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Ukraine: Why What’s Happening Now Is Personal

My mother was stopped on occasion while out grocery shopping with me when I was small child. People asked her if I was an adopted orphan from Romania. My bright red hair and the foreign language we spoke confused other shoppers. My mother would have to explain that, no, I was not adopted and no, we weren’t speaking Romanian. We were speaking Ukrainian.

Since November I have been glued to my news feeds and religiously following Twitter updates from journalists on the ground in Ukraine. I’ve rarely used this blog as a place to write about myself, it’s been about places. But for me, events in Ukraine have been personal and I thought some personal context might make some difference because I am so sick of all the bad historical comparisons being made, “experts” who learned where Ukraine was last week and really don’t know the history, and the bad jokes and bad reporting that some publications are putting out. “Crimea a river” jokes got old really fast. This is a serious geopolitical situation; we haven’t seen a country invade another without provocation in Europe since the Second World War.

My first language was Ukrainian. Both sets of my grandparents fled a war-torn Ukraine in 1945. A land that historian Timothy Snyder dubbed the “Bloodlands” in his excellent book. My grandparents were the educated, land-owning kulaks that Stalin would have been more than happy to kill or send to the gulag. My grandparents were lucky – they ended up in the American sector of the displaced persons zone in Germany. They would live and wait there for some time until they made the journey to America. They started out with nothing and built lives – the American dream. They sacrificed so my parents and I could live better lives. Today when I think about how hard it must have been to leave everything they knew behind, I really can’t fathom it. They died before I was old enough to ask them many questions I now want to ask.

I’ve been thinking about my grandparents a lot lately. Occasionally I pass the apartment one set lived in when they first arrived in New York. Their story is one similar to that of many Ukrainian-Americans in the East Coast diaspora. I was raised in a unique Ukrainian diaspora community. In California, where I grew up, I was surrounded by “the fourth wave” – the wave of immigrants who came to America after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Every Saturday from first grade to eighth grade I studied Ukrainian literature, history, and writing for four hours. I was the only American-born and I felt like a bit of an outsider. While I vocally complained about missing Saturday morning cartoons all my life, it’s one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about my family and friends who live in Ukraine. My aunt Jackie forwarded me an email from a friend in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, last week and I broke down while reading it. The woman who wrote the email was incredibly sweet and kind to me and my family when we visited Lviv. We traveled to Ukraine in 2007 because the National Museum was doing an exhibition 120 years after the birth of Theodore Wacyk, my grandmother’s uncle. The woman was one of the curators who worked on the exhibit and put together an excellent final product and display of his paintings. She has a daughter a few years younger than I. In her email she wrote about the sad and painful history Ukraine has endured and about the people who died on the Maidan in Kyiv. But what stuck with me was her questioning: Why now? Why again? Why does my daughter’s generation have to go through this? I never thought I would see the Russians invading Ukraine like my grandparents did.

As I began watching events in Ukraine unfold in November, I never thought they would reach this point. My 2007 trip to Ukraine was one of the most eye-opening of my life. When we visited my father’s side of the family, one relative pulled us aside and asked if we wouldn’t mind sending her some medicine my grandmother used to send. She told us how it helped her hands and how it was too expensive for her to afford. I was expecting her to show us a bottle of prescription pills. Instead she held up a bottle of Advil. That was when my mental calculus kicked in: my shoes cost $60, my jeans $60, my top $35. As I kept adding, it reached well over the average monthly salary in Ukraine. The corruption in Ukraine has been extraordinary, as recently revealed by the former president’s outrageous mansion and the amount of wealth he accumulated over his rule.

Now suddenly, the world has turned its gaze on Ukraine. As someone who spent a better part of four years at university studying and reading Russian and Eastern European history (I even wrote a 100-plus page thesis on the rewriting of Russian history after the fall of the USSR), I was immediately able to spot the names of authors that had never before written about Ukraine. That’s the media for you – as the winds shift, suddenly everyone feels the need to voice an opinion, even it’s an incredibly poorly informed one or one that is detrimental.

As someone who has worked as a journalist and wants to return to media in some way, shape, or form after my graduate studies, this time it has been personal. I believe in journalism and how important it is for democratic societies. And I know what working on deadlines is like. But if you aren’t sure of something, you pick up the phone and ask an expert, you go to the library and get every book on a subject you can and you begin educating yourself. You read, and read, and read some more. I have found myself cringing on daily basis as I read pieces that make Cold War comparisons and get basic historical facts wrong. Many Americans treat the former Soviet Union as a joke. The Soviet Russia jokes are a dime a dozen. I remember being incredibly offended in college when the Russian House threw a communist party – dress up like Stalin or Mao the poster said. Maybe I’m not lighthearted enough, but dressing up as two of the greatest mass murderers of the last century left a bad taste in my mouth. But that’s the thing — so many Americans are unfamiliar with the history of the Soviet Union, especially the younger generation of journalists publishing stupid pieces that try and boil a complex situation into 10 facts you need to know (I’m looking at you BuzzFeed, among many others).

