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What Am I Doing Here

This article was published in the Winter 2010 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Claire St. Amant.

Baylor grad discovers that joining the Peace Corps has meant more than just a move across the globe. 

I’M SITTING ON A BUS, WEARING A RAINCOAT. I got the unfortunate seat underneath the leaky emergency exit, and the water is coming down not in little drips here and there, but a steady flow. However, no one is overly concerned, including me. 

Then it starts to get hot. Really, really hot. The bus is overbooked, as is customary, and there are about twenty people standing in the aisle. My friend and I nonchalantly discuss whether the heat is of human or unnatural origin. The driver pulls over and smokes a cigarette. We strip down to our T-shirts and try to open the window. It’s winter in Ukraine, and we are sweating.

The driver gets back on the bus but continues to take smoke breaks every fifteen minutes. We are severely behind schedule and confused. 

It’s business as usual in the Peace Corps. 

When I first arrived in Ukraine, I assumed my confusion was a result of not understanding the language. “Surely if I could speak Ukrainian, then this wouldn’t seem so ridiculous,” I frequently thought. But as my language skills have improved, I’ve noticed the opposite is true. The more Ukrainian I understand, the more often I am confused. At least now I’m not alone in my quandaries. 

As it turned out, our bus was overheated that day. The driver’s frequent stops weren’t motivated by a nicotine addiction but a desire to keep the bus itself from smoking. He just didn’t bother to tell us, his loyal passengers. We were left to our own devices, questioning each other and coming up with conspiracy theories. 

America is a country of answers. Ukraine is a country of questions. Will we get paid this month? Will the gas turn on this winter? When will we have running water again? When I moved from my training village to the town of Tysmenytsya, there wasn’t a street sign, and it took five days to find someone who could tell me my address. Answers don’t come easily. But the questions are plentiful. 

I came to Ukraine to teach English, and images of former beloved literature and writing educators comforted me in advance about this journey. I’d be the contemplative, knowledgeable, well-read English teacher, who drank big cups of tea and had walls lined with old books. There was only one problem with this idea. I’m not an English teacher. Here, I’m the foreign language teacher, the zany lady with weird hair and funny clothes who is entirely too enthusiastic about her native language. 

Yeah, that’s me. I listen to music in English, read books in English, and even make jokes in English. Most of what I do is lost on the general population of my town. Understandably, I get asked a lot of questions—only a few of which I am capable of answering. First, they’ll ask my age, if I’m married, and where I was born. From there it can go a whole range of directions, from questions about cities in New York to the starting salary of a chiropractor. While the gamut of Ukrainian curiosity is long and wide, not a day goes by without someone asking the inevitable question: What are you doing here? 

Most people are boggled by the fact that I am living without my friends, family, and fiancé for two years in the former Soviet Union. My favorite version of the question was phrased this way over dinner: I know why Ukrainians go to America, but why do Americans come to Ukraine? When the daylight is short, the wind is cold, and the electricity is functioning intermittently at best, it’s sometimes hard to answer. But when a neighbor invites me over for borscht and good conversation, or a child greets me in the street, I remember. 

The relationships I’ve built with Ukrainians are my biggest accomplishment in the Peace Corps. For a culture that is heavily family-oriented and traditional, it can be difficult to gain acceptance as a single foreigner. The fact that my neighbors invite me to their birthday parties and my colleagues bring me soup when I’m sick is the best reassurance of my service here. On those days, I know why I came to Ukraine. I know that my presence here and the exchange of skills and culture is spreading global understanding and furthering my personal growth. 

But that’s an existential mouthful, so I generally tailor my response to the audience at hand. If it’s an elderly person, I talk about my interest in Slavic culture, Ukrainian language, and famous Eastern European cities. People who grew up in the Soviet Union have long considered America a land of mystique and generally assume the feeling is mutual. They smirk wistfully at me and say the equivalent of, “Your reason is as clear as day.” 

