Tuesday, April 3, 2012

8 months in Ukraine

Well, it's done. Alea iacta est. A phone call to the director, a brief email to HR, and I've signed on to teach in Kharkov for another semester. This is good, of course, especially since it's the most obvious option at the moment. The last 8 months have been fantastical, yes, fantastical and challenging and transformative and I'm proud of where I am now... but I can't stay here mentally. There are changes ahead.

Work, for example. I feel like I've passed the peak, the point where the newness of the job translated to enthusiasm, nervous tremors, and actual care. Now it's harder to care. Every day is just another day at work. Even though I still enjoy teaching, it's hard to feel excited about it. I used to feel like I made a difference, like I was helping people. The one thing I am excited about now is a side job I've taken on as an IELTS tutor. That's pretty interesting and new, but sometimes my regular classes feel like babysitting. Or pulling teeth. Yikes.
Also, the high turnover rate in the ESL field means that by the end of this month I'll be one of the oldest American employees at my branch (not actual age, but length of employment). The only full-time teacher who has been around longer has been around for 2 or 3 years. I look at him and at another teacher in Odessa (also several years) and I see that there's no advancement in this position, there's nowhere to go within the company. Management is all Ukrainian, as it probably should be. I don't want to do this exact job for the next couple years. I want to go up, to train others, to develop new material.

The other thing that's been weighing on me is Russian. While the past 8 months have brought some advancement in my language skills, it's mainly words picked up here or there.
ксерокс, xerox.
якорь, anchor.
круглосуточно, round-the-clock.
нажмите, push.
хрен его знает?, who the hell (lit: horseradish) knows?
The neighbors screaming at each other through the walls is the closest thing I get to a Russian language lesson. Although... the wife does have lots of juicy words for describing a good-for-nothing husband :)
Friends have started commenting on this lack of advancement lately. They're right. Everyone thinks you can go to a foreign country and learn a new language but you can only learn it if you use it. And now I've gotten so comfortable that it's painful and awkward to try to do it myself. When I'm out with D, making him do all the talking, people looks at us like a) I'm a stuck up bitch who won't talk to them or b) he's super-controlling... but the truth is that I'm just lazy and afraid.
Tonight we saw a small old woman selling a plant in the subway. She was tired and her hand, holding the plant up, was shaking. Everyone just walked by her brusquely and of course my heart went out to her. Some of these old retirees get tiny pensions and every day is a struggle. So I tugged on D's sleeve and begged into his ear until he agreed to buy the plant. We did a u-turn and went back to talk to her. She was a proud woman with a strong spirit and started telling us all about the plant. She'd been growing it for 2 years (it's like a tree-plant), how to care for it, etc, etc. I just did the usual eye contact, nod, mmmhuh; this works like a charm. People always think I know what they're saying. Unfortunately language is not really a situation where you can fake it 'til you make it. Anyways, I wanted sooooo badly to say something to her since she had obviously put so much care into the plant and because she didn't have change for our bill so we said no change was necessary. I didn't want it to feel like a charity buy- and it wasn't, because a new plant means we can postpone the bigger commitment of buying turtles to placate our increasing parental instinct, which in turn will postpone the even larger commitment of actually having children... so plant = necessary expense. I wanted to assure her that I would take good care of the plant. Instead, I said nothing. Just thank you. Because I knew that the moment I opened my mouth the game would be up. Why am I afraid of this??

So there it all is. Where I've been, where I'm going. On a concluding note, the inspirational Michele Connelly advises us to never end on a whine but instead to observe and make a plan of combat, so the plan:
Work. Keep chin up for now.
Russian. Go with D to non-English-speaking psychology group this weekend. Once there, proceed to open my mouth and sound like a frustrated idiot but not let this bother me!

Stay tuned for more of the new.


  1. Thank you! You described it so good! This is so familiar to me, when you feel numb and can't say a word.

    1. If only we could exchange part of our brains! :p

  2. Interesting. I've never heard someone express how it feels to not be able to speak the native language. I'll have more sympathy from now on. Keep up the great posts!!

    Jenn's Mom - Joyce

    1. Thanks for the note, Joyce. It's ALWAYS a pleasure to hear from you :) Yes, not being able to say what you want is incredibly frustrating and humbling, but the occasional moments of success usually make up for it. It's those moments when you know that you've expanded beyond your original programming, that you're making a connection that was impossible before, you're doing something that was formerly a closed road. Different cultures have so much new information that we can't access or understand until we try to see things through their language and eyes instead of through a translation. Learning a language is definitely a privilege- and I have a healthy respect for anyone who's trying to do it- but still makes you tear your hair out every now and then :p

  3. Wow! Great! Does this "another semester" half a year indeed, or it's just about summer months?

    1. Hi Roman! At this point, I'm definitely employed with the school until the end of June. In May I'll have to make this decision again- renew another semester or move on. D and I both want to stay here in Kharkov as long as possible though. You know how much I like Kharkov! :)