Pride, Prejudice and Ukraine, the Beloved Country

I get accused of hating my roots nearly as much as I get accused of being a nationalistic Ukrainian. It’s like walking a tight-rope while balancing a stack of Wedgwood plates on my head.

Consider, for example, the extent of anti-Jewish sentiment in Ukraine. There are members of my extended family who are Jewish, and living in Kyiv, so the issue is personally important. Sometimes, I am tempted to say that Ukraine is being unfairly labelled as a cesspool of hate. Other times, I have to stop and scratch my head at just how ingeniously Ukrainians themselves will contribute to that label.

You can’t make everyone happy, but I make no-one happy.

Talking about my life is anecdotal, not scientific, it points to lived experience. Lived experience is intensely subjective and, because of its immediacy, it also paints a vibrant picture. It helps to remember, however that this subjectivity means that I don’t speak for anyone else.

Personally, I deplore Ukrainian nationalism. Nationalism, or an unconscious version thereof, is the major reason as to why I have reservations about coming home. I would not want my living partner stabbed in the street because he looks like a typical Arab. Stabbing is an extreme scenario, but consider just how many nationalists believe women “belong” to the state. An autonomous woman who chose an evil foreigner for a husband is “selling herself.” She is a “traitor.” All your reproductive organs are belong to us.

These sentiments have been expressed to my face. They have been expressed to me in hate-mail. They are brought up on news websites, blogs, forums, and chat servers.

They are not limited to the Ukrainian-speaking population of Ukraine or to Western Ukraine (these people are demonized, trotted out as the “typical” racists). Plenty of people who speak Russian and/or consider themselves ethnically Russian think this way too. The hate-mail I got, for example, was written in Russian.

I couldn’t give you a numeric estimate of just how many Ukrainians think this way. But I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that this has affected my life and my plans. Kyiv is my favourite city, and, at this point, I can’t picture myself coming home for good. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’m spoiled by the relative comforts of life elsewhere. Part of it also has to do with the fact that I consider myself largely a “Western” writer (whatever the hell that means). But another part has to do with the fact that the goodness of the people and places I love barely offsets the fear of being responsible if anything should happen to the love of my life, the apple of my eye, the cream of my coffee.

As I take another step down my tight-rope: was living in North Carolina different? Well, North Carolina is more mellow, so, in that sense, it was very different. But I’m not going to pretend as if there weren’t episodes wherein I felt hurt, or, for that matter, afraid. I remember lodging a complaint against a Wal-Mart employee who repeatedly harassed me for being foreign. I was working in a coffeeshop nearby, and chatted with him briefly after serving him a double vanilla cappuccino (it’s funny, what kinds of details you remember – I have forgotten his face). He caught a whiff of accent, and the rest was a footnote in the World History of Douchebaggery. The management of that particular Wal-Mart did not take my complaint seriously, even though he shouted at me to “go back to Russia” quite literally on Wal-Mart premises. Even though at least one person had seen him do it, and was willing to back me up.

People hate each other throughout the world: bullishly, idiotically, powerfully, with consequences. Are Ukrainians worse than anyone else? Well, a crappy standard of living and a particularly crappy history are going to make anyone bitter as hell. This doesn’t excuse hate, but it does, in part, explain how it manages to take hold and, through the power of group-think (an oxymoron if I’ve ever seen one), result in violence. If it was just me, I would not be afraid. But I’ve got other people to think about as well.

And so it goes.

You don’t stop loving the people and places in your life that have mattered the most. And yet, love is a kind of sacrifice. And the nature of sacrifice, even a symbolic one, is pretty damn grim.

You make your choices. You cry about them in some pub. You leave a good tip for the bartender. Morning comes, and it’s another day of the life you have made for yourself.

[updt] Ummm, I just re-read this, and it struck me as kind of funny that I didn’t talk about being American as well. Probably because I’m so American that I don’t even notice. And that’s a good thing.

9 thoughts on “Pride, Prejudice and Ukraine, the Beloved Country

  1. And there is the crux- because you have a whiff of an accent, you are not American. Put your passport away, anyone can get one of those, but only foreigners have accents.
    I was once threatened with physical violence in line at McDonalds. I don’t remember the exact hateful words, but it was something to do with my needing to “go back to Russia”–which is probably why I zoned out of the “conversation”–I had long been planning my exit strategy to get me back to California! That’s what you and I get for shopping with corporate devils.

