Thursday, July 15, 2010

An American in Ukraine

Notes on my first visit, 7-2010

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Contrast and Contradictions
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed here are based on just a few days in a foreign country. The true nature of this place is likely to be far different than my short experience would suggest! These are just random thoughts that I have journaled from day to day.

Kiev, Ukraine
Ukraine is a beautiful and horrible place. Driving into Kiev from the airport, the first thing you notice is a wide array of vehicles (driving at supersonic speeds with no apparent regard for traffic laws). A Lexus driving alongside a Marshuka (beat up old mini vans that serve as public taxis). A makeshift sedan that appear to be built from spare parts driving alongside a beamer – and the man wearing the suit is often the guy driving the old sedan! While the streets and roadways themselves are maintained pretty well, at least in the city, the sidewalks are concrete ruins and almost nowhere in the city will you find grass cut in public spaces. Landscaping is non-existent. Brand new thirty-story apartment buildings still under construction are encased by tall, dry grass and weeds. Beautiful historic churches stand out amidst decrepit apartment buildings with broken windows that have sprawled across the area as far as the eye can see.

Although there is tremendous poverty and underemployment in Ukraine, at levels unknown to most Americans, there are very few homeless people on the streets. In an entire day walking around downtown, I saw just one guy with a sign and coin can asking for money.

Ironically, there are no real street gangs in Ukraine like you might expect. There is graffiti but it is mostly of the innocent tagging variety (solo street artists). The gang appears to be the (largely invisible) government, which is Mafioso in nature, but the cops do not harass you as often as I was told they might. I am still waiting for my first cop-bribe opportunity! Cops (“militiateers”) are everywhere here, on about every other street corner, just standing around watching people. On the roadways, they hide covertly with speed radar guns, choosing which drivers to extort for a few bucks, but otherwise they are harmless as far as I can tell, although I am told you do NOT want to drink and drive here (and almost nobody does) because the fines are hefty and the harassment is ratcheted up a few notches.

Everybody in Ukraine is white (and the vast majority are Ukrainian). There is no cultural diversity in this country to speak of – there are virtually no black or brown people (other than a couple Turkish or Asian people running about); however, diversity within the culture abounds. Kiev is a very young city, more twenty-somethings strolling around town that you can shake a stick at, and they appear to have a wide array of tastes and attitudes. I am not sure if they have a wide array of opinions about other cultures though. For instance, you will not find open homosexuality here, it is closeted and considered shameful by most, to the point where it is simply not discussed publicly. But since I do not speak much Russian (most Ukrainians don’t speak Ukrainian, they speak Russian), and since I was told not to strike up conversation with strangers, I could be wrong about the range of attitudes and opinions toward groups of people different than their own. You can feel the pressure to conform here though. A certain tension fills the air in public spaces. It can be ominously quiet in what are typically noisy places elsewhere – the mall, the subway, the market.

There are some dogs and cats on the streets. Some of the dogs have owners, but all of the cats are feral. The dogs with owners are not out for play or exercise, they are out taking a dump in the weeds or (former) playground near their apartments and nobody – I mean nobody – stops and says “Oh, what a cute doggie you have, can I pet it?” This does not happen in Ukraine. Go to Portland, Oregon if you want to receive affection and praise for your animal.

The children in these areas seem happy, usually accompanied by both parents, but they play with pigeons and feral cats because the playground is not maintained and is unsafe.

They drive like maniacs here and I will be lucky to survive another day of Ukrainian roadways. Pedestrians lead the most precarious of lives, as cars, busses, taxis, Marshukas, and light rail cars whiz around corners and through marked pedestrian crossways with absolutely no regard for the people crossing. If they do see you crossing, they don’t stop, they just slow down as they run into you. It makes me think these really are bad people.

A typical two lane, two way street is actually treated as if it were three lanes – one lane for one direction, one lane for the other direction, and between these narrow lanes (with no paved shoulders), cars pass one another in both directions right into incoming traffic. On my drive to the Black Sea (a five hour white-knuckle drive at over 80 miles an hour on average on these kinds of roads), my driver Oleg was passing cars into incoming traffic at high speeds with no chance of making it past the car before the oncoming car reached us. After a couple hours of this culture-shock driving (and six heart attacks), I finally realized that driving in Ukraine has a different set of rules, and that thankfully people abide by these strange laws of the road. The basic rule is this: if someone gets the nose of their car ahead of yours, either on a pass or turn, you must yield and slow down to let them cut in before the car approaching hits them. Since marked lanes have no meaning (the white lines are totally ignored), this unwritten law is the only thing keeping people alive in what feels like a real-life Grand Tursimo car racing video game.