Many journalists also don’t understand why Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans take accuracy in reporting on Ukraine so seriously. In the 1930s, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow was a man named Walter Duranty. Duranty lied about the great famine that Stalin engineered in Ukraine in the 1930s (other journalists like Gareth Jones reported the truth and Duranty went after them). Millions starved to death. It remains one of the saddest moments in Ukrainian history. It was the reason my grandmother kept her fridge stocked with food all of her life. Duranty was sympathetic to the Communist cause and enjoyed a glamorous life in Moscow with exclusive interviews. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work. A campaign decades later asked for the prize to be revoked. A Columbia University historian looked into the matter and recommended that the prize be revoked. The committee ultimately decided that it would set a bad precedent to revoke a prize (especially when the writer is dead!), and even though the articles weren’t up to par, they weren’t directly related to the famine, so they reasoned he should keep his trophy. You can read the reasoning here. I think it’s total BS. When I toured The New York Times a few years back and saw the long wall of Pulitzer Prize winners’ portraits and descriptions, I noticed that Duranty had one of the longest descriptions to reflect the controversy his worked had caused. I cringed.

So that’s some of the basic context. I’ve had many friends and fellow students email and ask me who they should be reading while events in Ukraine continue to unfold. So instead of putting together a long list of mistakes and calling out individual journalists, here’s my list of journalists and commentators I am following, because there is good work being done (as for the others I will continue tweeting corrections at them). I am also listing some important facts to keep in mind that the average reader may not be aware of.

1. If you know me, you know it’s one of my biggest pet peeves in life: it’s Ukraine, not the Ukraine. Stalin loved treating Ukraine as Russia’s little brother – that Ukraine, our Ukraine, the Ukraine. The historical roots of the “the” are offensive to many Ukrainian-Americans, not to mention that it’s grammatically inaccurate — you don’t say The Spain or The Germany. Here are two articles that do an excellent job explaining why everyone needs to drop the “the” and why we need to stop using Russian spellings of city names. It’s Kyiv not Kiev – Ukrainian and Russian aren’t the same language and it’s reflected in spellings and pronunciation of names (it’s amazing how many organizations are using a combination of both Russian and Ukrainian name spellings in lists, clearly they just don’t know the difference).

2. Timothy Snyder is a historian at Yale. His book “Bloodlands” is an excellent work and sets up a deeper history that is needed to understand what is happening. He has written columns for the New York Review of Books that I highly recommend.

3. Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer-prize winning (take the Pulitzer as you will) journalist whose book “Gulag” was groundbreaking. She lives part time in Eastern Europe and writes an opinion column for The Washington Post.

4. The Kyiv Post is a local newspaper in Ukraine. The whole team at the paper has been doing an outstanding job and I recommend reading them.

5. The New York Times and Associated Press both have many people on the ground and are providing solid fact-based reporting. Vice has also been doing a good job with it’s video reporting as has the Global Post.

6. Andrey Slivka is a Ukrainian writer. He wrote a few pieces for the New Yorker back in December that I think do a good job capturing sentiment at that moment.

I’m happy to recommend others if anyone is curious.

I’ve been writing most of this blog post while flying over part of Russia on my way to Japan for spring break – trust me the irony isn’t lost on me. To close this post I wanted to go back to Ukraine. When my parents and I traveled to Ukraine in 2007 no one in our family had been back since my grandparents left in 1945. Connections were missed and oceans separated families for decades. When we landed in Lviv over 20 people were waiting for us at the airport and handed us bouquets of roses. They told us later that they may not have much, but Ukrainians always bring flowers. That evening we ate dinner all together, something that hadn’t been possible for nearly 50 years. It was a heavy and sad night in some ways, but also full of laughter. Decades of the Soviet experiment caused great suffering, but it didn’t kill the human spirit. And what’s happening in Ukraine now won’t either. But for God’s sake, if you’re going to write about it, get it right because for me it’s personal.

Family

“Où est la clé?” A Harlem Story

There was that time I was hopelessly lost in Bangkok. Or all of the times in Indonesia, so many in fact that I won’t even bother linking or compiling a list. Five years later I still remember the charming older French couple that went out of their way to drive me and a friend to the Matisse Museum in the south of France (really that guidebook map was not drawn to scale!). Travel always comes with challenges and I’ve been thankful for all of the random acts of kindness from strangers that have come my way. I never thought that on my stoop in Harlem I would have the chance to repay some of those acts. It was a warm Sunday afternoon in September. I was just settling into life in New York City — a life that is full of surprises and parades (many of the photos below are from the African American Day parade that happened in my neighborhood). As I walked up my block I saw an older couple with several suitcases standing on my stoop.