  2. I don’t think corporate devilry is the reason the guy in my case was acting like a prejudiced jerk. Although, then again, having your average job at your average Wal-Mart isn’t easy (considering Wal-Mart’s oh-so-stellar employee policies). It’s not an excuse, but it could be an explanation, or part of one, anyway.

    I’m sorry to hear you were harassed as well. 😦

  3. I have had the same problem vis a vis Islam for a while. Defending from misconception and bigotry and then turning around and being like “Christ, why do Muslims have to act like such a bunch of animals?” However, I’ve left Islam now so that gives me a little space to breathe.

    Anyway, to me, a lot of immigrants are more American than born Americans. For better or for worse; my grandmother and Aunt, for example, are Dutch but nobody would ever guess they weren’t born in Texas. They’ve become almost stereotypically American. Similarly, I know a lot of people (mostly Latino, to be fair but from all over) who actually want to come here and contribute whereas I know many Americans who are totally apathetic. My fiancee loves it here while many “Americans” I know hate it. I’m hardly a raging Nationalist, but I am very American. And I have a solution for immigration; we start deporting born Americans who fuck it up for the rest of us and let more immigrants who add something to the country in.

  4. I’m a foreigner living in Kiev, and I don’t feel threatened by racism. No one has ever harassed me or told me to ‘go back home’. I’m very obviously white European though, which i realise makes all the difference (I’ve written articles about the Afghan and African communities here and their experiences are quite, quite different from mine). But I do think that online communities and responses can give a very slanted impression of the real level of racism in a country.

    However bad things are in Ukraine, you can always comfort yourself with the knowledge that its better than in Russia anyway! (or is that Ukrainian nationalism rearing its ugly head…)

    So what DO you mean by a ‘western’ writer? And what’s that got to do with where you live, in these days of globalisation? I suppose I’m a western writer too (I’m from the UK), but I write about Ukraine…

    I liked ‘bullet in Tennessee’. You do write very well.

  5. As you know, if you’re “darker,” you often won’t get a free pass. Neither will women who choose to be with “darker” men.

    It’s become an issue of responsibility. I don’t want to go into details, but if this were contained to the wonderful world wide web, I would agree with you. It’s not. If it was just me, I wouldn’t have a problem in the world. I’d probably chill in Kiev much more regularly, finish the book, go looking for a good New York agent afterwards, things would be grand. But it’s not just me.

    I actually didn’t mean anything when I used the phrase “western writer” – it’s largely an outside characterization. But I do write primarily in English. Doesn’t matter from where, but in terms of the market, there’s a reason why English-language writing jobs in Ukraine are harder to come by.

  6. I wasn’t meaning to be classist…more kharmist 🙂 God knows, I may find myself desperate enough to work for corporate devilry (again) someday.

  7. Stop writing about Ukraine if you don’t know anything about Ukraine.

    So if you live in the U.S. (or whatever you live), then write about your own hometown, New York or Los Angeles (or whatever you come from).

    Don’t talk shit about Kyiv.

    Kyiv – isn’t different from any other European metropol city. You don’t live here, so you don’t know. You talk about nationalism and stuff, but look at yourself – you are the one with PREJUDICES ! ! ! If you are so fond of having an Arab, then please, get an Arab and move to Southern parts of the U.S. We’ll see how nice you will have it over there.

    And don’t talk about “crappy standard of living”…. In Ukraine you choose your own standard. If you have brains and intelligens, you get educated, make contacts, and make a good life…. Look at the U.S: 40 million people can’t get free medical treatment. Look at your suburbs, look at your villages. You call it “good standard”??? It’s misery in the U.S… You are lucky to have Hollywood, which improves the mental view of your country…

    So stop with those American prejudices, and stop writing about Ukraine when you don’t know a sh*t about this country. If you live in the U.S. – then write about the U.S. You are no true Ukrainian and don’t know how it is to live here.

    Kyiv is an European metropol city – as any others. That includes good stuff and bad stuff… But if you make a general comparison, Kyiv is much more safer than, for example London or Paris…..

    So stup bullsh*tting over the net and explore the real world.

    Greetings from the great City of Kyiv.

  8. Um, I actually do live in Ukraine right now, having also partially grown up here and all. And my family is here. And me and my ex-boyfriend did live in the “Southern parts” of the U.S. Which could be hard sometimes, but not nearly as hard as some of our experiences here.

    I’m actually a supporter of FC Dynamo myself.

    But I don’t believe that patriotism = no critique. Things don’t get better if you ignore various problems. Like I said up above, Kyiv is my favourite city. I like it better than London, and I *love* London. And I want it to be cooler and cooler, hence my frustration.

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