Friday, September 3, 2010

Ukraine Culture and Customs

Since I am essentially moving to Ukraine for the next two years, I have been doing a little research on what to expect from the people and what living there will be like. I went to lunch yesterday with my dad and a co-worker of his that was from Ukraine and we had some great discussions about Ukrainian culture and traditions. I really enjoyed hearing his comparisons between life in Ukraine and life here in the United States. I attended a RPCV potluck near Berkley last weekend, and while I was there I was fortunate enough to meet a very nice PCV that just returned from Ukraine last December. She was very helpful and candid and telling me what to expect over there. Coupled with what I've read online and learned from other people, here is a list of things that I've learned about Ukraine so far (in no particular order).

Disclaimer: I have no real proof whether any of the following is accurate or not, just word of mouth and various internet resources. 
  1. People will stare at me like they've never seen Asians before. In their defense, they also stare at all foreigners. I was told a story of how the Asians and African-Americans did not even last through Training by a RPCV from Poland who served in the mid 1990s, I am hoping that it has gotten better since then. This doesn't seem to faze me as much, since I'm used to stares and explaining where my parents are from and how I was born and raised in the United States.
  2. The eastern side of Ukraine speaks more Russian and has more of a Russian influence, since it borders Russia. The western side of the country tends to be more Ukrainian. However, since Ukrainian is the national language of the country, all the street signs and business transactions are in Ukrainian but everyone usually speaks both languages anyways.
  3. Ukrainians do not smile when they walk around on the streets... but they are apparently very friendly once you get to know them, unlike Americans who only form superficial relationships (meaning apparently different perspectives and standards of relationships are to be expected in Eastern Europe).
  4. Many law enforcement officials actually expect you to offer them a bribe and you can sort-of bargain with them... as in, I only have $X.XX, is that enough to keep me from being arrested? I am not so sure how well this will work or if this is even true.
  5. Just like in China, some places will have Turkish-style squat toilets, and not all will have toilet paper so be prepared to carry around the little packets of tissues that they sell as toilet paper. It is also common for people spit in the streets, and be wary of  pick pockets - thieves will slit the bottom of your purse to steal from you while you walk around markets and on trains.

  6. Football (soccer) is very popular in Ukraine. Since I'm going to be living in Eastern Europe for 2 years, I figure I might as well learn how to play. So I bought a sweet pair of pink and black Addidas cleats to play football in, and I'll probably bring my Chelsea FC jersey and Stuttgart jersey just for fun. Ukraine is hosting the 2012 European Football Championship, so maybe I can go volunteer as a translator!

  7. One strange stereotypical Ukrainian dish is called salo. It is essentially cured pork fat that is sliced thinly and sometimes spiced with pepper and it is about as common as borscht (beet soup). 
  8. Apparently there are restaurants that serve sushi and Chinese food, but they are not very popular. And I've been warned to be careful about eating raw fish in their sushi, since it might not be as fresh or as sanitary as it is here in the United States. 
  9. Vodka is used as a cure-all medicine. For example, it may be poured straight from the bottle and rubbed directly on your skin to increase circulation in sore muscles.
  10. Flowers are nice to bring as a small present or show of gratitude, but they only give flowers in odd numbers. Even numbers are reserved for funerals. 
  11. It is considered bad luck to shake hands across the threshold of a door. And it is custom to take your gloves off when shaking hands.
  12. It is common for people to spend extravagant amounts of money on their clothes, for keeping a fashionable appearance is very important even if you are just going to the grocery store. For example, if even if someone only earns the equivalent of $500 a per month, they may still be wearing a very fashionable $500 pair of boots. Women wear stiletto heels everywhere, including in ice and snow (so they don't use ice grippers like Yak Trax).

  13. Do not expect to ride in any elevators. Most of the apartment and office buildings do not have elevators. Therefore, if I get a bike, I'll have to carry it up the stairs to my apartment.... I will probably not be riding a bike. Plus I doubt people ride bikes in ice and snow. 
  14. Not all of Ukraine gets snow, the south side of Ukraine is along the Black sea and actually has a lot of beaches and resorts that are popular during the summer. 
  15. Almost any driver in Ukraine will be willing to give you a ride somewhere for a fee. This sounds quite scary, since it means people hitchhike around in random cars rather than official taxis. But I was advised that this is quite normal, you just have to use your judgment and common sense. And when I asked if they would kidnap me or take advantage of me as a young woman, I was told that this option is typically safer when you are not traveling alone. 
  16. People in Ukraine drink a lot of black tea, not just vodka. Tea is a gesture of welcome and served in many homes. Many people also drink coffee but don't expect to see a Starbucks on every corner.
  17. In Ukraine, school is typically taught in Ukrainian but this will vary according to the city or town. Students typically go to the same school and always have classes with the same group of people from when they are in kindergarten to when they finish secondary school. It is not that common for people to move or switch schools. This is definitely different from my own experience growing up - my family moved around a lot so I went to 10 different schools before 7th grade and I went to two different high schools.
  18. Women wear always lots of makeup. I have been told not to be surprised if my Ukrainian counterparts or co-workers suggest that I wear more makeup or give me more makeup as small gifts. Apparently local stores sell a lot of Mary Kay and Avon makeup so you can buy almost everything there, I bought another Revlon eyeliner pen and some new Clinique mascara to bring to Ukraine.
  19. The water is not typically safe to drink, many Ukrainians will boil their tap water to sanitize it or simply buy bottled water. I think the Peace Corps includes purchasing bottled waters when they calculate and budget our living allowance.
  20. You can buy a washing machine in Ukraine! This is not very common though so it will be expensive, most people still wash their clothes by hand and hang them out to dry on a clothesline. 

  And guess what? I finally got contacted by my Peer Advisor today, her name is Sasha and she is a current PCV in Ukraine. She is Japanese and I just sent her a bunch of my questions about packing and what to expect there. So hopefully she gets back to me soon, then I will post some more of my thoughts about packing and preparing for Ukraine :)


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