I later came to realize that the manner of driving does not mean these are bad people exactly. It is a reflection of desperation in a desperate country. It is what you must do to survive here. If you drive slow you are actually in more danger than if you participate in the insanity, because you will disrupt the flow of traffic, which is really the flow of life here.

In the city, they walk like they drive, according to the same basic rules, cutting in front of one another as if their life depended on it.

The people look quite serious on the streets, deliberate, determined and focused on whatever task is at hand. At the market (bizarre), where you would expect lots of chatter, there is little to be heard but bargaining between patrons and clerks. The old ladies that sit on the sidewalk selling cucumbers and cherries don’t invite you with conversation. They just stare at you until you ask them how much it costs. People walk fast and with purpose. Nobody says “hello” in passing, nor do they smile as they walk by. They look you in the eye when you pass them on the street, not with cheerful smile, nor with a menacing glare. They just look at you. They are not cold but they are certainly not warm. Their looks and gestures are mildly curious, but their curiosity seems to be based in uncertainty, as if they are assessing you to determine if you are an immediate threat to their agenda at that moment. If it is determined that you are not a threat, they could care less about you, who you are, and what you are doing in their line of vision. They have somewhere to go, something to do, and that’s all they have time for. Russian men have an interesting glazed-over glare, angst-ridden and sad, as if their mother just died and they blame you.

Russian language seems arbitrarily angry, like Klingons in Star Trek. Many words have a syllable that is pronounced furiously (for instance, “goodbye” is pronounced “pa-KA” – say that to yourself and you’ll hear it). So when you listen to Ukrainians talk, you are likely to mistake a conversation about which tomatoes to buy for a divorce dispute. Usually they are talking furiously about something mundane, but don’t get desensitized to it because sometimes they are really angry and one another! This is one of the most noticeable (and confusing) contradictions I’ve encountered.

My wife told me not to talk at all on my first walk around town, for fear that my English would make me a suspicious person in public, and that calling attention to my difference might attract the wrong kind of people. It is not a personal attack or violence that she feared, but rather that some of the more desperate people lurking around might mistake me for a wealthy American and try to take advantage of my local ignorance, or perhaps rob me. I didn’t feel threatened or fearful of the people I encountered walking around Kiev, but I could sense a level of poverty-stricken desperation that was potentially dangerous, if I had wandered into the wrong kind of people in the wrong place. Common sense keeps you in the clear here.

The young women are absolutely the most beautiful women you will find anywhere in the world, and they can be seen everywhere you go, walking around ubiquitous ghetto apartments or shopping in the glamorous downtown square. They don’t look like desperate prostitutes. Most of them appear to be happy, wealthy and independent. They are classy metropolitan women, dressing in tight skirts, nice summer dresses and fancy high heels. They always wear makeup but not too much. They dress as fashion models whether they are going to the nightclub or getting bread at the farmer’s market, as if it were a state mandated requirement. Seeing these supermodels walking in and around their ghetto apartments is a sight to behold, as they navigate through the trash, weeds, dog shit, and broken concrete in their high heels, up the broken apartment stairs, up the two person service elevator, to their two room apartment where the living room doubles as the bedroom and where the view from the balcony is of thousands of other people just like them staring out at thousands of more apartment buildings just like theirs, as far as the eye can see.

Women judge other women as they pass by. I noticed a “glance pattern” that women repeat here, which takes about two seconds. As a woman passes by another woman, she first looks her in the eye expressionless, then quickly scrolls down the body to judge it and/or the dress she is wearing, taking an extra moment to assess the footwear. If the woman is impressed, this glance takes a moment longer, but the women all remain expressionless throughout the glance pattern. If a man is present, the women will actually look at the man directly in the too, but only after assessing the woman. The quick glance at the man is more clearly a judgment about the woman’s choice in men, not about the men per se. This glance is somewhat different than what occurs between American women because it is more obvious and more regular. There is no attempt to disguise the judging glare and it is a seemingly mandatory glance, occurring between women of every age (but especially the twenty to fifty somethings) lasting a full second longer than in America, in my observations at least.

