From Alaska to Kharkov: 8 Months in Ukraine
Hi! I'm Katherine, a West Coast American who spent most of the last decade living in Alaska before moving to Kharkov, the second largest city in Ukraine.
1. Why did you move abroad?
For several years I dreamed of moving to Russia. I even convinced my boyfriend D that it was a halfway decent idea! At that point, I'd been studying the Russian language for several years and thought that living in Russia would provide that final boost to fluency. Russia, however, is not that welcoming to international job-seekers. We spent a year doing conference call interviews, getting laughed out of said interviews (“great, you're hired! Oh.... a visa? Hahaha!), and sulking. Finally we set our sights on Ukraine instead. At that point Ukraine was “close enough” for me. Over the past 2 years though, I've really come to love the place for what it is.
The other reason we moved abroad? Age. People get busier and busier as they age, and D and I wanted to follow our hearts before we got buried in a mortgage, careers, and unavoidable responsibilities. If we hadn't moved when we did, what are the odds that we would have moved at all?
2. How do you make a living?
Since moving to Ukraine, all of my income has come from teaching English and proofreading the occasional document. I've taught at various English schools as well as privately. It's very easy to find teaching work here; there's always someone looking for a good English teacher.
D, meanwhile, is a programmer / project manager. Ukraine has a massive IT industry and he's gotten the chance to work in a field he enjoys.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
Unfortunately, not very often. But when I do, Skype is indispensible.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Ukraine?
Ooooh, just one? That's tough. I have a lot of favorite things, like the DELICIOUS Ukrainian food, the kindness of people, and the cool leftover Soviet Union emblems scattered around the city. I also adore the public transit system here!!! In Alaska, we hardly had one at all. Those going from their meth lab to Walmart would wait 2 hours in the cold for the city bus to come. Everyone else took out a loan/saved their PFD and bought a big pick-up truck. Here in Kharkov you don't need a car at all. There are three metro lines (always fast, cheap, and super clean) and bajillions of buses/marshrutkas/taxis hanging around.
But as for being an expat here, my favorite thing is learning something new about Ukraine every single day. There are things you just can't learn from language textbooks and courses, like what Swan Lake on every channel means (shown during the breakup of the USSR), or who Verka Serduchka is (cross-dressing pop star).
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Ukraine?
Watching an entire nation spit on the sidewalk.
6. What do you miss most?
I miss sidewalks not covered in spit. And public libraries (although a Kindle is a pretty decent substitute).
Also, in America there's a lot of respect for and trust of the authorities: police, government, military. In Ukraine, it's the opposite. Police, government, and soliders are the last people you expect to help. In fact, they'll probably do the opposite. I miss thanking a police officer or letting a soldier cut in line. Such behavior would be unthinkable here.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
In my experience, teachers are rarely lonely people. Students are always offering exciting excursions and especially when I first arrived I'd take them up on it. I try to never say no to an invitation. The best thing I did, though, was finding a penpal through interpals.net before arriving. The man I met has become a really good friend and helped with a lot of beaucratic tangles like getting internet set up, etc.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Why do guys wear pointy-toed shoes? What's so great about a mullet? Do friends really fall ill from eating cold watermelon and sitting under air-conditioners? Why do men always shake hands but women never do? Why do people think walking between two telephone poles will cause a headache? Are the ends of cucumbers actually bad for health? And how is it considered sanitary to sample unwashed grapes or a slice of salo (pig fat) in the open-air market? What exactly is the job description of a vakhta (person who sits in a building all day long)? And what does the expression "da nyet" (yes no) mean- is the answer “yes” or is it “no”?
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
The stereotype that all Ukrainian men are scruffy worthless drunks and all Ukrainian women are gorgeous love kittens who yearn to escape their sad plight by marrying foreign men. This is a pretty easily-dispelled myth and anyone who visits Ukraine will realize it. Just like any other place, Ukraine has all types of people. I find most men here to be romantic (buy you flowers, etc), courteous (always carry your bag, pull out chairs), and handsome. Women here are- in my opinion- extremely well-educated, not afraid to speak their mind to men, and not all looking for a ticket out of the country. They do, however, have a magical ability to wear 5-inch heels 24/7 without complaint, that one's not a myth.
Also, the idea that Ukraine is Russia, or rather “Little Russia”. It's not true. Some here may speak Russian but if you call them Russian, prepare yourself for a fistfight!
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
The cost of living is lower in Ukraine than it is in America.... especially since we lived in Alaska! It's a great pleasure to be able to buy foods like buckwheat on the cheap instead of having to hunt down an eastern european import store and pay through the nose. It was also a nice surprise to discover that high-speed internet in our apartment would only cost a fraction of what we paid in the states and ditto for a cell phone.
In terms of income, I'd have trouble getting by if I lived by myself. Just like anywhere else, it's easier to get by on two incomes.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
Whichever country you're in - keep an open heart and an open mind with you at all times. Look for the best in situations and people.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
8 Months in Ukraine was started in July 2011 just for kicks. The name was inspired by my original 8 month teaching contract... although now a more honest title would be 21 Months in Ukraine, haha. Over time it's grown from a simple way to keep in touch with friends & family to a resource for others interested in the country. It can be difficult to find up-to-date English info on daily life in Ukraine, and that's what I try to provide with my blog. Hope to see you there!
Katherine's blog, 8 Months in Ukraine
To find out more about living in the Ukraine,
To be considered for an interview (as well as other articles), add your blog to BlogExpat!