Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ukraine and the US, Part 1

The streets of Kharkiv, this spring.

Part 1 of a post months in the making... Do you remember when I was still getting used to things in Ukraine? This is our fourth month back in the U.S. and while we're all a bit more adjusted- D gets to speak his beloved English again, Кит likes to hang out on his new balcony and spend hours sniffing the leaves that fall onto the concrete floor- there are a few things that have taken some getting used to.

The streets of Portland, today.


Not long ago, D's family discovered the joys of shopping at Costco and thus this massive warehouse was the very first store we set foot into after arriving from Ukraine. Talk about overwhelm:

Fred Meyers too:

Ukraine is not as different as you might think- there are plenty of chain "hypermarkets" (think oversize supermarket) and shopping malls- but cars are not as ubiquitous as they are in America and let me tell you, what you buy is really influenced by how you're getting it all home.

Underground kiosks, closed for the night. The kiosk on the left (м'ясокомбінат) sells sausage.

Most Ukrainians I know shop frequently and shop often, carrying their purchases home on the bus or metro. Kiosks line the metro entrances, offering bread, meat, fruit, and other basics to commuters on their way home. There are usually at least 3 sausage kiosks for every one kiosk selling anything else. This summer I was walking behind a man carrying a small plastic bag from a kiosk when an entire sausage slipped out of the bag and fell onto the ground. "Excuse me, sir!" I called out awkwardly, picking up the plastic-wrapped meat, "you dropped this sausage." Good thing sausage is one of the first words you learn in any beginning Russian class because it's everywhere. Portable, cheap, locally-made, long shelf-life... why isn't it as popular here? Is it because practically none of those words can be used to describe American sausage?

Ukrainian sausage

One more shopping story: the first time I went to Target = major shock. Free Wifi in the store, a food court so that people could push their shopping carts through sporting wear and home goods while snacking on a giant pretzel and sipping soda? What? And then we discovered IKEA...

And speaking of food...


Portion sizes, oh boy.

Coke at a restaurant in Ukraine: 8-12 ounces. Served in a can or bottle, no refills.
Obviously beer gives you more bang for your buck. In fact, it was probably cheaper than the Coke was.

Coke in America:
K = kids, S = small. (And now people are concerned that they're getting cheated out of a few ounces.)

In Ukraine, every single item is categorized by weight:
Udon soup, 400 grams, 49 uah.

In America, a restaurant might feature calorie counts but never size. On our first trip to the mall, we ordered two entrees (a soup and a stiry fry) plus a side of spring rolls. And then this feast for ten people arrived:
A slight miscalculation... this soup is more like 4 billion grams.

On the other hand, if we're talking about ice cream in a tube, Ukraine is the clear winner. I'm not sure the U.S. is even on that particular playing field yet.

Foreign Languages

I'd forgotten how much languages are embraced in the U.S.

Library flyers for public services are available in at least six languages. The grocery store checkout line looks like a bunch of U.N. delegates on a lunch break. The neighborhood where my parents live offers a Chinese after-school program, a Japanese math school, Hindi lessons, and an Islamic montessori. And Spanish is undisputed king in this city. It's not that you can get a better job if you speak English and Spanish, it's that you can get a job if you speak both languages, one is hardly enough anymore.

Meanwhile, the news reports go on about how Ukraine is a mishmash of Ukrainian and Russian but what no one mentions is the product packaging. Since products are marketed to huge swathes of Europe and Asia, any box is a polyglot's dream:
Face cream box

Really? (and the lives of our pets)

I like the multicultural, big portions and bulk shopping are fine, but there are some things here that just make me go Really? I've even been making a list:

I'm not an animal-hating Luddite but it seems like some of these products are things to distract us from more serious ongoing problems, like homelessness. About 4,000 people in this city spend their nights in shelters or on the street.

If we as a society are thoughtful enough to provide free drinking water for dogs outside sandwich shops and hair salons, why are we so stingy sometimes to other humans?

But for a house pet, America is a wonderful place to live.
Forget Кит, I would eat that cat food!
Gratuitous shot of the family dog. She helped in my mother's garden this summer (meaning ate vegetables off the plants when no one was looking).

In Ukraine, cats seem to be the traditional house pet of choice as they're best suited for apartment-dwelling. Small dogs are becoming popular (Paris-Hilton-handbag-size). Big dogs are far and few between. On occasion I'd see someone out walking a larger dog but most of the dogs outdoors are street dogs.

Street dogs in Poltava.

With the current humanitarian crisis getting most of the attention, it's nice to see there are still a few groups working to improve the lives of these animals- even in places like Donetsk.

In Summary

Four months has soothed a lot of the culture shock and homesickness (can I call it that?) that we experienced after leaving Ukraine. The things I expected to be hard here were easy, yet there was a long stretch of general unhappiness in between then and now. The problem with exposure to other ways of life is the constant refrain of "That's not the only way" that plays on repeat in your head. The tricky part is truly understanding that there is no better way, only a different way of doing things. In some ways now I feel more Ukrainian than American, or more Alaskan than Oregonian, yet overall I'm glad to be seeing so many different places and ways of living. I don't think Portland is the end of the road for us, but one more stop from which to learn a different way of living.

Click here for Ukraine and the US, Part 2!


  1. So interesting to see the packaging on Ukrainian products. In Russia we've got all the former USSR covered but definitely don't go west of Ukraine for language :)

    And yes, the thrill of Costco is hard to overcome! The Russky was intent on buy EVERYTHING in bulk just because we could. And we had a car :)

    1. Oh wow, I'm just trying to imagine him there, esp the very first trip ; ) Maybe when you guys relocate you can have a "The Russky vs X" series, starting with Costco.

  2. Russky vs x lol. Russky would definitely win

  3. More pictures of the family dog eating your mother garden please. Make it look like no one's looking but have someone take a picture

    1. Sure, once the warm weather comes and the garden starts growing again ; )