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.