This question surprises her: “Why did you come back when everyone wants to leave this place?” She is surprised that they call the motherland “this place”, she is surprised by the love for generalizations, and most of all – by these eyebrows raised high in sheer bewilderment. People are genuinely amazed and even feel sorry to hear that Ksenia returned to Ukraine after 20 years of living in the United States of America.
How often do you have to answer this question?
Ksenia is a Master of Biology, brilliant scientist and mother of three children. She has returned from 20 years of emigration to Ukraine and has been living in Lviv for six months now. She has a tangible diaspora accent, upbeat mood and irresistible desire to work for the glory of Ukraine.
Ksenia artistically sighs and says that she has long dropped counting but it still surprises her.
How can one be surprised at the natural will to live in the motherland? First, I was seeking some hidden question in it: probably, this is some care, probably, I don’t know something, for example, some terrible secret why people don’t have to live in Ukraine. But everything turned out to be simple, people just can’t get the idea – returning from the “Hollywood” America of Dreams to the country with uncertain economic and political prospectives seems at least strange, at most insensible. My American friends had another reaction, they have a trend there now – travelling around the world, living in exotic countries. For them – this is a venture! But for me, Ukraine is something more than a venture, politics or economy, this is the country of my childhood where I was very happy and which I left with tears in my eyes for only two years, but it turned out to be twenty!
You left for the USA being a kid and, as far as I understand, it was your parents’ decision, not yours. How did you perceive such a tremendous life change? And being adult would you dare to make such a decision – to change fundamentally not only your life but also your family’s life?
I was twelve. I lived with parents in Drohobych, I went to the gymnasium and was a very happy kid who knew nothing about the “tough nineties”. They were amazing for me! Now I understand that it was my parents who did their best to prevent my sister and me from any trouble, and it was, because my father was a professor of physics at Drohobych University, and there’s no need to talk much about the situation with teachers in the nineties – everyone knows how frustrating it was. Father received an offer from an American colleague to go to a two-year internship in the United States, and we were happy to have the opportunity to live in a different culture and learn English. Actually, these are the words of a grown-up me but as a kid, I thought, “Hurray! I am going to America!” I didn’t know that two years would be twenty! To tell you the truth, I was mad at parents when I realized that they didn’t plan to go back. We talked a lot about it: I was complaining, voicing my childhood pity, but now, as an adult, I realize that they wanted us to have a better life.
Do you realize that you are repeating the same pattern? But now the situation is more dramatic whereas you initiated the relocation of your family – husband and three children – to the country that is homeland only to you but for them, it is the same obscurity and shock, as once the States were for you?
Yes, absolutely. Moreover, my husband is not Ukrainian! He is an American and, finally, my children are also more Americans than Ukrainians, so to speak. My husband and I have been pondering on a would-be relocation to Ukraine, it was not a spontaneous decision, we perfectly understood what a cultural shock would it become for him and children. As it turned out later, we didn’t even imagine the extent! (laughs) We decided to give it a try and some time – two years to take roots here in Ukraine. In the event of failure, we can return to America. Before final relocation to Ukraine my husband and I came to explore the area: we have been to my native Drohobych and Lviv, we liked it and made a decision to move. Fair enough, we realized that to stay and to live are different things but if the idea of living here had been impossible we would understand it in two weeks. A year of bureaucratic processes – and here we are!
Do you remember the moment that made everything clear? Not a childish but an adult conscious desire?
So cool that you distinguish a childish and adult desire because as a teenager I packed my stuff and went “back home” after each quarrel with parents and each misunderstanding at school! My mother also in the heat of the moment said she was about to go back to Ukraine when we, children, misbehaved. An adult awareness that I want to return to the Motherland, to reunite with my identity came to me during the events at the Maidan. Together with my husband I organized Maidan in Portland, went on protests, wrote petitions to the White House and in every way supported the Ukrainians. But I felt that I needed more. I wanted not only to sympathize with Ukraine from the other continent but to be at the centre of events of these major milestone. At some moment I dropped reading news because it was unbearably painful for me – I am here, Ukraine is there. My husband retold me the news and supported me a lot during this time. At that moment, I understood I no longer wanted to live split and wanted to go to Ukraine. It was a point of no return.
Such a pun comes out “point of no return in returning home”. You recall the key concept in the nomad’s discourse – “identity”. Can’t but ask: who are you, Ukrainian or American? Who do you feel like?
I waited for this question as long as I myself often reflect on it. As far as you know, I have a double-barrelled name – Ukrainian, father’s, and through a hyphen my husband’s, a very American one. (laughs) I decided so: not to give up my old and not to reject my new. Either this or that is mine. I remember when I had to swear an oath to get an American passport and I cried so much that my parents began to worry about me. My rational “I” understood that it was necessary for the future, and my emotional – you can say the soul – was bursting with pain. There were many immigrants with me who received citizenship that day, they waited so long for that day and were very happy while I wept bitterly.
