When I landed in Ukraine I could barely keep my eyes open. The two days of government paperwork and icebreakers immediately proceeded fifteen hours of air travel, including a plane transfer in Amsterdam, and a wardrobe change in the airport bathroom. When we arrived in Ukraine we were to be professionally dressed and ready for a new day of paperwork and meetings. Joining the Peace Corps has been one of the most enriching and defining moments of my life; with that said I have to admit that working for the United States government has been one of the worst experiences of my life. I didn’t join the Peace Corps out of some Patriotic Pride, not at all, I joined because I wanted to see the world and gain experience in a field that I love, the Peace Corps offered that to me, but with a lot of red tape. A lot.
When we stepped off the airplane in Kiev everything was grey; the buildings, the runway, the staircase we climbed down from the airplane. The buses were old and the airport was surrounded by block after block of concrete buildings that looked exactly the same – Soviet style construction – but I was finally in a foreign land and a surge of adrenaline got my feet moving and my pen writing as I tried to capture everything my eyes took in.
From the airport we boarded a bus that would take us from Kiev to Chernigov. At this point most volunteers fell into their seats and then into comas. I didn’t learn until later that I was only 1 of 3 volunteers that had never left America of the 61 newcomers. I looked at trees as we passed. Stared, really. I bore holes through oncoming traffic and gazed upon fields with a fiery passion. I was in a foreign land. A foreign land.
But everything looked the same. The trees looked like trees. The fields of wheat looked like ordinary fields of wheat. Even the people, though dressed differently, looked like, well – people.
This was a big moment for me and I’m told it’s a pretty common experience to go through when seeing a new place for the first time. There are all these expectations that we read about in wonderfully put together literature or through artistically produced photographs that the new world is going to overwhelm us with its exoticness. The trees were just trees.
I learned later that culture shock is not a one, two, knock out situation. It is a series of subtle moments that creep up on you over the course of several weeks and months. There is the initial shock – everything is in a different language, the cars are a bit different, the fashion is unique or outdated, and you can’t simply walk up and order something because they probably don’t speak English. These things fade rather quickly in terms of shock. It’s quite amazing how fast you adjust to your surroundings. There are people who will read this and say, “Well, duh, seriously?” but I’ve come to accept that in life there are many ‘Duh” moments that you just don’t process until you are physically in a situation. It’s a battle of expectations versus reality.
The bus finally made it to it’s destination and all 61 of us poured into the parking lot of a Ukrainian hotel. It looked more like a bomb shelter – and later we learned that it actually had a pretty amazing bomb shelter built into the entire basement floor – and we waited for a small cargo truck to pull in with all of our belongings. This is where the subtlety of culture shock knocked us on our asses. The driver got out and unlocked the back of the truck. I happened to be standing closest to him and he looked at me as he spoke in rapid fire Ukrainian.
What happened next was kind of like dominoes. I looked at the person to my right and they looked to their right until every volunteer was looking back and forth between each other as the man on the truck started shouting to all of us in his native tongue. The driver pointed at me again and, without really knowing what was going on, I removed my satchel and handed it to my wife, rolled up my sleeves, and climbed up onto the truck bed. The driver looked at me, broke into a huge smile, and extended his hand. We shook hands and he said his name and I followed suit.
I felt like an ambassador in that moment, but it was just the beginning.