RUSHIN’ the RUSSIAN …or… How I’ve become a horrible person to get to know in only 4 weeks

Like most days, my lack of facility in either of Ukraine’s most useful languages once again inhibited my ability to do my job today. It takes a lot of preparation to arrange for borrower interviews in the field. And as of yesterday evening, I had all my ducks lined up for a trip to Yubilenyi Market this morning. Step 1: My previous interpreter recently got a job, so with the help of Max, the Kiva Coordinator, I arranged for a new interpreter and explained to her the job. Reluctantly, she agreed. Step 2: After identifying a slew of borrowers I wanted to interview, Max arranged with Volodya, a willing loan officer, to visit Yubilenyi Market the next morning. Step 3: I asked Alina, my interpreter, to arrange with Russian-speaking Volodya where and when to meet the next morning. Step 4: Receive call from interpreter Alina to about when she can meet and where we should meet Volodya.

Step 4 never happened. The interpreter never called this morning and it all fell apart.

I love you Kiva, but why the *&%# did you send me to Ukraine, when I speak no Russian or Ukrainian at all? I interviewed in French! Twice! Come on people…

It’s not Kiva’s fault. In fact, I was all scheduled to go to francophone Africa with KF9 until circumstances led me to defer until KF10, which apparently had a plethora of French speakers and a dearth of Russian speakers. Me and my big, angliski mouth happened to mention to Kiva “all my experience in eastern Europe” (*ahem* … I’ve since learned that I had no experience in Eastern Europe, I was very decidedly in Central Europe, an entirely different place altogether) … and here I am in Zaporozhye. Even in my third week here, I meet Ukrainians who simply laugh in my face when they realize I moved to Zaporozhye with no Russian skills at all. What were you thinking, sweet little American girl?!?! Welcome to Ukraine darlin. We don’t speak English. Or French or Hungarian.

And so I visit Anya, my Russian tutor, for one and a half hours twice a week. I sit and listen intently to every word of Russian spoken in radio commercials and pop songs during my half-hour long rides on the marshrutka each morning and evening. I practice sounding out in my head every single sign I see in the Cyrillic alphabet. Every day I’m faster and faster.

Me, looking particularly meek and mousey during the office Men's Day party. Please don't talk to me!

It’s such a bizarre experience to live in an environment where you don’t understand the vast majority of communication that occurs around you. Your personality starts to change in really strange ways. I’ve noticed, for example, that I avoid all human contact as much as possible. I avoid getting in elevators with people, long lines at the super market, sitting next to people on the marshrutka. In a matter of weeks I’ve become what you might call “meek and mousey.”

When the unavoidable verbal contact does occur with another Ukrainian, I panic. My mind rapidly scrolls through English, no, French, non, Hungarian, nem, Russian…eh…I have three things I can say:

“Я не знаю” = I don’t know.

“Прости” = Forgive me.

“Я не говорю по-русский.” = I don’t speak Russian.

All of these, mind you, can also be strung together to form at least four other sentences.

Forgive me, I don’t know.

I don’t know, I don’t speak Russian.

I don’t speak Russian, forgive me.

Forgive me, I don’t know, I don’t speak Russian.

Of course, this can be limiting. For example, upon entering my large Soviet-style block apartment building, a babushka who has been living there for 40 years stops and asks me, “Do you live here?” If I respond, “Forgive me. I don’t know,” I’m certain to arouse suspicion.

Me with Loan Officer Volodya in Zaporozhye McDonalds. Do I arouse mild suspicion? (I was trying to look Ukrainian!)

So to “meek” and “mousey” we can now add “clueless and “sometimes suspicious” to words that describe my new personality.

Sometimes, when I’m especially tired or disinterested in making an effort, I simply respond, “Nyet” or say nothing at all.  This is especially hilarious when I’m asked a question that warrants more than a yes or no answer.

In the grocery store, I usually do ok. I know I’ll be prompted with, Do you want a bag? “Nyet, sbasiba.” You owe this much. I pull out the biggest bill I have since I’m still learning numbers and I know this dude has change, even if he pretends he doesn’t. Do you have smaller bills? “Nyet.” A different question that I don’t understand? Panic-stricken look. … Deer in headlights. … French … Hungarian …“Nyet.” Rolled eyes. Change received. “Sbasiba bolshaya! (thank you very much!)”

And thus we add “awkward” and “rude” to “meek,” “mousey,” “clueless,” and “sometimes suspicious.”

Champion of Awkward

Closing words of encouragement: I’ve been told now on four different occasions, thrice by Ukrainians and once by a Russian, that I have a good accent and good pronunciation with my Russian. This is a huge bonus in my favor. I’ve also had a few moments of glory when some of the Canadians and Americans I’ve befriended here, who have been taking Russian for several months, were impressed with my ability to order a beer in Russian or to understand the general gist of what my Ukrainian friend said when she tried to embarrass me to a Ukrainian waiter by speaking in Russian. Hopefully, all of this will contribute to my efforts to become less meek, mousey, clueless, mildly suspicious, rude and awkward, and thus a more pleasant person to get to know, here in Ukraine.


4 responses to “RUSHIN’ the RUSSIAN …or… How I’ve become a horrible person to get to know in only 4 weeks

  1. Go Leah! Even though you’re frustrated as hell, it really sounds like you’re making progress. And jeez, who among us would have the balls to do what you’re doing? Cyrillic Alphabet? Fugeddaboudit! And hey, you’ve always got your loyal readers, here. We’re rooting for you.

  2. Hahahaha! Oh Leah…I know it must be really frustrating, but I couldn’t help laughing when I read this.

    Hang in there and just keep practicing! At least you’ll come out of your fellowship knowing a new language 🙂 Also, I know exactly what you mean about becoming meek and mousey in awkward situations (and I’ve had my fair share here too) so I emphatise..

    Take care, and much Kiva love and heat from sweltering Bali to cold cold Ukraine!

    – Nadia

  3. Yeah, I forgot to tell you, when you were in Oberlin, we always said “that leah, she’s so meek, mousey, awkward, suspicious, and rude.” Must just be the way you are.

    (and lovable!)

  4. Well finally I meet someone in Zaporozhye that is in the same boat as I am . Also no command of Russian or Ukrainian and battle along . Been here 3 years already and have got to know the place . The story of your interpreter not pitching up or calling is normal , don’t fret ,it happens all the time .
    Feel free to contact me :
    I live on the Khortitsa side of the city near Baburka .Regards

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