My Special Evening

A few months ago, I had, as the title of this little essay implies, a very Special Evening.

I sat next to a young, seemingly sane, New York intellectual at a dinner table. For about an hour and a half, I listened to him as he talked about the fact that “‘Ukrainian women are basically subhuman sluts who don’t know what’s good for them. Oh, and you should all die.”

Of course, he didn’t say it quite that way. No, he took the elaborate route – throwing in words like “hegemony” and “dissasociation.” Yet the conclusion he arrived to was pretty much in tune with the subhuman slut argument, because, at the end of our Special Evening, he turned to me and said that:

“When all of you Slavs die out, there’ll be more room for my people.”

Such pathos. Although I’m not really sure what he meant by that. Who are these mythical “my people”? Academics? New Yorkers? Jews? (He said he was Jewish) – I certainly hope he didn’t mean Jews, because all those visions of Lebensraum create a painful cognitive dissonance.

Either way, the message was clear.

Now, this Special Gentleman’s problem with Ukrainian women (the problem that frustrated him so much that he’s ready to see an entire ethnicity die out) was simple – they dress too sexy. This is something I can partially agree with – women in Ukraine are pressured to doll themselves up for virtually any occasion, even if it’s just walking to the pharmacy for some tampons (I know I do it). There are many women who examine this practice, and many more who don’t. However, not all women who examine it arrive at the same conclusions. Some, like me, have some pretty strong cultural identifications with make-up and heels alongside the notion that conformity scores you points (it does).

But that doesn’t matter. We’re just sluts. Sluts who, according to the Special Gentlemen “get jobs based on the way they look.” Especially the one slut whom he met in an office earlier that morning, the one who was “so incompetent that she was clearly hired for her looks.” Because after spending five minutes with her, he surely understood every nuance of her situation.

There was another woman, sitting a few seats at our table, and when she got up for a cigarette, Special Gentleman said, with a Jerry Falwell-like fake grin, that “she’s certainly not afraid to show how good-looking she is.” The woman was wearing a black dress, rather conservatively cut on top, but short. Oh and some heels. Nothing that, say, a woman from New York wouldn’t wear to an informal social gathering at a trendy restaurant. As a Ukrainian, however, the woman in question did not get a free pass.

I’m always quick to defend Western criticism of Ukrainian culture and society. I believe that most people mean well. I like to think that they see the real issues that people here struggle with everyday, and sincerely want to lend a hand. I also like to think that down the road, Ukrainian women won’t be judged on their appearance period – no matter how they wish to dress (my scary, black, liquidy eyeliner – my choice, that’s the road I’ll probably take), and looking stereotypically “hot” won’t be a requirement in a number of office jobs (Although let’s go on an educational tanget: most serious businessmen and businesswomen I know would not hire a female secretary or an assistant simply for her looks. Being young and attractive can work against you in trying to land that job, even in Evil Ukraine. Young and attractive will often translate as “distracting to clients,” or “not old enough to take on the responsibility,” and so on. Most offices I regularly visit prefer to hire matronly older women, or snappily-dressed young men, for this sort of job.).

And so it breaks my heart to be confronted with blatant hate. It hurts especially because people like Special Gentleman – and I wish he was the only one who had said similar things to me – are not at all awkward about conveying these views to me. After all, I’m “in the club.” I, of all people on this good earth, surely must understand where they’re coming from. I was educated in the United States, I’m “safe,” I’m “OK,” I’m not “one of them.” It’s OK to invite me to watch as my home, and the people I love, are getting shat on from the lofty heights of racism masquerading as academic critique.

I always end up feeling particularly ashamed of these situations, because I just don’t know how to respond. I don’t want to appear to emotionally invested, I try to laugh it off, when all I really want to do is throw my drink at this person’s smug face, letting it stain his nice, modest, oh-so-understated-and-tasteful little pullover, and storm out. Or slap the smug face, and storm out. Or overturn a couple of chairs, and storm out.

Neither can I argue with Special Gentlemen really well. Deep down inside, I just don’t believe that they’re saying what they’re actually saying. Only after I grab a taxi for home, and ride back with a vague, queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach do I begin to realize that oh my God, this actually happened.

When it is happening, I smile a lot. I play with my rings. I try to offer civilized, convoluted, apologetic, pathetic rebuttals. I keep grinning like an idiot, as if I’m afraid to break some spell. I don’t want to get angry, because angry would signal that I care, and how could I possibly let someone know that I care? He’ll call me defensive. He’ll call me an apologist. He’ll fly home with pride and sense of entitlement intact.