To the younger crowd, I toggle between sharing my earnest desire to teach English and the idea that learning about a new culture while sharing mine is an exciting way to spend a few years. I talk about how frighteningly fun it is to be independent in a new culture, how navigating everything from the subway to the out-door market is an adventure for a twenty-four-year-old Texan. I tell people this is the experience of a lifetime. And while each rea-son is legitimately a piece of the puzzle, I never reveal the big picture. I don’t think there’s sufficient space in the thirty-second window I’m given. But now that I have the virtue of time and space, I can put it together for you. 

In the weeks and months leading up to my departure from the States, I doubted my decision. The naysayers pointed out that there were plenty of people who needed help in America. Immi-grants who wanted to learn English, orphans who needed love and care, and communities that lacked adequate youth programs were literally in my backyard. Yet I had chosen to do similar work six thousand miles away. 

A few days before I left, I was wrestling with this idea in my favorite place of introspection—the shower. With the steam rising and a nice, thick shower curtain protecting me from the harsh elements of air-conditioning, I paused to take in one of my last luxurious bathing experiences. I wanted to remember this feeling, to store it up for what would undoubtedly be a long and cold two years. But as I tried to clear my head, the question kept rising like soap-suds. All the answers I had given during the course of the summer had danced around my real motivation. I talked about the value of cultural exchange, about the importance of peace and about the honor of being an American ambassador. These responses have legitimacy, but they aren’t the whole story. 

I remember exactly where I was in 2003 when we bombed Iraq in the “Shock and Awe” campaign. I was sitting in my parent’s living room, curled up in a blanket. I felt giddy as I watched the night-vision cameras capture the images of rockets exploding, bombs dropping, and buildings collapsing. I happily ate fresh-baked cookies, washed down with a side of milk, as I proclaimed, “I’ll always remember what I was doing when we attacked Iraq.” 

Well, I got my wish. I’ll never be able to forget the flippant way I treated war, the way I felt vindicated, safe, and warm. I was comfortable with the idea of destruction being leveled against people I had never met in a country I couldn’t even pronounce properly. It helped that I’d never met an Iraqi. I’d only seen pictures of their worst, most extreme representatives on television. Besides, I had seen footage of people rejoicing when the Twin Towers fell. They danced in the streets and sang out cries of victory. I wanted my day to cheer, too. 

But wars don’t last a day. When the dust settled, I realized some people are our enemies, but without exception entire nations are not. I’ve wrestled with this image of myself for years. I chose the Peace Corps because I believe a global education is the best way to ensure that fewer people will celebrate future wars. 

What century is it? 

My career path may have taken me oceans away from home, but my first year out of Baylor was nonetheless filled with familiar milestones: a fulltime job, financial independence, cooking experiments, and home repair projects. The difference is that my job description included having tea with neighbors and picking potatoes. I was financially independent with a shrinking currency, learned to cook in an oven-less kitchen with one working burner, and the only redecorating option within my budget was whitewashing. 

I have traveled back in time to the age before washing machines and central heating, but somehow satellite television and the Inter-net have broken the time-space continuum. If I’m in the middle of town, I can walk into a multistoried café, order sushi, and use high-speed wireless just as if I’m in Houston, Los Angeles, or New York. 

But as soon as I start back for home and step on the bus—which is actually a converted 1980s minivan—I’m struck by the contrasts of the developing world. Fields of potatoes, beets, and onions line the two-lane highway, and workers are tilling the soil by hand. I return home, fire up the pilot light in my heater, boil a pot of tea, and I’m back in a simpler time. Walking down the streets in my town, I can picture what Tysmenytsya looked like fifty or even one hundred years ago. All I have to do is imagine the apartment buildings freshly painted and without satellite dishes hanging precariously from the balcony. 

While the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, the architecture, city plans, and mentality are still very much Soviet. This is as true downtown as it is in the classroom. Under Soviet control, the dominant teaching methodology for foreign languages was centered on rote memorization and strict grammar translations. Our Peace Corps training is based on the communicative approach, which places a bigger emphasis on the ability to converse than on getting the translation just right.

