozhye (where I now live…Google it)
- Berdyansk (beach)
- Kyrilivka (beach)
- Dnipropetrovs’k (yeah…saying that takes some serious practice)
- Donets’k (every time I travel through there, something happens)
- Luhansk (coldest I’ve ever been in my life…far east of Ukraine)
- Kramatorsk (semi-stranded there…thanks, Donets’k)
- Svyatohirsk (awesome historical monuments in Donets’k Oblast)
Places in Ukraine on the short list for very soon (before 2012 is over):
- Kharkiv (summer camp training)
- Serhiivka (summer camp)
- Izyum (summer camp)
- Lviv (every Ukrainian tells me I need to go)
- Sevastopol (I hear it’s cool)
Questions I have gotten very used to answering (I’ll just put the English). Keep in mind, these are almost always in the order that follows – with slight variations/deviations depending on how stimulating my answer:
- Where are you from?
- What are you doing here?
- Why did you come to Ukraine?
- I understand you are a volunteer…but why Ukraine?
- How long will you be here?
- How old are you?
- Are you married?
- How many kids do you have?
- Do you have a Ukrainian girlfriend yet?
- Why not?
- Do you think Ukrainian women are beautiful?
- Have you tried Ukrainian food?
- Which dish is your favorite?
- Can you cook any of them?
- How do you do you buy food here?
- Where else in Ukraine have you been?
- Have you been to Crimea?
- Have you been to Lviv?
- What did you do in America?
- What do you think of Ukrainian transportation?
- So whose vodka is better, Ukraine/Russian or American?
I could keep going with that list but I’m pretty sure you get the gist. Sometimes religion and/or politics will come up in conversation but mostly it revolves around those listed. Typically the conversation will then shift to a comparison of the US and Ukraine. Getting better at handling those as well. For example, I had an informal language proficiency interview about a week and a half ago. I finally made it back to my training village to visit my host mother on the way to help at the arrival retreat for new trainees.
While there, I surprised myself and was able to carry on a full on conversation, make jokes, and describe what I was doing in Zaporozhye. The kicker being I could finally provide details about myself – presumably, I had already been asked these questions during training but had no idea. I actually understood what was going on – for the most part – and had a great time! Big time confidence booster right there and a step up from predominately saying “Yes,” “I understand,” “I don’t understand,” “Thank you,” and “Good night!”
Many people ask what I have been up to, and honestly I’m just living life. Technically yes, I am implementing things, but I try not to look at it that way. If I focus more on creating rather than letting things happen and develop over time, I will not have the same type of positive experience. I have learned – and still am – how to adapt my approach and expectation time-frame to my surroundings. The natural human response to change is resistance, so why force things?? At least, this is the approach and mindset I am taking. It seems to be working – at times – and that’s the point.
Here’s a little snippet of what I have already done (some items will be recurring and I am sure I’ll leave things off)…going to attempt to keep these descriptions brief:
- Photo contest to celebrate the International Days of Tolerance and People with Disabilities
- Written organizational mission/vision (translated to Russian)
- Created a document of things to consider when starting an organization – using VERY basic language, but direct (translated to Russian).
- Started a blog for our organization (Russian)
- Heavily involved in the Special Needs Working Group
- Started an English club
- Help out at another English Club
- Presented at a Ukrainian/American cultural exchange (tattoo presentation)
- Special Needs Poster Contest (winning ones are awesome!)
- Invited to participate and speak at the Group 43 Arrival Retreat (I’m Group 41, they just arrived last week)
- Training Advisory Group member
- Helped to coordinate the Advisor/Advisee program for Group 43
- At times, I also attempt to assist in making fine Ukrainian cuisine…which typically results in the following image
Things currently working on or attempting to plan in the future:
- New website for Perspecktiva
- Successfully move to a new, much larger office so we can provide the services we hope
- Appropriateprojects.org water project for our new office
- Grant to help with additional repairs to new office
- Work with another volunteer, Patrick, and two of our Ukrainian friends who are trying to create a volunteer organization in Zaporozhye.
- Continue to identify community partners for Perspecktiva
- Compile a collection of disability organizations that other volunteers are working with.
- Help Best Buddies begin working broadly in Ukraine
- Continue to promote and update an In-Service-Training for all volunteers to assist in working with disabled children and organizations.
- Organize a skills development workshop for people with disabilities as well as those who work with people with disabilities.
- Participating in national water testing project for each Oblast.
- Partner with a government organization to hold a sports (active) festival for disabled children – I’m really rooting hard for this to happen
- Camp HEAL in early July (http://www.campheal.webs.com/)
- ABC Camp in late July/early August (http://abccampukraine.blogspot.com/)
I am sure there are more but that will suffice for now. Getting back to language for a quick second, one of the best things about learning another language are the moments where something totally foreign to you leaves your lips and other people completely understand it. For example, a friend of mine was very excited (for him) that he received an “I understand” at the end of a phone conversation. Seriously, it’s awesome! The virtual pat on the back sometimes is a literal one – self given of course.
On the flip side of that, there are mishaps. All trainees and volunteers make them. Hell, let’s be honest, native speakers make mistakes! One of my favorites comes from a friend out west, Ben. He had been trying to tell people that he was very excited to work with the children and really looking forward to it. Unfortunately for him, there are two different words for excited…one referring to sexual arousal. Guess which one he had been using. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last. I have made many, but two that really stick out are below (with Russian provided):
1) During training while talking to my host mother while watching TV and doing homework:
- Мама, я написал, “Mama, I already wrote”
- Now, написал is a word that changes meaning depending on which vowel you stress…awesome right?
- So, instead of “Mama, I already wrote,” I managed to say “Mama, I already pissed.”
2) Also the most recent (this Tuesday), I was in a meeting with my organization. We were beginning to discuss some ideas we have and how we would like to proceed. Rather than just tossing ideas around, I wanted to suggest:
- “Нам нада списки” or “We need lists”
- Instead, this is what came out of my mouth, “Нам нада сиськи” … “We need tits”
- In my defense, much like the first big mishap, the last two words sound very similar to non-native speakers. Also, Ivan followed my recovery with the Russian version of “No, Pete. You’re right. Good job.”
Over the past year, I have gotten on trains not sure if I was headed in the right direction and busses where I didn’t know what was going on when we pulled over on the side of the road randomly. I’ve been told to make sure not to get off in the wrong city (when I already had no idea where I was going, what it looked like, or exactly how long it was going to take to get there) and not realized it was just a joke. Women behind the counter at markets have stared at me while attempted to order food, trying to figure out what the product is so I can say it in Russian – I’m much better at this now. I have tried to visit other volunteers, followed their directions, then gotten on a marshrutka taxi (think airport shuttle) and not known the name for the small village that I was going to, or how much it cost to get there. I have been places, wanting to get to another, and told there were no tickets left for that day.
Really, I could keep going, but really I’m pretty sure my point has gotten across. The best part about this are those small victories when you don’t get the “SCHTO??” response, get exactly what you wanted, and your “thank you” is met with a “you’re welcome”. While understanding that I am helping to create/change impressions of Americans abroad, to me knowing that I have an awesome support group motivates me even more. Knowing that people are rooting for me back home has meant more than I can ever explain. There is also an internal support group of volunteers. We all have “our people” that we go to. That we talk to. That are rooting for us to do well. To everyone who reads this, thank you all for your support. Thank you for teaching me about humility and I hope I can continue to represent you in a positive light. Year two will bring many new challenges, highlights, low-lights, and of course plenty of laughs along the way (at myself and others).