As a child, I came from a country that didn’t exist. I grew up speaking a language that was exiled in its own homeland, singing songs that were silenced, shouting stories that could only be whispered.
My grandparents and father had immigrated here from Ukraine, then controlled by the soviet union. The USSR’s “Russification” policies, intended to create a more unified soviet culture, had outlawed the use of the Ukrainian language in public, or in print. The immigrants living in New York City and its environs had created a rich diaspora subculture that gave me a sense of pride and identity as a child. At the time, we spoke only Ukrainian at home, and despite growing up in the US, I had actually been placed in an ESL pull-out program in elementary school to help me with my English. When other kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons, I was dragged to Ukrainian school at St. George’s in the Lower East Side every Saturday, where I learned about the history, music, art, and literature of Ukraine in my family’s native tongue. I learned wilderness survival skills and folk songs through the Plast Ukrainian Scouting organization. I sang a full Ukrainian mass every Sunday at St. Peter and Paul’s Ukrainian Catholic church, a working class parish in Spring Valley, New York, and learned Ukrainian folk dancing in their church hall on Fridays. The message in all of these cultural institutions was hopeful and nationalistic: that someday, Ukraine would be free. That we were keeping the language and culture alive in the United States in order to preserve it for when Ukraine gained its independence.
I remember in 1992, when Ukraine finally gained its independence. My 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Barnes, invited me to come up to the front of class and draw Ukraine on to the map for the very first time. The shape of the state was generally accurate, but I drew it two sizes too big, a reflection of my pride in a country that was so much a part of my identity, but had never actually been to. She didn’t make me fix it.
The new Ukrainian immigrants began trickling in. When the new girls from Ukraine came to New York and started attending Ukrainian school, we ABU (American Born Ukrainians) were so excited to meet them- only to discover that they spoke Russian. The children of the diaspora and the new immigrant youth struggled to understand each other, both linguistically and culturally. I remember conflicts between the new, less-privileged, Russian-speaking Ukrainian girls and the American-born Ukies, particularly around sharing, fashion, and inclusion. For the first time, it occurred to me that the idealized version of Ukraine that our teachers at St George’s had described to us may not actually be what it seemed.
The Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protests are recent manifestations of Ukraine’s continuing struggle to define her cultural and political identity. This trip is a venture into defining mine. I’d made a list two years ago of 3 things I wanted to do before I turned 30. I wanted to put my feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time, spend more time with the people I love, and I wanted to finally visit Ukraine. Today I embark on the journey to reconcile the Ukraine in my imagination with her social, political, and economic reality- however harsh it may be.
Right now, I’m writing from Gate 24 of the Warsaw airport, on my way to a 7-day intensive advanced Permaculture Teacher Training Course in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine, the very region that my family came from. This course will provide me with a certification that will allow me to officially teach permaculture design out of Crow Forest Farm in Blacksburg, VA. Run by the NGO “Permaculture in Ukraine,”
my participation in the course subsidizes Ukrainian citizens’ tuition in the course, allowing Ukrainians to learn about permaculture design. The course is being taught by George Sobol, a British permaculture designer who has started several permaculture institutes in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus and Moldova. The course will be taught bilingually in English and Ukrainian, which will be fascinating for me as a linguist /second language educator as well. I hope to share some of these experiences with the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute and Office for International Research and Economic Development to discuss how a second language can be refreshed and/or taught through sustainability content. Well, I’m off to catch my flight. I’ll update you all soon : )