On Being Ukrainian

My recent travels through Asia have made me more aware of my heritage, both its traditions and language. But my Ukrainian cultural identity crisis all started with a Polish girl, was challenged by family and friends here in Canada, and then finally challenged by an old man in a Tim Horton’s in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.

Last week I attended a Ukrainian dance concert put on by the phenomenal Virsky Dance Ensemble. Imported from Ukraine, these folks show the rest of the world how Ukrainian dancing is done. But, it wasn’t the concert that got me fired up to write this article. No no no! It was standing in line at the Tim Horton’s with a cute blond girl beside me, when an old man decided to make friends with us. Eventually the conversation turned to our parentage: we were both Ukrainian but neither of us (the younger generation) knew or understood a word of Ukrainian. And that seemed to prove a point with the old man.

So, this article was finalized by the fury that old man created within me. He left me to wonder, I’m second generation Ukrainian on my Dad’s side and third generation on my Mom’s side, why should I know Ukrainian? English has done me very well, and some countries will pay me quite handsomely to teach it to their children. But the exchange left me wondering…

Am I Ukrainian?

My friends would tell me no. The beautiful Polish girl I met while travelling would tell me no. And probably most Ukrainians in Ukraine would look at me as if I was crazy. One of my friends pointed out that if I were to be imprisoned, which nationality would I choose: Canadian or Ukrainian? Point blank I told him Canadian, no doubt about it. At the very least the Canadian government would be able to give me a phone call, whereas the Ukrainian government could not do a thing.

I recall when I first arrived in South Korea for teacher training. One of the things they talked about was relationships with Koreans. Relationships were bound to happen, so why not address the issues that may come up? One of the issues was about nationality and culture, the point was very clear: just because you marry Korean woman, speak Korean damn near perfectly, you’re still not Korean. Most noticeable is your skin colour: white folks aren’t yellow (or slightly brown, however you want to classify them Koreans).

So, as a simple matter of fact, I’m not Ukrainian. I am Canadian.

But, if I’m Canadian, then what do I do about this Ukrainian heritage? Drinking vodka, eating perogies, and going to Church won’t make me any more Ukrainian than saying the words. How about knowing the words to the Ukrainian national anthem? What about knowledge of Ukrainian folk songs, or the stories of Taras Bulba or poems written by Taras Shevchenko? None of those make me any more Ukrainian.

Two of the bands I played in were Ukrainian, but no one could claim that they were truly Ukrainian (well, maybe one). Yet the songs were in Ukrainian, we wore Ukrainian shirts, we marketed ourselves as a Ukrainian band. One band still trudges on, singing in Ukrainian but very far from what most people would consider “Ukrainian music”.

What to make of this?

I’m a fan of history. I took two degrees in it and heard no end to the comment “what are you going to do for money when you’re out of school?” For all intents and purposes, history, like art, is useless (thank you Mr. Warhol). There’s no noticeable practical value to studying history. I understand this. I accept it. But, then what of my Ukrainian heritage? The polka band I played in combined both aspects: history and art!

However, someone told me a very important thing to remember and it’s left an indelible mark on my mind: the best way to preserve your culture is to learn your language. But not just learn it, speak it. Even though it will serve no practical purpose (and Ukrainian certainly won’t, but Chinese or Spanish might), it maintains a link to the past.

And the only way to keep that language alive is ensure it has stories to tell. (I’d like to note that if Ukrainian were to disappear, there wouldn’t be much of a dent in the working world. Whereas if Latin were to disappear, you’d have a lot of lawyers and doctors trying to figure out how to read some parts of the law or how to label the body.) Does it matter if a rock group decides to write its lyrics in Ukrainian? Well, even if you are thinking traditionally you’d have to admit that “at least they’re speaking Ukrainian.” Speaking the language is preserving the culture itself.

All this ends with the question, how do I identify myself? Who am I?

I am Canadian.

I have Ukrainian heritage and I would like to preserve the link to my cultural and ancestral past because that history amazes me. But that’s an historical interest, not practical knowledge.

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