Ukraine and The Impact of Cultural Exchange

422186_10152081532320644_291792311_nIn late-November, I returned to Seattle after living in Ukraine for 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I spent most of my two years there teaching English to middle and high school aged kids in a small town in central Ukraine, and a few months during the summers participating in various camps across the country.

As a result of my work in Ukraine, I got to see the “real” Ukraine; a Ukraine that is much different than first impressions reveal. There is a joke among PCVs about putting on your “brick face” when in public or in photos. This expression refers to the body language and stern, emotionless facial expression many Ukrainians wear outside of their home. The expression is so common that when passing a person on the street with a smile on their face, you instantly wonder if they are a foreigner. In fact, many Ukrainians comment on the fact that Americans smile too much; some have said it makes us look slightly insane or even aggressive. After discussing Ukrainian vs. American “public faces” with Ukrainian friends, it was explained to me that people in Ukraine do not walk around with “brick face” expressions because they are unfriendly or irritated, but instead this facial expression is a lasting effect of Soviet times – when a smile in public would draw unwanted attention.

While this is only one aspect of the Ukrainian people and culture, it forms a memorable first impression, and is one of the many things which slowly illustrated to me the importance of cultural exchange and understanding, and its particular relevance of recent.

Before Ukraine’s recent news exposure, many people I talked to in the United States didn’t know much, if anything, about Ukraine.  What knowledge they did have focused on Ukraine’s tumultuous past, and painted a bleak picture of their future. Admittedly, before going to Ukraine myself, I shared much of this view; I knew very little about the country aside from that they were formerly part of the Soviet Union and were located near Russia. But my view of Ukraine is now drastically different.

After spending hours with youth in the classroom and at camp, and sharing numerous dinners and tea breaks with Ukrainian friends, I see a vibrant, talented, ambitious, and strong country full of people who are full of potential and who have a vision for their future. I have had the chance to experience aspects of Ukraine many people do not get to see, changing my first impressions of the country. Unfortunately, most people will probably never get the chance to spend an extended amount of time in Ukraine and to share the connection I feel to the people. But, by sharing my experiences and what I have witnessed with my American peers, I hope to change impressions of a bleak and tumultuous Ukraine, into impressions of a forward-looking and ambitious Ukraine.

Article by Caitlin Coggeshall, International Visitors Program Intern and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ukraine