I’ll be left with my impotent rage. I’ll be left with that strange, sick feeling. The slimy feeling. Like stepping into spit with a bare foot that trusts in the integrity of the ground below it.

(GOD. Would working on my right-hook in preparation for another Special Evening – they do seem to repeat themselves – be hugely hypocritical in relation to my commitment to non-violence, or just a little bit so?)

40 thoughts on “My Special Evening

  1. Ooh, if I were you I would have smacked him silly. But that’s just the violent Arab in me talking 🙂 He probably got dumped by a Ukrainian woman when he was in college and never got over it.

    I’ve known several intelligent amazing women from the Ukraine-who do ‘doll up’- but so what? To each her own expression. Life is too short to put up with crap like that, so strap on your stilettos and enjoy looking good. Cheers!

  2. So “you’re not like the rest of them” sort of thing, it’s supposed to be a compliment? I’m sure he thought he was being very charming and clever.

    Oh and I think a bit of minor violence is totally fine in situations like this, maybe a stab with the heels for something a bit fitting.

  3. I started reading your blog only a month ago, so I’m not sure whether you mean to imply that this evening with the “New York intellectual” actually historically happened or whether this is one of your “fictional” pieces. I find it unbelievable that anyone from New York would say anything like, “When all of you Slavs die out, there will be more room for my people.” I’ve met only a handful of Ukrainian women immigrants (in the Atlanta metro area) but they’re all people of remarkable drive and ability and certainly not sluts. If you evening with this so-called intellectual actually was historical, he must have had some kind of personality disorder. I cannot believe anyone would say that about Ukrainians or Slavs generally.

  4. Are you sure this wasn’t a time traveller from, I don’t know, 1936 Germany? I’ve never seen anything approaching… fuck approaching, I’ve never heard anyone or read anything which even remotely matches his bizarre and completely warped vision of the world outside of generic hate and paranoia websites.

    I’ve never come across anyone who could throw that much vitriol at Ukraine, or Ukrainian women. Even back during the Cold War the Ukraine, at least here in Canada, was always thought of as the victim of the Soviet Union. Maybe it’s the huge and long-standing Ukrainian population here but Ukraine just seems like a smaller version of Canada… to be bigoted against one just seems as lunatic as a hatred of the other.

    What a totally bizarre experience that must have been.

  5. was the man in question attractive? or was he the type that would never land a date in a million years?

    if the latter, perhaps you were witness to his anger that these women won’t give him the time of day.

  6. You know how much I detest anything that hints of anti-Semitism*, but I think the fact that this man was Jewish had a great deal to do with his attitude. If there is any culture to which Freudian norms apply, it is the Middle-East**. A man like this probably can’t get any women because he’s a giant douche, and his identity as a man is culturally predicated on his ability to obtain booty. This, in turn, causes him to feel insecure and emasculated, thus causing him to be a bigger douche. Ah, the vicious cycle …

    *To any non-Natalia persons surrounding my little soapbox, I am the consumate Zionist.
    **The protestations of both Jews and Arabs to the contrary, Jews are (with remarkable uniformity throughout Israel and the Diaspora) a cultural product of the region.

  7. Nope, this isn’t fiction. He’s a classmate of a friend. He is also good-looking. Not gorgeous or anything, but obviously someone who can get a date (unless he really does have a personality disorder – a disorder that, nevertheless, allowed for him to get into a top grad school). His mother is originally from Moscow (she immigrated before he was born, and met his father in NY, as I understand it) – some that might explain someof this, but not really no.

    I honestly still don’t know what to make of any of this. Besides the fact that I felt kinda violated. And violent.

  8. I didn’t know that anyone spoke of Slavic people this way, and particularly Ukrainians. I don’t get it.

    People don’t even tell “stupid Polish” jokes anymore – a good thing, I might add.

  9. Ugh, there’s nothing uglier than a prejudiced idiot dressed up in academic’s clothing. Something tells me there’s nothing you could have said that would have shaken his sense of entitlement and basic “rightness”. The best one can hope for is to expose his idiocy to others in order to prevent its spread.

  10. i have to agree with people above: it just can’t be an actual transcript of 21st century new york conversation. it sounds dolled up, like for a particular audience.

  11. This isn’t a transcript, but the quote I gave is real. Actually,the only words which, although enclosed in quotes, do not come from the source are my joke in the second paragraph and the “not one of them” business – which was said in a much more roundabout, elaborate fashion. This conversation took place in July of this year, in Kiev.

    Then again, I’m not looking for anyone’s validation here, so no, you don’t have to trust me.

