Peace Corps - Ukraine


#2nd World Problems

The views expressed below are my own, and do not reflect that of Peace Corps or the U.S.A. I do not give permission for them to be republished in any way.

While I was looking forward to my return to Zoziv after a few weeks on the road, it was only natural that my re-adjustment to the village would be a little challenging. But what I did not expect, was to find my landlady Leana back in my house, with her old, sick mother. I returned to find the furniture in my room rearranged, my pictures on the fridge taken down, and the kitchen a mess of various dairy products fermenting. #Ukrained

Needless to say, I was a little surprised!

I didn’t spend much time at home during the week, as my return to school was met with innumerable invitations by students to come to their classes, to help with English, to play on their team in P.E., and then followed by endless invitations to dinner at various people’s houses. But over the weekend, in an attempt to escape the below freezing temperatures, I sat with my space heater as close to my body as possible without burning my long underwear, while I read for hours and hours. I moved only to make a new cup of tea or cocoa, get some food for the kitchen, or use the bathroom. Quietly, diligently, determinedly, a prisoner in my own room, I finished not only Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but also Steinbeck’s East of Eden. (By the way, both wonderful books, highly recommended).

I was interrupted only by Leana who stormed into my room Sunday morning, telling me “we need to talk”. She explained that my space heater was using 25 kilowatts of energy each night (whatever that means), and that I would have to pay a lot extra for it. I said, I will pay, I can pay. I am freezing and I need the space heater on. She then went on to criticize the way I sealed the windows shut. And then she explained that she and her mother will be staying here until her mother dies, and in the meantime she will not be working at all (usually she works and lives in Vinnytsia). She then continued on to say, so she will not be cleaning up after me.

I just nodded and said ok. But I really didn’t understand what prompted this, and actually really offended and put off – none of my belongings were in common space, and I was the one cleaning up after her, doing her dishes and doing my best to just stay out of her way. In fact, I am afraid to use the kitchen because of all the various open jars she has around, and god knows that Botulism is a real and ever-present force to be reckoned with.

Plus, it could be weeks, or it could be years before the mother actually passes. She has amnesia and is bed-ridden, moans throughout the night, and calls for Leana if she leaves her mother alone for more than 5 minutes. After walking out of the kitchen Sunday afternoon to see the bedroom door ajar, revealing the old woman naked from the waist-down, squatting and shitting over the-jimmy-rigged-toilet-contraption of a chair with the seat punched out and a bucket underneath… I decided, enough is enough. I gotta GTFO.

In true village fashion, word spread like wild fire – the greeting question everyone asked of me was no longer, “Hi Jakleen, are you freezing? Have you heard what’s happening on Maidan?” The question became, “Hi Jakleen, have you found a place to live? Is your landlady bad?”

I was both embarrassed by my situation, as well as hopeless about the potential prospects in Zoziv. The blessing and curse of village-life is that everyone knows everything about each others lives. Luckily, the real estate God of Ukraine shined down upon me, and a little 2-bedroom apartment is available in the other side of the school from where I live now! Fingers crossed, there will be no surprise-dying-landladies to live with.

I have been keeping up with Ukrainian superstitions, and 3 come into play here. When moving to a new place, you are supposed to send the cat in first to ward off any bad spirits. So George will go in Sunday alone. Secondly, you are supposed to sleep there one night alone before you bring your things in. And thirdly, if you start something on Monday it will bring bad luck. Here in Ukraine, I do as Ukrainians do, and I am superstitious. So Tuesday it is – the day I’ll bring my things to my new home! I am closer to a few of the other teachers (like the ones I was at for Christmas), as well as the retired mayor of Zoziv, and the nurse of the school. In short, I think I’ll be moving to a place with better company. Because right now I’m surrounded by old, dying people which to be honest, isn’t the most uplifting thing. I think I take more after my dad than my mom in this regard – and I’ll leave the whole “helping-people-cope-in-the-face-of-death” thing to her.