The direct eye contact here is a culture shock as well, among both men and women. Everybody looks at everybody, directly in the eye, for just a second as they pass by. It became uncomfortable and annoying to me (especially since none of the women showed any obvious interest in me as a man..can’t understand why, really but anyway…) and I took to wearing sunglasses all day long to avoid the ritual.

Of course, it is a fallacy to cast all citizens of any country as a unified “type” of people. Ukrainian people are all types of people – happy, angry, jealous, motivated, lazy, intellectual, dim, outgoing and introverted. However, there are some general cultural attitudes that can be felt here, tangible auras of personality types that are more typical than atypical. At the risk of stereotyping these people, it is my observation that these people are generally highly motivated, industrious, nervous and distressed. Their pattern and style of driving, for instance, offers a clue into the Ukrainian psyche. The simply drive over and around (and sometimes over) one another on their agitated way to some destination. The fact that they do not smile at one another on the streets (as a general rule) doesn’t mean that they are mean, but that they are focused solely on their own survival and do not feel that they have the time or energy to be concerned about their fellow human beings. This is an ironic fact given the strength of love and concern within their own families. On the streets, in the city, and in almost every public place I’ve witnessed, they behave callously toward one another and without regard for the welfare of others, particularly if they are going somewhere, or doing something.

The people are noticeably critical and intolerant of other cultures and of cultural diversity in general. I don’t think they think this is so, but I believe it is because they do not deal with diverse people, cultures, languages or attitudes on a daily basis like in the U.S. They do not care that I am an American and have shown absolutely no interest in learning about my culture.

What initially annoyed me about the people here, after seeing the level of poverty and the almost total lack of social support services (although as another contradiction they have higher quality health care and education - although the facilities are not well maintained - is that they appear to spend what little extra income they have on fashion and cars. This is a culture obsessed with conspicuous consumption in terms of clothes and cars, in particular, which is why you see glamour models living in ghetto apartments and unemployed construction workers driving BMW’s regularly.

Of course, this may sound like common city-folk behavior not unlike New York City or L.A.; however, here I see something different. And I blame the government…

The people here are generally income-distressed and without available social services and with inadequate infrastructure. Although the government does provide (essentially) free health care and relatively affordable education, this country is run by mobsters. Ostensibly, this is a democratic society and the citizens are given an opportunity to vote – but few do. When I inquired about why they do not vote, the general response is that all elected officials are controlled by a few groups of mobsters and one group is no better than another – and that fraudulent voting practices by these corrupt officials override the public’s choice. They are generally apathetic toward politics and world events, as far as I can tell.

Hence, you have a country without obvious direction from a compassionate government. The city is disorganized in terms of city planning – there is none, or it overlaps from one regime’s plan to the next. So, you have a tiny shoe cleaning store stuffed between large apartment complexes, resting halfway on a sidewalk, or you can see lawyer offices buried somewhere on the fifth floor of an apartment building, accessible only by a service elevator. A city map is like one big treasure map, winding and twisting with absolutely no zoning laws separating residential from industrial from commercial. It is all mixed together, and the streets (often without visible traffic signs), merge together in four, five and six-way intersections running in every direction imaginable. Although there are parking spaces, there are not enough and are poorly planned, so you commonly see cars parked in the center of a sidewalk, between the tall grass or weeds and the road, in the middle of a playground, sideways in a “no parking” zone, or halfway over a curb and halfway on the road itself. Technically, you can get a ticket for illegal parking, but you never will, because the police rarely concern themselves with what is considered to be a petty and victimless crime. The police accept bribes as a general rule for most traffic violations.

The infrastructure is a good representation of the kind of government in place here. It is chaotic and desperate, and I believe it affects the general mood of the people living here. They are good people in a bad situation, so it is no wonder that they appear to be bad people. This might explain why they run each other over on the streets, and why more than half the cars I saw have dents in them.

These people are not explicitly or unusually violent, as far as I can tell. You feel relatively safe walking around the ghetto apartments and downtown has a Parisian feel, as mostly well-dressed Metropolitan-types stroll casually across the public square.