  12. You know, there is a dislike of Eastern European folks, especially recent immigrants out there that a lot of people seem to be missing. You can see it in media (on shows where Eastern European women, especially Russian women and Ukrainian women/ women from ANY of the former Soviet Union are protrayed as “gold digging Natasha’s” or whores. I’ve seen it where I live, and well, yeah, as a predominantly slavic gal myself, even though I was born in the US, I find it annoying as hell. And yeah, there are a lot of really conventionally slavic women out there, in all sorts of media and sports and yep, in real life, but the stereotype they are getting slapped with is real, and really unfair.

  13. “it just can’t be an actual transcript of 21st century new york conversation.”

    Why not? Does the Hudson river have some kind of forcefield that automatically ejects racist bigots?

    I’ve encountered this same sort of “intellectualized” racism in lots of places. It’s supposed to differentiate “enlightened” racists from the ignorant, trailer-trash, rednecked stereotype racist.

    The enlightened racist learns some basic facts about the targetted race, can spit out more information than most USians ever learn about their homeland, and then, “wham” down comes the “they all suck” punchline.

    Racism hidden in intellectual babble is a much more effective marketing technique in tpdau
    s media-savvy world.

  14. >I find it unbelievable that anyone from New York would say anything like, “When all of you Slavs die out, there will be more room for my people.”>

    i have to agree with people above: it just can’t be an actual transcript of 21st century new york conversation. it sounds dolled up, like for a particular audience.


    *ahem.* Yeah, I’m in NYC also. Possibly a completely other universe, but New York City, ayup, and I have no trouble believing it at all. how many people in the naked city? eight million? eleven million? but none of them are flaming bigoted assholes, o hell no.

    or is it: none of the NICE people what wear SUITS could say such a thing.

    and even if I DID, buckos, psst, hint: it’s RUDE to tell people who’ve just shared personal tsuris and particularly that it’s the sort of thing that makes them feel all unreal, like, “did this really happen?” “Oh! I have a really hard time believing that happened -to you!-”

    yeah? are you sure YOU’RE real? You don’t -seem- real. You’re really a ‘bot, aren’t you? -Aren’t- you?…

  15. >Racism hidden in intellectual babble is a much more effective marketing technique >

    “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink…”

    –Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

  16. besides which: hi, it’s not just anti-Ukraine sentiment, it’s anti-Ukraine sentiment combined with good ol’ fashioned sexism and probably classism/regionalism. Y’all -do- get the whole “sexism” thing, right? You know how there are “nice women” and “slutty women?” Well, sometimes, some people have slightly more complex ways of differentiating the women it’s okay to dump one’s shit on from the ones who aren’t. Yeah? Compute a bit better?

  17. …and actually, per the “not an actual transcript” wrt “subhuman sluts,” etc.: dude, what part of

    >Of course, he didn’t say it quite that way…>

    did you not understand?

  18. …shit, scratch that last comment. You were arguing with the bit she said WAS a verbatim quote. eh, tant pis for you, then.

    “There are more things in heaven and earth…”

    among other places.

  19. that, and: hi, the -guy- was from NY, the -conversation- was -in Kiev-, so it’s not like the sentiment came out of the clear blue sky. The Occidental gentleman weighs forth on the natives and finds them wanting. Heigh-ho.

  20. People don’t even tell “stupid Polish” jokes anymore – a good thing, I might add.

    I blogged coming across one of those a few months ago.

    I like to think I don’t just twitch at that sort of thing because my grandmother’s maiden name was Jeranonek, but I’ve never had the experience of coming across a Polish joke when not of partial Polish extraction.

  21. Maybe the gentleman in question is a closet cross dresser and is secretly envious that Ukrainian women can effortlessly pull off what would take him 6 hours to do? OR Maybe you could let your classmate know that although the special gentleman had quite an invigorating intellect…you were rather distracted by the large booger hanging out of his left nostril and fascinated by how it would gently blow in and out with his breathing. If this guy is really into himself it might take him down a peg or two. Or maybe substitute booger in nose with spinach in teeth or halitosis or something….yeah that sounds good…”I enjoyed his conversation and as a fringe benefit it also had the effect of a good chemical peel…I look 1 hour younger!!”

  22. What an awful person. I’m sorry you had to deal with this individual.

    As we say in the south, his mama and daddy just didn’t raise him any better than that. 😉

  23. I blogged coming across one of those a few months ago.

    I like to think I don’t just twitch at that sort of thing because my grandmother’s maiden name was Jeranonek, but I’ve never had the experience of coming across a Polish joke when not of partial Polish extraction.

