When I was eight years old, my brother and I introduced our great uncle to the wonderful world of Harry Potter. As the opening credits came on the screen, we babbled a mile a minute, trying to explain everything about Voldemort, magic, and spells. Suddenly, our uncle cut us off, exclaiming, “То наше!” We looked at him a little stunned, but he repeated “that’s ours” in Ukrainian and gestured towards the screen. He was referring to the Harry Potter theme song. This was one of my great uncle's favorite phrases, and one that has lived in our family far after his passing. We tried to explain that no, this was not a Ukrainian melody, that an American named John Williams had composed this for a British film. But he insisted and pulled an old Ukrainian record the basement. Sure enough, it was eerily similar to the Harry Potter theme. I guess it was “наше” after all.
Years later, my brother and I huddled around the computer screen, comparing flight times and frequent flyer miles, trying to find the cheapest, fastest route to Kyiv. My mother walked in, told us we were crazy, and that we were under no circumstances allowed to go to the capital of Ukraine. It was 2013, at the outbreak of the Euromaidan revolution. The protests were turning violent before our eyes, and my heart was breaking with every live news update. As I watched the destruction and the violence, as I watched heroes dying on the front, my reflex was to go join the fight. I was only fifteen years old, but I was desperate to face the enemy along with my people.
My parents and I were born in the US and I have visited Ukraine only once when I was twelve. Despite this, I have always identified myself as 100% Ukrainian. I became acutely aware of this fact when I went abroad to Australia last spring. For the first time, when people asked about my nationality, I had to clarify that I was American, rather than instinctively answering that I was Ukrainian. In the States, calling myself Ukrainian is a token of pride, a way of describing how big of a role my culture plays in my life. In Australia, identifying myself as American was simply a matter of geographic location, but it certainly didn’t paint the full picture of who I was.
Most of you don’t know much about Ukraine. You probably know it is a country in Eastern Europe, and you probably remember seeing a lot of headlines a few years back about Russia invading Ukraine. Maybe something about Crimea.
After spending every Saturday of my childhood in Ukrainian school, learning about history and culture and grammar, I know a more complex story. Although Ukraine has only been an independent nation since 1991, it has had a rich, unique culture for centuries. Throughout history, Ukraine has been constantly invaded and conquered, ruled by foreign tsars, warriors, and noble lords. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian spirit united its people. People were arrested for speaking Ukrainian, sent to concentration camps for practicing Ukrainian Catholicism, and would mysteriously disappear when they tried to preserve Ukrainian traditions. Intellectuals were seized and murdered; assimilation was forced at threat of death. Even as recently as the 1930s, a man–made famine by Stalin’s secret police killed millions of Ukrainians, but it was hidden from history by false propaganda.
Today, the same problems persist. Ukraine is continuing to struggle through political corruption and invasion. Mysterious disappearances, deaths of leaders—these happen frequently as Ukraine struggles to free itself from Russian influence and remain independent.
It’s a bit of a miracle that I am able to call myself Ukrainian. My grandparents were able to escape during World War II, come to America, and preserve the traditions here while they were being blocked by the Soviet Union.
When people ask me about being Ukrainian, it is hard to explain exactly what that means to me. Truly, my culture has impacted every aspect of my life. The first words out of my mouth, the first language I understood. The way my conversations with my family slip effortlessly between English and Ukrainian. The summers spent at Ukrainian scout camp, learning survival skills and making the best friends of my life. The debutante ball that officially inducted me into Ukrainian society. The necklace of the tryzub, the national symbol of Ukraine, that I wear on my neck 24/7. The pyrohy (pierogis) and kovbasa (sausage) that I made for dinner last night.
On my first night of NSO, I was talking to a boy I just met. After we got through the usual topics of our majors, hometowns, and dorms, he asked about my necklace. I explained to him that I was Ukrainian. When I mentioned that Ukrainian had been my first language, something seemed to click in his mind. He smiled and replied, “That makes sense. You sound foreign.” While I had always embraced my culture completely, it was strange to think how foreign it seemed to some people. However, as I grew into life at Penn, he was right that my Ukrainian heritage became more and more foreign to me. I was no longer surrounded by a family who spoke Ukrainian around the house, a mother who baked Ukrainian recipes, or a community of Ukrainian activists. For the first time, it was up to me to figure out how my culture would factor into my life.
My freshman year was a juggling act. While I worked hard to establish my identity here at Penn, I had to work equally hard to preserve the Ukrainian influence on my daily life. I would call my parents just to practice the language out of fear that it would start to fade. When I felt lost, I would listen to Ukrainian music to give myself a piece of home. The past two summers, I chose to go back to my Ukrainian scout camp and continue to be a counselor and leader. I was able to design 3 week long, 24/7 programs to teach kids valuable skills that help them grow in maturity, independence, and love for Ukraine. It was impossible to explain to people at Penn that I saw this as a valuable use of my summer. I was taking on the role of so much more than a “camp counselor,” and I felt so proud of what I was able to accomplish. Yet most people didn’t care to hear much about it. Instead, I saw the brief pity in their eyes that I hadn’t landed an internship at some fancy company.
It’s easy to forget where you come from sometimes. In this Penn bubble that we all live in, it’s hard to imagine having to fight for something as simple as speaking your native language. It’s hard to remember that people are struggling and dying on the other side of the world when you don’t see it in the headlines every day. It’s hard to justify why you cared so much about the grade on your math midterm, when your entire heritage is at stake.
And so I will continue to be stubborn. I will keep explaining that no, Ukraine is not a part of Russia. I will let my dad call and tell me about whatever he read in the news that day. I will smile whenever I see a tryzub sticker on someone’s car. I will spend hours cooking with my mom so that we can enjoy all twelve traditional courses on Christmas Eve. I will take this culture that has shaped every part of who I am and ensure that it never dies. For those who fought, who died, who disappeared, so that I might call myself a Ukrainian today—I at least owe them that much.
Got a story to tell? Pitch it below.