“Why do Americans put their feet on their desks?” and other questions Ukrainian students have about America

breakJohn Bender from the Breakfast Club (1985)

I’ve been an English teacher for less than two weeks now. In that time I was also able to meet a wide variety of students and other English teachers, all with different approaches to language learning. I’ve also officially started being tutored in Russian and am enrolled in a German class. And although, my daily life in Ukraine is a bit of “I don’t understand why this is happening but am excited,” alongside some “I’m really unprepared for this situation,” I at least now have an answer to the eight cats that guard my apartment door when they ask “Where are you going?”

But with that structure comes the actual responsibility.  The chance to bridge the gap and start an honest conversation about Ukrainian-American relations as well as the differences between our two countries. The chance to be a ‘liaison’ to American culture and heritage and all that nice stuff you can put beneath the resume bullet point.

To start I asked my students, “What do you know about Americans? What are they like? How would you describe an American and please, don’t hold back. You’re in a safe space. Be negative.” But getting Ukrainians to say bad things about America is like pulling teeth. More often than not I would hear, “Americans are friendly and kind. They are so nice and always smiling.” I wondered is this just because I’m American?

It was strange, because while I was teaching in Russia or living in Germany, everyone was ready to tell me their problems with America. The issues they have with our government, our foreign policy, our tourists etc. It was something I always embraced because I enjoy a harsh dose of reality and public opinion about me. It’s like the Leslie Knope quote from Parks and Recreation, “What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.” Actually, that’s not true. I hate being yelled at and the second you raise your voice at me I’m out the door. But you get the picture.

But with my students, I had to ask, “What about McDonalds? Fastfood? When you think of Americans do you think of overweight people.” The response I instead got in all four of my classes was, “Oh yeah but that is not accurate to real Americans.” I couldn’t help but point out that the average obesity rate in America is over 50% in response. But maybe that’s the issue. Maybe it’s the American Media. When you watch tv there are rarely people of different shapes and sizes so maybe America is falsely advertising itself. Ukraine is also not exactly a tourist hotspot for Americans so unlike in Italy or France, it’s rarer to see an American tourist in their bright vacation shirts and socks and sandals.  But it’s still interesting to me that the most negative piece of feedback I’ve gotten on American culture is that, “in movies, the students put their feet on the desk.”

The tone also really tended to shift when I asked then for my students to talk about their own country. The answers I got were a strange combination of pessimistic and hopeful. There is no other way to describe it. One student described that ‘Ukrainians are waiting for someone to come save them’ (A concept I feel like is currently being illustrated in the American election as well). But that same student went on to tell me that Ukrainians are ‘hardworking.’ This is something I have definitely seen reflected. Ukrainians are hard working. I see it in my students from day one. They want to learn and are using the classroom to the best of their ability. The students seemed to agree that there is hope for Ukraine. That some people way want to leave the country but things are getting better and they hope it will continue.

Me teaching and pretending I wasn’t blinded by the projector

Speaking of hope, I used the classroom as a way to let my inner Model United Nations nerd come out. I had my students, through an indirect and formal question, ask President Obama, one questions. I got simple questions like,  “Mr.President, can you please tell me, what is your dog’s name?” to “Mr. Presidet, may I ask, why is it so difficult for Ukrainian Students to obtain a student visa to study in the United States of America?” The variety of questions really kept me on my feet, and I couldn’t help but sometimes use Obama’s favorite placeholder, “that’s a great question,” to gather my thoughts.

So far it’s been fun and insightful each moment in the classroom. My students are brilliant and very well read. They range from physics students to psychology students to English teachers themselves. They’ve read books by Ray Bradbury and asked me about ‘greek life’ on American campuses. They are interested in everything from American Foreign Policy to music and slang terms. They are engaged and honest, and everything I could want as a teacher. And although my second week of lessons has been more focused on university life, I’m still blown away by how excited they are.

Before I started teaching I was worried about filling the class time. Would I have enough to say? Will they want to listen? But as time has gone on, I’ve seen its more about the students. They are keeping me engaged. I want to hear more and more about their lives growing up in Ukraine alongside their dreams and aspirations.

I feel very lucky because as I’m teaching in these classes I’ve come to really realize, I’m also learning, and that’s a great feeling.

Also, there will  be more to come on some of the stranger and more serious things I’ve experienced in Ukraine but it’s harder to find the right words to describe those experiences.

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