Everything is clear with your Ukrainian “I” and how about your American “I”? You spent your teenage and youth years in the States and couldn’t stay in the cultural bubble of the diaspora all this time: how did you manage to balance on this tightrope with your diffuse identity being in a state of uncertainty?
I felt like a tree that had been uprooted and planted to a new place. You made a good notice, you can struggle a while but sooner or later you root down into the new land, otherwise, you would die. To be a teenager is hard but to be a poor teenager from Ukraine in an American school is twice as hard. Luckily, there was no bullying at school but I felt lonely. In the class for the adaptation of immigrants – these are such special classes in American schools – there were mostly Mexicans and they all stayed together, I had almost no communication at school. And it was the most difficult thing: you make it or remain a loner. I did adapted. And just as with the awareness of my Ukrainian identity, I remember well the moment I realized that I had become an American.
This is very interesting how clearly you understand and, most importantly, remember the existential moments in the identity formation. Please, tell.
It was not a clap of thunder in a daytime, no. I talked to my sister and suddenly noticed that we were speaking English. At home, at our parents’ home, my sister and I were speaking English. And again with my children: with the eldest, we spoke Ukrainian from the very beginning, but two younger ones were spoken English. First, I tried to talk to them in Ukrainian, then three times a week, then to do Ukrainian language and culture home task on the weekends, but it was all about trying to stop the train, which was about to fall into the abyss. And when my parents moved to another city, I was frustrated. I felt that my Ukrainess was perishing due to the lack of cultural “oxygen”.
You have curious cultural and biological metaphors!
No wonder, I’m a Master of Biology. (laughs)
We have a sea-buckthorn tea in a cosy Lviv cafe. Sometimes we switch to English, sometimes our language resembles Franko’s “Boryslav Is Laughing” and it can’t but amaze how a young girl combines dialect language of her grandparents and the most up-to-date slang of American English.
When you have returned to Ukraine was it same Ukraine from your childhood memory? Have you recognized your home?
It was a strange feeling! Everything was the same but also completely different! I can’t come up with the answer, so ask me this question in half a year, OK?
Be sure I will ask, here’s a note in my notebook, so I don’t forget! Let’s try it from the other side: what impressed you the most upon arrival?
You would laugh. It isn’t something global, these are routine things. Why don’t Ukrainians use the voicemail? Why do they answer a call and immediately scream, “Speak faster, I can’t speak!”? Why on earth do you answer if you can’t speak?! I can’t get it, immediately get confused and this is the end of the conversation.
You won’t believe I don’t have the voicemail either! But shortly after our meeting, I will set it up.
It’s really complicated to understand how such elementary things like a visit to a doctor function, for instance. They gave me the phone number of a doctor but it wasn’t his work number – there is a secretary in the private cabinet and a register etc. – but his private number! This is something cosmic for me! He can’t understand who I am, what I want – and I want a certificate for the child to be accepted into the sports section – I am lost and that’s it. The rest is the same. It is very difficult to make acquaintances and establish that connection with the outside world I am not in a social circle and it is very difficult.
What about the language? Your Ukrainian is very colourful, literate and rich in vocabulary but it is a strange language that is gone. You speak as a mix of my grandmother, Dahl’s dictionary and evening news presenter!
Fair enough! I saw how people giggled stealthily, now I know why! Ukrainian became different and I missed that moment: so many new words borrowed from English! Some things are mysterious to me, for example, why are small tomatoes called “cherries”? I thought for a long time, as I saw “cherries” on the price tag on tomatoes! Hipster trends are a bit over in America, but here everyone goes to the “meetings” and “dates”. It’s so funny for me! And embarrassing when people can’t understand me or even more – when I can’t understand them. I fear they think I am not smart enough if I don’t understand what they say. I am really bad at Russian, this is another problem I have to deal with.
So you are again shedding old social skin and sprouting new one. All you experienced in 12, having arrived in the USA. There is an old Polish saying: “They return from emigration to make sure that they didn’t leave in vain.” What came to mind upon return? Don’t regret your decision?
It is difficult, I won’t deny. Especially for my husband, he doesn’t know the language, I bridge him with the world. He is a programmer, so there is no hassle with the workflow but it is not easy to communicate with colleagues. It is difficult for children at school and we do the home task for hours. I feel neither here nor there, it is true. But now, unlike my previous experience of adaptation, I know that it is temporary, I know that it is my decision, I know that I couldn’t but try to give myself a chance to live in Ukraine. And let it sounds pretentious (or better don’t write this down, Ksenia laughs) but I want to be useful to my country!
But I did wrote it down, because, it seems to me, this is not pretentious but rather real. True, a bit romantic but no less amazing! For a long time, I had the idea of making the project “Ukraine, I’m back”, and I am very glad that Ksenia became its first heroine. I hope that the interview cycle with those who completed their Odyssey of returning home will help us all understand what the homeland is and how it is like – to be a part of your tribe.
Interview by Marta Hosovska