Kyiv (left) and Ohio University (right) (Source: Google Maps - DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, USDA Farm Service Agency)
What is it like going back home after 15 months in the U.S.? I began looking forward to it the minute I booked my flight, which was three months in advance. I expected myself to be excited beyond all measure. I thought I would count down minutes for a car to get me to the airport, for my plane to take off, for me to see my dearest people in the world.
Immediately, I started thinking of all the possible gifts I could bring to different people back home. I even made a list to make sure that everyone would get a gift, at least a small thing (which I had to revise pretty significantly when I remembered the weight restriction on luggage – 50lb for a checked bag and 15lb for a carry-on).
But contrary to all my expectations, when the time came to travel home, I didn’t feel the overwhelming excitement I thought I would. I felt like an experienced business traveler who doesn’t easily get amazed at changing countries, but rather anticipates all inconveniences of a long distance flight. No strong emotions, just a fear of losing luggage (which has happened to me twice so far) and a wish to squeeze a 20 hour flight across 7 time zones into 2 short hours.
When we got to Frankfurt, and all that separated me from Ukraine was a three-hour flight, tons of different thoughts began to rush into my mind. Most of all was wonder over whether I would have reverse culture shock. I started picturing all the different things that might have changed during my stay in the U.S.
Kyiv greeted me with cold, dull weather, which is common in Ukraine at the end of November. On the taxi ride from the airport, I stared out the window, trying to catch every feature of the deeply familiar, yet strange, architectural style typical for a so-called “Eastern Bloc” country.
I had this weird feeling of belonging and at the same time not belonging to the place, which is my home country, for at least my first two weeks back. Almost nothing had changed in Ukraine, but after staying abroad for almost a year and a half my perception of many things changed, or, to be more precise, cultural and life style contrasts became more visible, and sometimes even striking.
Gulliver in Lilliput
First, sizes... Everything is so big in the U.S. compared not only to Ukraine, but to Europe in general.
My apartment in Ukraine is quite small, though it’s considered to be of an average size, and I used to be quite comfortable there. Upon my return from America I was actually shocked how tiny it is, just like a toy house. I felt like Gulliver in Lilliput. I couldn’t move around without hitting or breaking something. It was an awkward experience.
And teaspoons? They looked absolutely unreal and impossible to use, that’s how tiny they looked to me. Everything is much smaller in my country: no big trucks (no trucks at all, actually), no 1 liter bottles of shampoo, no such thing as a “small” coffee that is at least 250-300 ml.
Although I was grateful to be able to measure those things in liters again – it had taken me a long time to get used to the American system.
One thing that’s not smaller in Ukraine though is prices. I was shocked at how some basic products, like plain white toilet paper, seemed ridiculously overpriced - I spent at least 5 minutes staring at the toilet paper in the supermarket and calculating how many more rolls I could get in the US for the same amount of money.
An American friend taught me how to cook guacamole, and I really wanted to make it for my family since they’d never tried it. Avocado, the main ingredient of the dish, cost twice as much as in the U.S., even though the salaries people get in Ukraine and in America are totally incomparable. Making guacamole turns to be an unaffordable luxury for the majority of Ukrainian people.
Out and about
Another striking contrast: dressing style. In America I got used to seeing girls wearing yoga pants, or even pajamas, and flip-flops year round, no matter where they go, even to a coffee shop or their classes. In Ukraine things are different. At least 70% of Ukrainian women wear heels on a regular basis, and when I say “heels,” I mean high heels. What is considered to be dressed up in America is pretty much casual in Ukraine.
I must admit, in the beginning I felt out of place wearing my American-influenced jeans and flat shoes, but quite soon I caught up with the rest, and changed my casual clothes for fancy ones.
Even once I had the clothes right, I was reminded of some major cultural differences between America and Ukraine when it comes to going out.
For instance, in Ukraine when a man and a woman go out together (to the movies, a night club, a restaurant, etc,) it is assumed that the man will pay even if he doesn’t date this woman. It’s a social expectation, sort of an unspoken rule. In the U.S. things are different. It’s usual to split the bill in a restaurant among friends, or even for a couple who’ve been dating for a while.
Another thing about restaurants in America that is still hard for me to embrace is the fact that people take home food they cannot finish. I understand when students or people with low income do this, but well-to-do people? Picture it: a fancy restaurant, chic elegant clothes, expensive wine, and in the end, a plastic box to take your food with you. Somehow these pieces do not fit into one puzzle in my mind. I’ve been thinking about what the reasons might be behind this. Not being willing to waste money if it is paid? Or food, if it is cooked specifically for you? Both?
Back home … the other one
Meanwhile, my long winter break was quickly coming to the end and I had to fly back. Once again I was torn by mixed feelings. Part of me wanted to stay in Ukraine for at least a couple of weeks more. Another part was looking forward to seeing my friends in Ohio again.
What’s interesting, and I’d say unexpected, was that when my plane landed in Ohio, I had a feeling of coming back home. It seems that now I have two homes in two different countries, and I feel I equally belong to two different places. And I am happy about it. I am happy because I don’t need to choose where my home is - I just choose where I’m currently living.