When the average American thinks of Ukraine they tend to think of an extremely cold and grey country and when that same American is asked to think of a Chihuahua they tend to think of a yappy dog that thrives in the warmth and sun of Mexico. This contradiction has lead me to my first big question for the people of Ukraine; why are there so many Chihuahuas in Ukraine?
Photo Description: View from my apartment in Dnipro accompanied by a pen drawing
I have officially lived in Ukraine for a month now and I don’t feel like I am exaggerating when I say that I have never seen so many Chihuahuas in my life. When at the Fulbright orientation in Kyiv, I was warned to be on the lookout when running outside for feral dogs. I remember speaking with my friend Andrii from Drogobych, when I studied abroad in Poland about how when he was a child he used to be chased by dogs. I even remember my sister in law describing her childhood in Spain the same way. So when I came to Ukraine I was ready. I wasn’t going to be fooled by some puppy eyes and I wasn’t going to get chased down the street. But as I sit now in a cute cafe I am confronted with a different problem all together, trying not to make eye contact with a small black Chihuahua. He seems friendly enough but his fake diamond collar makes me feel self-conscious about my coffee stained jeans.
I start this blog this way because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about Ukraine in the West. I think a lot of these changes are new and the result of the last three years of political reform, but I also think a lot of these changes are deeply rooted in this country’s unique place in the history of Eurasia. That being said, I have only lived in Ukraine for a month and in that time I have seen Kyiv and Dnipro (formally Dnipropetrovsk). I cannot speak for the experiences of others in Drogobych or Poltava. I however think there are a lot of stereotypes about Ukraine that are true, and that they may be proven wrong as time goes on but who knows?
To start, the one stereotype I think that is true of Ukrainians is that they are extremely friendly. Did you know Ukraine was ranked one of the top 20 friendliest countries in the world? The only time I have felt someone was being unfriendly to me is when I was holding up the line at the grocery store because I didn’t know what my coupon applied to (thus the unfriendliness was justified) and when I was almost hit by a marshrutka/bus (also my fault). [Taxi Drivers are excluded from this conversation because I always have bad luck with taxi drivers] Every other experience has been met with kind smiles and understanding. My coworkers especially have been nothing but kind to me. They’ve shown me around the city, helped me to buy postcards, and in one instance fixed my wifi. This is the type of helpfulness you don’t always get from complete strangers in the USA.
There a big stereotype around the world that Americans are fake. We walk down the street and awkwardly smile at strangers to whom we have no intention of conversing with. We ask “How are you?” when we don’t care how the other person is. We pretend to be interested in each other. For example, if I’m in NYC and someone makes eye contact with me, I do my awkward half smile and pray it doesn’t invite a strange comment. Ukrainians on the other hand don’t smile at strangers, but if you stop one to ask a question they will almost always help you and do it with a kind tone to their voice.
Yesterday I went to buy a curling Iron and had to ask about four different people for help. The first helped by giving me directions to a store that sells curling irons, which was in a different building. The second taught me the word for curling iron in Russian and passed me off to another person. The third slowly explained the difference between all the different curling irons and repeated everything about three times for me when I didn’t understand all the specific language. And the fourth rung me up and reassured me that I will do just fine in Ukraine before whispering in English “Good Luck” as I left. This is just one of the many instances of subtle kindness I have experienced in Ukraine.
I rarely see that much tolerance to non-English speakers in the USA. Every time I’ve seen a non-English speaker in the USA try to buy something and get frustrated, the staff of the store or market gets frustrated and often times rude. I have yet to feel that in Ukraine. Strangers and colleagues alike have welcomed me to Ukraine. I feel safe in speaking my broken level of Russian and my even more horrid level of Ukrainian. People are understanding if I mess up. They are just happy I’m trying. I think many people in the USA could take a lesson from the people of Dnipro in this respect.
I’m going to end this first blog post here. There are a lot of other topics I can cover but I feel like this is a decent introduction and I want to experience a bit more before commenting on other aspects of expat life in Ukraine. I also start teaching next week and am sure that will help me dive deeper into Ukrainian culture. I will however end the article how I started……with a chihuahua in Kyiv or as my friend Ryan joked the “Kyiverly Hills Chihuahua.”
Photo Description: A Chihuahua walks by the “Friendship of Nation’s Arch” in Kyiv as the warm October sunlight reminds it of his ancestors journey from Mexico to Ukraine.
Also, this is a notice to all two of you who read my past travel entries (Mom and Conor). I also am really trying to mix up my style of blogging while in Ukraine. The last time I traveled I talked about monuments and how they made me feel. In retrospect that’s really boring and makes me sound like a Wikipedia page. This time around it will be a bit more of a organic stream on consciousness, though I will try and write about some of my past travels as well (mainly Belgium).