Zaporizhia, Ukraine
In contrast to the experience of being a foreigner in an urban environment, my visit to Zaporizhia was in stark contrast to the glares and stares on the streets of Kiev. Here, I was welcomed by the Russian epitome of family. The warm-hearted, heavyset aunt, uncle and cousins kissed me on the cheek, made me an amazing breakfast, and demanded that I shower and nap before doing anything else. Although I cannot communicate much with these people, I feel as though I am at my own Babushka’s (grandmother’s) home, relaxed, comfortable and content – despite the miniature abode. Six of us ate breakfast in a kitchen no bigger than a closet, I took a shower in a bathroom the size of a normal shower stall, and was given “office space” to work in the corner of the living room (one of just three rooms in this apartment home) which consisted of a table and end of the couch. The tiny refrigerator was in the living room, because there was no room in the kitchen. What they offered me, however, was everything they had, and I felt as though I didn’t deserve such consideration being a total stranger to these people.

The Russian men are much warmer and kind than American movies have led me to believe. I have enjoyed talking to them (at least trying to) and they reciprocate with curiosity and a certain tenderness and affection I did not expect. I drank a lot of vodka with them, gesturing complex ideas when simple words failed, but unlike the women who almost never took initiative to communicate with me, they made the effort and always poured me another. And that was a good thing.

Cremia/Yalta, Ukraine
Yalta, Ukraine lies on the Black Sea in a region known as Cremia. It is yet another study in contrast and contradiction. This is the most naturally spectacular place in this country, with the greatest wealth amidst some of the most staggering views of poverty I’ve seen yet. The Ukrainian president vacations here, but his castle lies on a mountaintop overlooking decrepit shanties, the kind you would find in the barrios of Nicaragua. The “I-Pee-A-Tree” (that’s how it is pronounced anyway) Mountains tower above several small cities which lie on the coast of the Black Sea, and it is here that most Ukrainians, Russians and other Eastern European vacationers come for sun and fun. They mix with the poor locals who struggle to make a living off the tourist grivna (money) they bring.

Ironically, the Black Sea is not black, it is crystal blue, a tropical paradise. You will not find a more intensely beautiful landscape anywhere on the planet. The beaches are surprisingly comfortable, despite being overcrowded and made of stones, not sand. Your dollar goes a LONG way here. It costs just 25 cents to get a ride across town, beer costs a dollar, you can rent a sailboat where they will take you out fishing (then cook and serve you those fish) and take you swimming and snorkeling for half a day for 100 bucks, and you can stay at a luxurious resort and spa for about 80 bucks a night, including four meals a day and a private beach in the price of that stay. But the resort you stay at will be surrounded by shanty homes with broken windows and starving children, trash lies everywhere on the streets, stray dogs and cats roam every neighborhood in search of food, and like other places in Ukraine, desperate people wander the streets looking to sell their wares – fruits and vegetables, homemade souvenirs, cheap clothes and electronics, anything you need is available at the ubiquitous bizarres that are strewn about all over every town. If you don’t mind being hot (you will not find air conditioning outside of your resort hotel), and being packed into a mini van (the marshuka) with thirty sweaty, stinky strangers to get from one destination to the next, you will have a good time here, as I did.

As is customary here, I have taken to not wearing underwear.
Oddly enough, overall I really like it here in Ukraine. There are things to dislike, and even to fear, but also many things to marvel at, which is pretty much true for anywhere you go on this planet.

Awakening to Privilege
During my first few days in Ukraine, my thoughts kept returning to a class I teach on race and ethnicity and, in particular, a lesson I give based on Peggy McIntosh’s list of White Privileges. In this list, she offers a series of statements about things we take for granted as white people in America, certain privileges we have over racial minorities that we rarely notice or acknowledge. My experience in Ukraine has awakened me to a different list of privileges - ones I have as an American living in a first-world country versus the second world country I am now experiencing. The list could look something like this:

• I can dry my clothes any time I wish (Ukrainians have washing machines but rarely dryers)
• I can find air conditioning almost any time I get too hot (not typical in most homes).
• I can buy and eat peanut butter whenever I wish (good luck finding any here).
• I can drink gin when I feel like it (as hard to find as peanut butter).
• In the city I can take a taxi to my destination (you can get on dirty bus or Marshuka, but taxis are expensive and rarely used).
• In the city, I can find any type of cuisine I desire (the Mexican place I went to here had potato salad and cheese sticks, no quesadillas or tamales).
• I can be certain that the apartment elevator will work.
• I can easily find wireless internet access at a local internet cafĂ© (still haven’t found one, although I’m told one or two exist downtown).
• I can find bi-lingual signs and directions in public places.
• I know that animal control will deal with stray dogs and cats on the streets of my city.
• ….to be continued….