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My Ukrainian Super Power: How My Evolving Relationship to Ukrainian Culture Has Shaped My Life over the Past 30 Years

Issue 270

As a child, Christina Zawerucha traveled on Saturday mornings to the East Village’s Little Ukraine district to immerse in her family’s Old World language and culture. Over the decades, her relationship to that culture became more complicated. One thing she was sure of until this past Thursday, she writes, is that Ukraine would always be there.

Christina Zawerucha Feb 28

I still remember that day in third grade when Ms. Barnes invited me to the front of the class, gave me a big black marker and invited me to draw my country on the map. It was 1992, and for the bulk of my childhood I had come from a country that didn’t exist. Like most of America’s English-language students, I was born in the United States, but my family spoke only Ukrainian at home. My cultural miscues, exotic tastes and impossible last name made me an outcast in our suburban elementary school. But for the first time, when I climbed up on that desk and drew Ukraine (thee sizes too large) on the map of the Soviet Union, I finally felt seen.

I guess I had assumed that Ukraine would always be there. Which is why I surprised myself when on Thursday morning I suddenly broke down in tears. 

My relationship with Ukrainian culture has gone through several seasons and transformations over the past 30 years, with long breaks and passionate returns. Instead of watching Saturday morning cartoons like my American friends, my parents would wake us at the crack of dawn and drive into the city to St George’s Ukrainian Catholic School on East 7th Street for Ukraino Snavstvo, Ukrainian school. 

In sterile rooms, old Ukrainian ladies dressed in drab colors would bring our families’ native country to life. We read the legends of Askold and Dyr founding Kievan Rus’, scratched our wax fortunes on bright pysanky, play-acted the old pagan myths and recited the new catechism. We read poignant allegories by Lesha Ukrainka, memorized poetry by Ivan Franko and Taras Schevchenko. After Ukrainian school, we would go to Ukrainian Scouts, slurp borscht at my grandparents’ apartment across from Veselka and then head uptown for Ukrainian dance lessons where Pani Roma Prima would smack my wobbly “Macaroni legs” into shape.

It was at St. George’s that Pani Olenech, playing a gray plastic casio synthesizer in the church basement, told me that she thought I could sing. It started with the song Sadok Vyshnevi, which means cherry orchard, and then grew into a repertoire that I would sing with Ukrainian scouts around campfires as we orienteered across upstate New York, Ohio and Canada. Those minor-chord melodies were the soundtrack of my identity. My love for nature, for music, for food, for justice, was first learned not in English, but in Ukrainian.  When I was bullied and outcast in American school, I always felt like there was a secret magic superpower that I could dip into, an alternative universe that others couldn’t understand.

My love for nature, for music, for food, for justice, was first learned not in English, but in Ukrainian. 

I remember the first trickle of new Ukrainian immigrants coming into the U.S. in the mid-90s.  My Ukrainian-American friends and I were so excited to welcome our new Ukrainian  classmates and cousins from the old country,  only to be heartbroken when they didn’t understand a word we said. Under the Soviet Union’s Russification policies, the Ukrainian language had been made illegal. Their “h”s formed hard “g”s and we struggled to find common ground between the Russian they had learned in Soviet-run schools and the Ukrainian our grandparents taught us. So many of them were traumatized, displaced and disoriented. We gave them our hand-me-downs and make up, showed them how to do their hair and taught them how to be “cool.”

When I became a teenager, I started to drift away from my Ukrainian heritage. There were push and pull factors. With the science olympiad, school plays and U.S. Girl Scout canoe races eating up my Saturdays, I began to realize that there was a bigger, more exciting world out there beyond my little Ukrainian diaspora community. I also started becoming aware of the things I didn’t like about Ukrainian culture. I started to pick up on casual homophobic and anti-semetic comments that made me feel ashamed of the culture that until then I had loved so unquestioningly. The socially-accepted, toxic cycle of alcoholism and family abuse that seemed endemic in our family systems began to represent a way of life I yearned to escape. The conservative overcorrection to failed soviet “socialist” policies did not align with my developing values, and once in college I made a conscious effort to distance myself from my culture and instead focus on learning from others.

I studied Arabic in college, and learned Spanish, French and Amharic while working internationally. I made a career at the intersection of organic agriculture and second language learning working with immigrants, refugees and preliterate smallholder populations near and far. And what I have discovered is that the love I developed for my Ukrainian culture is what makes me love and appreciate other people’s cultures. 

The truth is, being Ukrainian is a super power. You can’t escape it. Even as I was making new life choices, I still felt Ukrainian culture choosing me.

The author.

It came for me in my twenties at a party in a Brooklyn backyard. I started singing those Ukrainian folks songs when I was tipsy. A couple of hipsters loved the music and asked me if I would be willing to sing with their band. I sang with the Drunkard’s Wife for three years, where we did modern mash-ups of Ukrainian, Klezmer and Baltic music from all over Eastern Europe. 