In other news…

I am back to being on difficult terms with my VP I share the office with, Natalia Stepanivna. She and the director came to my home to negotiate with my landlady, and saw my room. Now I know I’m not a Type-A, clean person. In fact, I love my piles. I keep my pajamas out, and a few extra sweaters in a pile on a chair. I also leave Ukrainian flashcards out, as well as whatever book I’m reading. I like to glance at the flashcards whenever I have a dull moment. But I am probably cleaner and more neat than I have ever been in my life – there is literally nothing on my floor of my room! And MOST of my clothes are in the wardrobe. But my VP starts lecturing me, saying she’s going to talk to me like a mother would talk to her child. She starts going on and on about how I need to be more tidy – I need to keep everything in plastic bags, or boxes, and then throw a rug over it when I leave. She said every surface in my room is covered with a rug. She said I’ll have a lot less problems with my landlady if I do this – implying that it’s MY fault that my living situation and relationship with my landlady fell apart.

But good god, that is no way to live! How do I know what’s under the rug when I come home? I like to see what I have! In my neat piles! I don’t want to live out of boxes and plastic bags – I want to unpack and really make my space feel like my home. It’s the only sanctuary I have in this god-forsaken-icy-hellhole. And anyways, who is she to tell me how I organize MY space and MY things that I pay $35 a month for! That is MY room, and I can do what I want with it!

I know this is the self-righteous American in me talking. So I’m trying really hard to not be annoyed by this, but I am. I am so annoyed.

Enough about my living situation.

The even bigger problem I have with her is just the general way she treats people. Yesterday a boy from the 8th grade was brought into the office of Natalia Stepanivna by the very old-school and strict Biology teacher. The biology teacher said the boy was acting out in class. Natalia Stepanivna then went on to literally scream at him, louder and louder, yelling, “DO YOU KNOW HOW TO ACT IN CLASS? HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO ACT IN CLASS?” until he was in tears, balling. And she continues, “YOUR TEARS DON’T MEAN ANYTHING. THAT’S NOT GOING TO MAKE IT BETTER. YOUR ONE JOB IS TO BEHAVE IN SCHOOL. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?” and between sobs, he’s saying “I promise I’ll never do that again. I promise”. Now I’m sure that kid is no angel in class, but no one deserves to be spoken to and humiliated like that.

The hardest part for me to see is that this kid is going to grow up thinking that this is the way to raise a kid, that this is the way people treat one another.

I see this behavior between all heirarchies here in Ukraine – it is socially acceptable for a superior to humiliate their subordinates. It makes me sick.

A few other things have been bothering me lately, so just bear with me because I am on a roll.

One of the kids who often invites me to her house is Olena, in the 11th form. Olena took care of George when I was on the road, and every time I go over to her house I help her with English. In return she either gives me a manicure or braids my hair while her mother feeds me delicious borsch (she really does have the best borsch recipe), or fresh apple strudel, and sends me away with a gallon of milk, butter, potatoes, and leftovers. It’s actually really inconvenient to carry home because I live about a mile away so it’s about 30 minute walk through snow with heavy plastic bags weighing me down. #2ndworldproblems

Anyways, just yesterday Olena was explaining to me that the English teacher, Victoria Victorivna, has actually been reprimanding her for asking me for help with English. Additionally, she has been giving Olena low marks on her work. Olena said Victoria Victorivna gets angry at kids who ask me for help with English because she charges kids for individual tutoring. Olena also said that paying for individual tutoring always results in the kids who pay getting better marks.

I was Outraged, just livid about this. First of all, what kind of message does it send to kids when they are reprimanded for seeking outside help – for trying to do their homework well. I mean, there’s no way most of these kids can afford individual tutoring, and they can’t ask their parents for help with English. Secondly, what kind of message does it send to a kid who is reaching out and showing kindness to a stranger. The fact of the matter is that teaching kids English is one of the only avenues I have to connect with and help the kids in Zoziv. So how dare the English teacher discourage this. And thirdly, how dare she have such selfish intentions that she thinks my helping kids with English is taking away from her side tutoring business. The goal here is for the kids to do better in school, to build their confidence and self-worth, and to encourage open-mindedness towards new experiences and other cultures – all of which happen when I am able to help kids with their English homework.

On Monday I intend to speak to her about this. But this is easier said than done. Firstly, she never speaks to me in English except to say “Good day to you”. But the bigger problem is, I do not think the Ukrainian way is to directly confront someone. So I am not sure the what the best way to handle this is. I may be making a huge cultural fauxpau, but I just can’t stand aside and be silent.

Enough with the “I’m the nice American who is flexible and silent and smiles”.

