Tonight we are getting on a train to travel to a special place. A familiar home or a foreign country... we’re not sure which. Yuriy and I were both born in Ukraine and moved to the States at a very young age with our families. I left Ukraine on my first birthday, and Yuriy at age 6. We’ve never been back.
Although I have absolutely no recollection of my home country, I feel like I know it fairly well. The majority of my [large] extended family lives in America and we all attend Slavic churches (believe it or not, there are so many). Thus, I have more than enough Ukrainian friends. I grew up on borsht, vareniki, and olivye. I didn’t speak a lick of English when I entered kindergarten in America, but picked up quickly from my peers. I was forced to speak Ukrainian at home by my parents all through my childhood and sent to Ukrainian and Russian school classes at my church once a week.
Over the years my Ukrainian has stayed elementary and English has become my primary language. My parents have become fairly Americanized in 20 years of living in this country, and don’t hang Russian rugs on the walls anymore or wear leather jackets with athletic pants. They now own a TV and microwave (although they’re fairly recent). They don’t force us to translate for them and my mom cooks some Americanized dishes. We shower more than once a week and now shopping at thrift stores is cool, not embarassing. The Ukraine my parents talk about existed during the Soviet Union, prior to the fall of communism. They speak of wooden outhouses, large gardens, backyard wells, and several mile long walks to school. They tell us their experiences with Christian persecution in school and at work by communist atheists. 90% of the photos our family has from Ukraine are black and white, and look like they’re over 50 years old. I imagine Ukraine to be an ancient place frozen in time. The Ukraine my parents remember and talk about has changed in two decades, but we didn’t see it evolve. I don’t know whether to expect an ancient village stuck in the past where my parents once lived or a modern country like the others we’ve recently seen in Europe.
I’ve never experienced my native language in a country where everyone knows it. Usually I revert to Ukrainian when I’m speaking to a friend at a grocery store and don’t want to be overheard/understood. It’s always been my secret language (especially while growing up in Idaho, where Ukrainians were few). Will it feel like home? A foreign country? A far away memory? De ja vu? A dream? Will every old woman remind me of my grandmothers? I can’t wait to get a taste of my heritage and hope to learn more of Ukraine’s history. I’m nervous to practice my Ukrainian and miss all the cultural jokes and slang. I’m looking forward to familiar food that will (hopefully) taste like my mom’s. I feel so fortunate to experience this with Yuriy, who will completely understand, without me having to explain a thing.
[graphics: The Graphics Fairy]