Saturday, 26 September

They about us

I often have to talk to foreigners. Not simple “hello – goodbye”, we manage to become friends and mail each other on New Year even if they don’t have it on January 1, as I. I always ask them about Ukraine: what they know about us, if they can find our capital on the map, what languages we speak, what we eat, what kind of bears roam our streets and whether we have computers. And at the end of their visit, seeing them off at the airport, I give them keepsakes and ask how their imaginary Ukraine differs from the real. Sometimes the answers impress. First I didn’t write them down what I bitterly regret now but recently I have been keeping a diary with a symbolic name “They about us” in which I carefully make notes about the most incredible stereotypes, completely unexpectable associations, basically, I model a so-called map of Ukraine through the eyes of a foreigner.

For the first time, I conducted this experiment at a conference of literary critics in Wroclaw, which gathered more than three hundred participants from all over the world. Imagine an academic environment, where all are either doctors of sciences or the candidates, where they discuss Joyce, Heidegger and Deleuze, for a time translating the sonnets of Shakespeare to Finnish and at the same time to my “Hello, I am Marta Hosovska. I am from Ukraine” they stare at me and inevitably ask if we write in Cyrillic and if we really have minus forty in winter. It was 2016, and the alarming news about the war in Ukraine had already been ringing on all the TV channels in the world (well, okay, in most countries of the world) and they even had time to get forgotten. Jamala had recently won Eurovision and I was congratulated as if we were accepted into the European Union and granted an interest-free loan. They were not interested in the Crimean-Tatars issues and they didn’t know where this Crimea is located. Our closest neighbours – the Poles, Hungarians and Lithuanians – knew a little more, but didn’t show any particular interest, and after a polite exchange they were in a hurry to join the experiment of the Hungarians and Finns who tried to find an answer to a question that torments all linguists: they understand each other’s language, or they don’t (if anyone was interested, then the experiment proved they don’t).

I was sitting in a crowed banket hall and didn’t hear anything but one thought that pulsed in my head: How couldn’t they know anything about a huge country in the centre of Europe? How have we, Ukrainians, allowed this? How could we allow to be a white spot on the mental map of the world? I was angry at everyone, especially at myself. I even wanted to go away not to show my offended feelings (read – honour) and not to stand alone in the corner.

Almost leaving the hall I was struck by a thought – this is a perfect focus group! One couldn’t wish for more! I decided to do what is my strong suit – talk with people. I found a presenter and I asked a microphone for a second: I cleared my throat, turned red, my palms sweated but I still squeezed a smile and suggested playing the game. The game was simple: everyone in the hall had to write a question to me about Ukraine, anything, without limits. For this didn’t look like a promotion of my country all those wishing could do the same for themselves. To my surprise, everyone agreed and already in five minutes, they brought papers with the most diverse questions. Some of them I have written down to my notebook and now I am quoting them:

India: Do you have poisonous snakes?

China: How do you distinguish cursive letters? They are all the same!

Australia: There are many Ukrainians in Australia. They are all awesome but for some reason, they want to feed everyone with a hot liquid beetroot salad. Why do you do this?

Scotland: Why did you voluntarily elect the president of the ones who opposed the Orange Revolution five years before?

Austria: Do you have aviation?

Sweden: Are gay marriages allowed in your country?

New Zealand: Is Chornobyl far from your country?

And my favourite from the Philippines: Where is Ukraine?

I stood with that microphone and got clarity with every question that my Ukraine is mysterious, veiled in secrets, unknown and doesn’t know how to present itself. I answered the questions a bit humorously and a bit seriously. This is a non-exotic exotic: without poisonous snakes and safari in the desert but it is also not a slicked-down Europe, all scheduled and planned. We don’t have documentary films in all possible languages and even modern tour guides appeared not so long ago. How do they know anything about us? And most importantly – why do they have such a will?

Since then I began my inner micro project in a yellow notebook. Two questions about Ukraine: at the beginning of the meeting and at the end. And I will share the answers with you. We don’t live by borscht alone!

Marta Hosovska

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