I tell my students to go into their communities and make the changes they want to see there. Now I had to do the same thing. Around this time, a family member approached me for help maintaining a rustic bungalow at a Ukrainian camp in Pennsylvania.  I re-engaged with my Ukrainian culture, but on my own terms. I brought my gay best friend, Jewish then-boyfriend, and Black and Asian friends to spend time with me at the camp. I even wore my Black Lives Matter hat to church a few times. People were welcoming, or at least willing to have a conversation. The culture is shifting.

In January 2014, I had the opportunity to go to Ukraine for the first time, for a permaculture research conference in Lviv, my grandfather’s hometown. My family had escaped Ukraine under some pretty horrific circumstances, and had absolutely no desire to return. When I told them I had bought my ticket, they were fearful for my life, and told me that I would be kidnapped or worse. But I felt like I needed to go. Ukraine had been such a huge part of my cultural imagination. It was time for me to experience it for real, and on my own terms.

As an adult I re-engaged with Ukrainian culture, but on my own terms.  I brought my gay best friend, my Jewish then-boyfriend, and Black and Asian friends to the camp. 

Ukraine was an amazing country that far surpassed my expectations. Lviv, in Western Ukraine, is like the Paris of Eastern Europe, with a coffee, chocolate, art and music culture that reminded me of the hippest parts of Brooklyn. I stayed with Tatyana and Sasha, a Ukrainian couple that runs an organic farm-to-table apothecary in Lviv. As we dusted off the cobwebs of my Ukrainian language, I discovered, most importantly, that we could make each other laugh. Walking across the countryside, and looking up at the newly oriented constellations outside of Truskovets, I felt a profound connection to my native country I was encountering for the first time.

On my last night in Ukraine, we walked out to the Euromaidan protest taking place in the center of Lviv. People were holding candles and singing. The corrupt pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych had just resigned from power, new elections were being prepared, and people were singing in the streets with hope and joy. Sasha and Tatyana asked me if I wanted to join in the singing.

In the middle of the square, in the dark candle light, I began singing a song my Ukrainian grandfather had sung to me, called Volya, freedom.

  “Ya bachyla ptashku khto vpala z hnizdechka…”

As I started to sing, a hush came over the crowd. They pulled out their phones and started recording. Afterwards, people started coming up to me in the square and hugging me, saying, “Please sing another song. We don’t know these old Ukrainian songs.” I discovered that many of the songs that my grandparents and Ukrainian school teachers had taught me had been lost during the Soviet era. All of a sudden, all of those hours at Ukrainian school, scouts and dancing really meant something. At the Ukrainian permaculture conference, we learned about heirloom seeds. In that moment, I felt like I was an heirloom variety of Ukrainian, holding the nourishing wisdom of songs and stories that people were hungry for.  I sang long into the night, and learned a few songs from them. There were some we all still knew.

A week later, Putin invaded eastern Ukraine and gave his support to a separtist movement there that has simmered for the past eight years.

Later, I was asked to help co-facilitate a virtual permaculture course for Ukrainian displaced persons from my little farm in Virginia. My ESL students and I built a stage in a barn and streamed videos in broken English about potential solutions to broken systems with the goal of bringing some hope to people who were in a long state of uncertainty. How much did we succeed in our mission? Hard to say. But I helped in the way I was asked, in the way I knew how.

I felt like I was an heirloom variety of Ukrainian, holding the nourishing wisdom of songs and stories that people were hungry for.

I have since moved on to run projects in other parts of the world and now in my new home in Binghamton, New York. My ESL students come from all over the world — Pakistan, Haiti, Sudan, Nepal and yes, even Ukraine and Russia. When my students come into my classroom, they are often for the first time finding themselves in a setting where they are meeting people who speak a different language than them, practice a different religion or look and dress differently from where they came from. On the first days of school, I share the words every Ukrainian learns from the famous poet, Taras Schevchenko.

“Learn my brothers. Think and read. Learn from others’ differences, but never forget where you came from.”

These are authentic Ukrainian words to love, and live and learn and teach by. 

When caring people ask me, “Do you have family there?” the answer would technically be no. But it is a very real frame of reference for my entire Ukrainian-American experience, and now for a very real and disorienting sense of loss. Through my tears, I swear I hear bandura music playing songs that we all still know.

Christina Zawerucha is an English as a New Language teacher and Permaculture Agronomist who is passionate about facilitating the exchange of ecological wisdom in multicultural contexts. She has16 years of experience developing industry-focused ESL/Agriculture programs with public schools, social enterprises, universities, and nonprofits in New York, Ukraine, Virginia, and Ethiopia.

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