    I can’t remember the last time I heard one, so may I just need to get out more.

    I should also say that I wasn’t disbelieving Natalia at all. My previous comment was intended to express shock that someone would still say something like what that man said to her. I was naive enough to think that particular sentiment had died out. Well, now I know better.

  24. I have no problem believing this. It’s not the “New York”, but the Jewish attitude toward Ukrainians. I know many Jewish people who view Ukrainians as the descendants of Jew raping Cossacks (a myth, incidentally, now proven by DNA research on the origins of Ashkenazi Jews), or Jew killing SS collaborators (also a myth – Ukraine had no higher a level of collaboration with the Germans in WWII than any other nation). They also don’t appreciate a Slav, usually more intellectually gifted than they are, pointing out the historical inaccuracies they cherish so dearly.

  25. Well, I don’t think any one ethnicity is more “intellectually gifted” than another, and I hope you weren’t trying to say that.

    As for this sort of prejudice – I have been told that I’m a “dirty Cossack” once. And yes, the American who said this to me also identified as Jewish, unfortunately. A Ukrainian friend of mine once had a very persistent Jewish troll on her blog (this guy was Ukrainian, however) who used ethnic and religious slurs and nearly drove her nuts, posting from different IP’s.

    I don’t know if this proves any sort of systematic pattern of prejudice, but I wouldn’t be surprised – considering, also, the history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine (which is real).

    Problem is, I view the States, and Americanness – as being “neutral” grounds, spaces where we met and discuss our differences and the ways to mend them without mutual abuse. So it’s disappointing to encounter what I encountered on the “special evening” (OK, so the evening took place in Ukraine, but you know what I mean).

    Having said all that, I still have no idea why that person said those things to me. I don’t want to assume anything, because that would be determinism. Perhaps there were many reasons that motivated him.

  26. Was it culture shock talking? If he was in Kiev?

    I used to find it quite irritating in certain new colleagues who would come down with it quite predictably after about 4 months of living in Russia. Well, everyone came down with it, but some of them were uncivilised enough to bother the rest of us with it. It usually started with them complaining about how rude Russian shop assistants were. At which point I would refuse to let them talk to me about Russia or Russians for about six months, when either it wore off or they buggered off back home.

    I used to find it quite insulting they’d try to say things like that to me too – had they noticed how long I’d lived in the country, the fact I had a Russian husband, Russian friends and was happily ensconced in a Russian run company? Didn’t they find it untactful too to say these things where our Russian colleagues could hear them?

    But then I was foreign too and therefore would be bound to see things from the correct viewpoint – the whole point of culture shock is that you cope with the differences by thinking that they are wrong. So obviously and naturally wrong too that it’s ok to point it out in the hearing of the people they are running down.

    And even I wasn’t entirely immune.

    I spent six months going spare at the odd sound Moscovites often make when they ask a question – a sort of ‘eh’ sound, which is quite agressive to an English speaker’s ear. And then suddenly I stopped noticing it again.

    Still, his seems to have taken a particularly ugly form. There’s something quite revealing about what you find out about people when they are under stresses like culture shock, I think.

  27. No, I am not suggesting any nation is more “intellectually gifted” than another. My point was that when I, as a Slav, point out the historical inaccuracies in their arguments, individuals with this particular mindset don’t appreciate it. They are often surprised at the response and are rendered speechless at the historical arguments.

    Unfortunately, there is a perception among some that Slavs are “inferior” in every regard: The women may be beautiful, but they are morally unsound. The men are all drunkards. The people have a “slave” mentality and don’t understand, nor deserve democracy. That is what you encountered, I believe, and I don’t think, unfortunately, that it is all that isolated a perspective. There is even an historical theory that Russia has always been authoritarian and hence, will likely never be democratic.

    Off topic, I think your comment on Ukrainian anti Semitism is a little misplaced. It was Russian policies, commencing with Catherine II’s introduction of the Pale of Settlement, and the use of Jews as scapegoats to justify nascent anti Tsarist movements (hence the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) that were the primary sources of anti Semitism on Ukrainian soil. This is the case in other regions of the Russian Empire as well, such as Moldova and Western Russia.

    In Polish ruled Ukraine, anti Semitism was tied to the Jewish role as administrators for Polish landlords and later, Polish governors, rather than an individual’s status as a Jew.

    Anti Semitism in Ukraine may have been more violent than in other parts of Europe up to the 19th century, but then, life generally was more violent. I don’t really believe Ukraine was any more anti Semitic than other European nations.