We’re in the middle of a revolution here and it is my time to bring the American hammer down. So the Ukrainian traditions of just “pushing everything under the rug” – both literally and figuratively – can kiss my American ass.

As a final note, I want to emphasize that despite this particular blog being an expose of everything I am frustrated with here, there are still many wonderful things about this culture that we can learn from. Even though kids can be humiliated to tears, it is also obvious the importance of family and the love people have for one another here. People really do take care of one another, and have opened their hearts to me as well as part of their family – the entire village was worried about my living situation, and was eager to help, to make calls to relatives of abandoned houses, many offered a bed for me to sleep for the time being, to make sure I was comfortable. And I know that I won’t be moving alone – there’s going to be an army of 8th grade boys carrying boxes for me, come Tuesday. Even the fact that Leana is leaving her job for the time being in order to care for her mother full-time shows a dedication to our loved ones that many of us in America don’t have. Once things become inconvenient in America, we merely find a way to not deal with it – or create a system that will rid us of that inconvenience. Regarding the appearance of my room (and the ever-present disparaging comments about my nails, and the lack of high-heels I wear and my funny hat) – while I think that the emphasis on appearances is superficial, it also shows that people have a pride in who they are and how they present themselves to the world. I know that there are many critical eyes on Ukraine now, and from one little lady’s perspective, Ukraine is a beautiful place with beautiful people.

6 thoughts on “#2ndWorldProblems

  1. Your just awesome Jacqueline! Keep us posted how this all went down. Love you. Seems like forever since you left. Seems like forever till you will be home.

  2. What an incredible post … I lol’ed several times! You’re truly an amazing blogger. I hope the new apartment treats you well!

  3. Well J as you know adults screaming at kids is not a uniquely Ukraine trait. It is a frustrating and demoralizing thing to see wherever you are.

    As a principal i was tempted to treat my abusive teachers the way they treated students, and then ask them how they liked it… but instead, i had very polite conversations with them and asked them how they would respond if i were to scream and berate them. Would it be effective? I also made it clear that anytime a student acted badly after a teacher outburst like the one you described that i would hold the teacher more than the student responsible for any repercussions (ie a teacher blows up at the kid, kid calls him an asshole, teacher wants kids suspended for profanity. i gave the student a warning and the teacher i promised to write up next time they provoked an outburst). An aside to this is that my middle class teachers (the white ones in particular) were very hot to suspend kids caught drinking or fornicating in class. These same teachers who had to move their happy hour every couple of months because they would get so drunk and rowdy that the bar would ask them to move on… the same ones who were no doubt fornicators and drinkers in school (not me of course i was a studious lad but your uncle max and sara well…) anyway these same teachers wanted students expelled for drinking or getting caught fooling around in the auditorium. The hypocrisy of it all.

    Anyway, my experiences as a consultant are perhaps more germane here. I was working with an assistant principal who was the nicest guy in the world to me, and then he would just snap at students in the same way you described. I was in no position to tell him what to do, but what i did do was choose his two most problem kids and work with them — successfully. I could only hope that he might notice the success i had without screaming.

    Maybe this is something you can do. As for the english teacher, i am reminded of when i was living in Germany and my roommate (german) took me to meet some friends that he thought i would connect with because they were really into american culture. But they hated me. Their whole social capital was knowing all things american, so as an actual american, i stole their thunder and they resented me. The english teacher was the proverbial one eyed king until you showed up. Can we think of a way for you to collaborate with her that makes her the star? and somewhere in there reassure her that you don’t want to take her business, just help some kids that can’t afford her services….

    Thanks for your posts. Keep them coming. Fascinated with how the events in Kyiv et al are reflected, discussed, perceived in your town.

    PS we got as much snow as you and relatively speaking its just as cold (coldest jan ever in nyc) and i just adopted a california dog, and he is sucking it up so you should as well!!! 🙂

    PPS writing long posts keeps you warm.

  4. Dear Jacqi — Sam’s insights are great. Hope you can apply them. Still hgolding off on mailing your package. New address please (but I suspect the postmistress will find your wherever) Love you, Grandma Diane

  5. Love Freedom and all thinsgs Franzen, based on your last rant maybe you should read “Lord of the Flies” next….keep on keeping on…..
    Uncle Andrew

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