My students are programmed to stand up when called on and to recite an answer quickly. Translations are conducive to this pat-tern. They require no critical thinking and can be produced instantaneously with practice. But the problem is, Ukrainian only has three tenses. English has twelve. Ukrainian also doesn’t have a “to be” verb. Considering all the linguistic differences, asking my students open-ended questions in English helps me check their understanding better than a simple translation exercise can. It takes a while for students to realize there is rarely one “right” answer. I’m interested in their opinions and their creativity, not a formulaic response found in the book. 

Part of their desire to answer systematically is because English is a foreign language for them. They are busy thinking about how to say it, and they don’t want to bother with what to say. While this kind of subversion is also present in American classrooms, there is a marked difference between the attitude of American and Ukrainian students. The American classroom, like American society, is about competition. Individual achievement reigns. Students want a higher grade than their classmates. Not here. They all want the same grade. The Ukrainian classroom and society are based on achieving communal success. No joy is received by besting your classmates. The brightest students do homework assignments for the weaker ones, and they whisper answers if they see anyone struggling. 

We would call this cheating in America, but that’s not how it’s seen here. They consider it looking out for each other. Teachers encourage it. I don’t want to break their spirit of community. I think it’s great how shared their lives are. But I found a way to tap into their desire to answer black-and-white questions and to slip in a little competition, too. Enter Jeopardy. 

It’s the perfect review game at the end of a unit. I break the class into two teams, tell them to nominate captains, and let the games begin. Their eyes light up as they survey all the brightly colored sheets of paper with point values. I explain the rules, daily doubles, and penalties for wrong answers, but omit answering in the form of a question. Sorry, Trebeck, it would just be too complicated. 

They breeze through the first round, each barely missing a question. But as the tasks get more complicated, one team pulls ahead. They seem to finally be embracing competition as the winning team exchanges high-fives. 

Then it’s time for Final Jeopardy. I explain how the last round works and tell them to write down their wager on a sheet of paper. I turn around to find the two captains discussing what each team should risk. After a few minutes, they wagered the same amount so that if they both got the question right, nothing would change. I still don’t know why the team that was behind agreed to this, as it meant they had no way of winning, but they were happy with their arrangement. Both teams got the question right and they both celebrated—even the team that lost. I imagine the game would play out a little differently on our side of the world. 

Why is this happening? 

I believe I could save myself a lot of stress and confusion in Ukraine if I could only do one thing: erase all my past experiences. Because I have been to a school before, or ridden in a bus, I unwittingly put American expectations on uniquely Ukrainian situations. I waltz into a seventh-grade classroom and think, “I remember what it was like in middle school. I know what’s going through their minds.” But I honestly don’t. 

One of my earliest culture-shock moments happened when I was living in a village in Northern Ukraine. It was during my three-month training period, and four of us were assigned there with host families. We were waiting for the bus one morning, and it was taking longer than usual.

Forty-five minutes later, we were getting worried that we had missed it when a herd of cattle started marching down the main road. There must have been a hundred or more of them and only three people attempting to control them from wandering off. A rogue steer with horns came up to us and sniffed around our feet. Then some guy with a tattered whip hit it on the backside, and it snorted and moved along. 

After all the cattle passed, our bus pulled up and we got on. We decided it was late because the road was closed for the cattle, but we never found out for sure. I live in a bigger town now, and while there are more signs of modernity here than in my training village, I still have to watch out for stray livestock when crossing the street. Once, when I was at a picnic, I took a picture of the cattle crossing. I knew it would draw attention from my Ukrainian friends, but I just had to have proof of this for the folks back home. Sure enough, my friend Svitlana questioned me earnestly as the flash went off, “Do you not have cows in America?” 

In general, I try to avoid taking pictures of what is considered normal life here. Or rather, I usually attempt to be discreet about it. Everyone is normal in their own eyes, and they don’t need the American in town making them feel weird about selling their wares on the side of the road or setting flowers by the local monument before a holiday. 

Where am I from? 

Since I didn’t have a Ukrainian hanging around me in America, snapping pictures of me in my car or buying groceries inside a building, I never realized just how American I am. The odd looks I get when I wear tennis shoes with jeans or smile at strangers have showed me more about American culture than all my years of citizenship. 

