Guest Author Nitai Vinitzky moved from California to Ukraine with the Peace Corps. This is his story about Leaving America.
“You left America, for this?” is a question that was imposed on me all too often by my students in Ukraine. “Why? Mr. Nitai, why would you want to live here, when you could be living in the USA?” It was a question that was especially difficult to answer, mainly because it was being asked by my 2nd through 11th graders, all of whom had been raised to view America as a Hollywood playground; a place full of celebrities, fast cars and glamorous lifestyles.
I never really had the perfect answer for them. I usually would shrug it off with a smile, or tell them that it was a dream of mine to live on my own in another country. This answer never truly satisfied them. It would only trigger a new wave of questions, such as: “Why don’t you make any money?” “Why aren’t you married yet?” “Why would you choose our small town to live in? Why not live in Kiev? Or Lviv?” I would use the lesson as an excuse to side step these questions, but this “Why?” always came back to haunt me at night while I was trying to fall asleep.
Looking back now six months after finishing my two-year service with the United States Peace Corps, I feel like I can finally start sorting through my experiences, and most importantly, I can start answering the barrage of questions my students threw at me.
The first and most significant impact Ukraine had on me was the amount life experience I gained there. Before moving abroad I had always taken life experience for granted, like it was something that just grew on you like a tooth. It was something you could gain from just living your every day life. Looking back at my daily lifestyle that I maintained in my sheltered Northern California hometown, I never imagined the different things waiting to be experienced in the world.
The list of things I experienced range from: playing soccer on a sheet of ice in -30 snowstorm, holding a box of ducks for an elderly lady on the bus while she threw her cabbages at a drunk man, teaching my students how to use a single-lens-reflex camera for the first time in their life, learning to make perfect Ukrainian borsch from scratch on a soviet union era stove, playing paintball in soviet ruins, and talking about the meaning of life with a guy who experienced world war 2 first hand in a foreign language. The list could go on for quite a while, but those are some of the things that I don’t think I could have ever experienced if I stayed in my hometown, and will never ever forget.
Another reason for leaving California is the fact that I wanted to be completely independent, both emotionally and physically. I wanted to experience living fully on my own. I had always had roommates or lived with my girlfriends, and never really had been truly self sufficient before. This feeling of being independent was one of the main reasons of my departure. Basically, I wanted to stand on my own two feet and deal with challenges on my own. It wasn’t always easy. Actually I can now confidently say that it was probably the hardest thing I have done in my life. There were days where I felt like I was going crazy.
On an average day in Ukraine I experienced an emotional rollercoaster. My emotions tended to range from excited and invigorated, to feeling really helpless, isolated and downright depressed. I spent a lot of time on my own the first six months I was at my work site, and seldom came out of my apartment. I had extreme anxiety about how my small 20,000-person community viewed me as an individual. As an extremely social person, this anxiety put me into a state of deep depression, and the only way I could deal with it was to try and force myself to go outside.
Luckily, I don’t lack in the hobby department, so I made myself go play soccer at the local club, ping-pong at the church down the street, and started my own photography club at school. This helped balance my emotions a bit more, but I still missed the familiarity that I left back home. Eating in-n-out at midnight with friends, going out to movies, swimming in my hometown river during the summer, and playing disc golf were all things I yearned for, but were all so distant and non existent in my new habitat. I desperately missed my friends and my family. I don’t think I would have been able to survive without skype.
My frustrations came in many different forms. Living in southeastern Ukraine on the Crimean peninsula, I had to learn Russian. Ukrainian is mainly spoken in the northwest of Ukraine, but is still considered the national language, even though most of the population speaks Russian fluently. However, I still had to learn some Ukrainian due to some of my classes being held in Ukrainian only. Russian was probably the toughest language I’ve ever encountered. As an already bi-lingual speaker I caught on to the language, but I still had moments of brain-busting frustration dealing with a language that has 5 different cases. I got by most of the time with sign language and using my broken Russian to express myself. After teaching five hours (and mostly speaking broken Russian the entire time) I would usually come home and just collapse onto my bed for a few hours due to intense migraines. Not being able to fully express myself is probably the most frustrating feelings I’ve ever experienced in my life.
My stay in Ukraine was also riddled with illnesses. Being lactose intolerant, I was always having indigestion due to the Ukrainians staple being milk products. Thank god I wasn’t a vegetarian, I don’t think I would have been able to survive there during the winter on vegetables alone.
Bridging cultural barriers also proved difficult at times. Trying to understand what made Ukrainians tick is something that I really had to work at. For example, women aren’t supposed to sit on cold surfaces, even during the summer. Doing so could make them unfertile. Furthermore, as someone who loves whistling, the Ukrainian cultural superstition of whistling attracting bad fortune was hard for me to get accustomed to. I would get a lot of dirty stares from students and teachers alike while whistling in the hallways on the way to class. I also got scolded several times for putting empty bottles back on the table, instead of the floor, that was considered a big no-no.
However, the hardest thing for me was trying to understand the school system in which I was teaching. As a TEFL volunteer teaching English for 20 hours a week, and doing 2-3 summer camps a year, I got a good glimpse of the underbelly of the Ukrainian school system. The main tenant being: you can cheat and pass any class, even if you don’t do the work. I remember the first test I handed out and seeing all the kids running all over the class looking at each other’s answers. I looked at my co-teacher in dismay, and she just shook her head and smiled. “It’s our way of life”, she told me, “there’s nothing we can do now to change it.”
Basically I had two options. Try to single-handedly change the mind-set of an entire country, or just go with the flow and relinquish what was familiar for me so that I could fully integrate. It was probably the single most important moment for me in Ukraine when I made the decision to just relinquish my position on how I saw things and fully allowed myself to integrate into the way that they saw the world.
Even with all the hardships I faced in Ukraine, I still miss it more than anything. It’s a place that will always be etched into who I am. I learned so much from the people there, especially how to deal with life when it throws you lemons. Ukrainians are the hardiest people I’ve ever met in my life. They know how to weather any storm, both emotionally and physically. I will take their values with me through life and the friendships I made there will remain with me forever. The Ukrainians primary impact on me was their ability to make me realize that no cultural barrier is big enough to stop two humans from sharing an honest life-changing experience.
In conclusion, these past two years in Ukraine made me realize that the reason I left was to gain perspective as to the person I really am and what works for me. Most intrinsically, I didn’t move to Ukraine for my students, for the United States of America or to make my family proud. I moved to Ukraine for me. Ultimately, I left so that I could shift my perspective and so that I could grow, and gain a better self-understanding. I gained an insight that was invaluable during this period of time: a birds-eye-view of myself.
If I could go back to my classes now in order to answer the question, my answer would be: I left because I wanted to change the way I see the world by leaving everything that was comfortable behind.
For more stories on Leaving America, go here.