  28. I don’t think Ukraine was ideologically more anti-Semitic than the rest of Europe (I hate it when Ukrainians are made an example of in this regard – because, honestly now, Europe as a whole has a history of anti-Semitism that’s pretty damn chilling). But the sorts of things that have happened around here continue to have their own reprecussions.

    And seeing swastikas painted in underpasses in the center of Kiev today gives me the creeps.

    (Other graffiti artists will sometimes alter the picture and draw a gallows over the swastika, and write “Nazis out,” which is a good sign – and not something that gets into the press a whole lot, I’ve noticed)

  29. >They also don’t appreciate a Slav, usually more intellectually gifted than they are, pointing out the historical inaccuracies they cherish so dearly.>

    My goodness.

    Y’know, I’m Jewish and half my family’s from Russia/various points in the former Soviet Union. funnily enough it never even occurred to me to blame the “Slavs” for my/our historical tsuris; hell, as far as I knew we -were- Slavs…

  30. Much of this depends, of course, on individuals. I’ve even been told that Slavs are “genetically anti Semitic”.

    You appear to question this view. But visit any political forum for any length of time, discuss Ukraine, and the attitude will eventually appear. Or try to track down Morley Safer’s piece from 60 Minutes, circa 1991/92 on Western Ukraine, where he pretty much asserts, based on interviews with a couple of self proclaimed representatives of the American Jewish community that the newly independent Ukraine is a cesspool of anti Semitism; The protestations of rabbis who had come to rebuild Jewish culture in Lviv never appeared in the piece. At least one interviewed rabbi later wrote an article about this misrepresentation.

    I am not sensitive about this particular issue. I just recognize that it exists. I’m even happy about it, because it spurred me to read a lot of Russian and Ukrainian history, because I wanted to know the truth.

  31. Come on, Belle, you know you want to spank me for… for… well, for something.

    Hardy har har.

    I think one of the strangest things about being Jewish and living in the former USSR (Russia, Ukraine, etc.) TODAY is the fact that some people still don’t consider you an organic part of society (and most of those people would never think that this is anti-Semitic in any way – AND, what’s even more interesting, some Jews hold this view as well). We’re all mixed in together anyway, but people still draw lines in the sand. The Soviets had a great opportunity to erase this, but they made the situation worse (along with the rest of all the fucked-up things the Soviet government did and said).

    These boundaries are so weird to me. If you convert to Judaism, are you no longer a Slav? Does being Slavic mean espousing a certain religion (depends on who you’re talking to – and I’ve been on forums that espouse just this principle, although NOT in Ukraine, but in Russia)? Is being Slavic the same as being Ukrainian (no, I can say that much right away)? It’s all so very confusing for me – considering that, for example, the Soviet Union looked at Jews as ONLY an ethnic group, religion wasn’t even an issue. And it also depends on which Jews you talk to – because I’ve heard many different opinions, both from the people I’m related to, and from the neighbours and so on.

    Studies have been done on this and books have been written… But in spite of talking to people, I’m still an uneducated swine in this regard.

  32. I’ve even been told that Slavs are “genetically anti Semitic”.

    Wow. That’s incredibly fucked-up, to say the least.

    Also, if you have a link to the Morley Safer piece, let me know. Thanks!

  33. Well, I had a Hungarian Jewish friend who I visited in Budapest in the mid-90’s; they’d changed their name to a less obviously Jewish one and were semi-closeted; apparently this was still not at all uncommon, and that was in the big city. go know.

    what was -really- obvious though, was the anti-gypsy/Romani sentiment. even my friend’s parents said something really nasty, and my friend herself, in retrospect, was probably biased. and then we got out to a small town (I was trying to look up my great-grandmother’s records for my mother and grandmother) and conversations with the town recordkeeper (among others) made it pretty obvious that the anti-Semitism was just under the surface and the anti-Romani was…not even under the surface.

  34. European anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsiysm (yes, I know that’s not really a word) is basically a local staple, in a way. And it’s been true for me wherever I went in Europe . Living in the States, I encountered a lot of veiled anit-Semitism, especially from the Evangelicals. And I think that the only reason people don’t hate gypsies in the States has to do with the fact that they’re not so distinctly different (and, of course, there are less of them around).

  35. And I think that the only reason people don’t hate gypsies in the States has to do with the fact that they’re not so distinctly different (and, of course, there are less of them around).

    I’d guess that the lack of large Romani populations is the biggest reason.

    If there were a sudden influx of Romani… well, I’d bet just about anything that they wouldn’t find people welcoming them with open arms.

    But, then, I’m sort of cynical about these things.

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