We may not officially have a “native dress” or even a language that’s our own, but we have the most pervasive culture in the world. And our influence isn’t limited to trademarks, music, and movies. I always bought into the theory that American culture was just a hodge-podge of European, African, and Asian traditions with-out anything uniquely its own. Oh, contraire. From our fierce individualism to our peppy walk and casual nature, we are a nation of strong tradition. It just took a year in the former Soviet Union for me to realize it. 

While Americans can’t believe how long a Peace Corps tour is, Ukrainians think it’s hardly long enough. Of course, if you have thousands of years of history behind you, two years is a drop in the bucket. Life happens a lot more slowly in Ukraine. 

While whitewashing my kitchen this summer, my friend and fellow volunteer Kristi posed an interesting question: “What would you be doing on a Saturday afternoon if you were in America right now?” I answered definitively, “Running errands.” I was almost always running errands in America. How I had so many places to go and people to see I can’t understand any-more. Ukraine and its twenty-five national holidays have cured my restlessness. 

For better or for worse, Ukrainians take life in the slow lane, patiently waiting and carefully observing before acting. It takes a long time to build trust here and to gain credibility. Your personal space is invaded physically from day one, but emotional barriers are more formidable.

It took six months before my friend stopped serving me dinner before the rest of the family, as a sign of hospitality but also distance. I didn’t want to be treated like a special guest. I came over nearly every day. As time went on, they treated me less formally. I could carry my own plate, get juice out of the fridge, and even help clean up on occasion. I had crossed over from guest to friend. 

But this added closeness affected more than kitchen etiquette. They began to ask more pressing questions about my life in America, our new president, and my religious beliefs. I enjoyed discussing all of these topics over cups of tea and Russian soap operas. They probed me more on my opinion of Ukraine, about the quality of life, the education system, and the economy. I was honest and optimistic. 

I truly believe Ukraine is a great country. I love the way people take care of each other, and how they live off the land. I value their reverent Greek Orthodox faith, and I am amused how it never gets in the way of a hearty celebration. It’s a rich culture with a beautiful language, delicious food, and kindhearted people. But tragedy, corruption, and a host of environmental and health problems are also present. The Chernobyl disaster still has effects in some areas, and clean drinking water is in rare supply nationwide. 

Of course, these aren’t my problems. I’m only here for two years. It’s the worst thing any volunteer can hear, an insult to the decision we made to join up and like-wise a piece of searing truth: “But you get to leave. In two years, you’re going home, to a country that works. And we’ll still be here.” 

And the worst part is, they’re right. As earnestly as I want to help Ukraine, there’s only so much I can do in two years. The bittersweet part of the equation is that they wouldn’t tell you this if they weren’t really close to you. And that’s a miracle in itself. That two people from opposite sides of the world might find common ground and be brave enough to share a piece of themselves is nothing to scoff at. It’s the whispers of world peace on a micro level. It’s exchanging ignorance for understanding. 

I really will go back to America, taking with me a wealth of experience and knowledge that I can only hope I transferred a fraction of in return. The Peace Corps isn’t about moving permanently to a new country or changing the whole world. It is about a cultural exchange with ramifications that reverberate through individuals and communities in both countries. 

As much adjusting as I’ve done during the past year, I’m far from finished. Soon I’ll be moving to another country, getting a new job, and starting all over again. I’ve spent the last year living alone in a Soviet bloc apartment. I worked eighteen hours a week and spent a sizable chunk of my time hand-washing clothes and dishes, walking to and from shops, catching the bus, and tilling the soil. 

I’m coming home to America, where shortly I’ll have a husband and a black Labrador. We’ll likely live in a modern apartment building, own two cars, work forty-plus hours a week, and use machines for roughly all life processes. And we’ll speak English. All the time. Right now it sounds heavenly, but I know it won’t be so easy to flip the switch from single international development worker in Ukraine to wife and journalist in America. 

When I was a Baylor student, I thought I was a minimalist for buying a drying rack for my clothes and walking to class. I’m looking forward to the amalgamation of my pre- and post-Peace Corps self that can only occur once I return to the motherland. I told my fiancé he’s getting quite the deal. As long as I don’t have to wear a raincoat inside our car and can take hot showers at will, I have no further demands for our future household. 

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