Lead It

I was confused. Maybe someone else in the building had grandparents visiting? As I walked up the steps and then punched in the building code, the man and woman said, “Bonjour.” I was taken aback and said, “Bonjour.” The couple both smiled and before I knew it I had answered that “oui” I speak French (a bit rusty, it’s been five years since I lived in Paris). Well, in a very French manner, the couple had made a vacation rental reservation in my building over half a year before and since they spoke no English (they were from a small coastal southern town), they never bothered to email and confirm before arriving. And now, there was no key for them.

Cheer

They handed me all of their paperwork and I became alarmed. The rental was my unit number. My mind started racing. Was this a scam? Had I been scammed with my lease? I had dealt with enough sleazy brokers during my apartment search that I wouldn’t put anything past them. On a side note, searching for an apartment in NYC is a horrid experience that I don’t wish on anyone. If a broker uses the phrase “just imagine it clean” do yourself a favor and turn around immediately. I saw one apartment in Harlem that had floor to ceiling junk. The prior resident had just been evicted and his/her food was still on the kitchen table. I have a vivid imagination, but there are limits.

Old School

I started calling all of the phone numbers on the reservation rental papers. But of course, it was a Sunday. Meanwhile my apartment-mate returned home and brought down some orange juice to the French couple, who then wanted to know “where she was really from” after I had told them America — ah yes, the not so casual French racism peaking through. We sat on my stoop together while I made phone calls and the woman showed me their French guidebook while her husband hand rolled cigarettes. Two hours later after numerous phone calls, I got to meet the Italian speaking owner of my building. She informed me they had cancelled all vacation rentals and converted the whole building into full-time rentals. Apparently emails written in English had been sent.

Panther

Shake

Luckily there was one empty unit in my building which she quickly made up for the couple while I tried to play with her hysterically crying son. I was exhausted after over two hours speaking non-stop, improperly conjugated French. The couple had another older French couple joining them that evening. The husband in that couple speaks Italian so they said they would sort everything out in Italian with my landlord the next day. And people say Americans don’t speak other languages!

Shake, Shake

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Land of Enchantment

It grabbed hold of me immediately. The colorful license plates read “Land of Enchantment” and, well, I found it enchanting.  A month ago, before I moved to New York City and began a life consisting of going to and from the library, I visited my good friend Chloe in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chloe and I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia at the same time and she’d mention her hometown when we were both craving good Mexican food. I’d never been to the Southwestern part of the United States, so I took her up on an offer made on the other side of the world. It was the vast openness and the way the clouds hung low against the red and orange rock landscape that made me greatly regret that I’d only planned a three-day trip.

Morning Light

Albuquerque is known for its balloon fiesta, which is taking place in early October this year. The morning before I left, we took an early walk and watched the sunrise and a few balloons float over the landscape. Albuquerque has also gained some notoriety as the backdrop of the TV show “Breaking Bad” which airs its finale tonight.

Blue Balloon

Sunrise

From Albuquerque we drove to Bandelier National Monument. I’d seen photos of Bandelier growing up and I used to associate it with a place the ewoks from Star Wars would have lived.

Cave Dweller

You are allowed to climb up the ladders and into the cool hollowed out caves. Here’s a link to the history of the ancestral pueblo dwellers who started out as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Some of their painting is still visible:

Painted Walls

In the Scented Woods

We hiked around a bit and Chloe told me to smell the bark of the Ponderosa pine. It smelled like a mix of vanilla and maybe some cinnamon. I could have stood there for way too long just smelling the bark of the tree.

Smell the Tree

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The California Coast: From LA to SF

I have always said and will always say, that in the fine union of these United States, California is the best state. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t visited all 50 states and there’s a chance I’ll fall in love with another (I recently visited New Mexico and loved it — post coming soon), but California will always hold a dear spot in my heart. It’s one of the most unique places in the world because in a single day you could go skiing, go to the beach, go to a desert, and go pick some fresh fruit. In October, Victor and I took a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco — and since I am moving to New York in a matter of hours, I wanted to look back through these photos. October was a fantastic time of year for the drive — not much traffic, not too hot or too cold and the light, the sunlight was amazing late into the day. So we rolled down the windows, while “take a long drive with me, on the California One” played in the background. Our itinerary involved spending one night in Santa Barbara, waking up early the next day to visit the Hearst Castle, then driving to Carmel and spending the night and morning there and then taking our time getting to that city by the Bay.

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We started out in LA and paid a visit to Venice Beach, a tourist favorite. I’ve never been a big fan of Los Angeles, but for a weekend there are worst places you could be.

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One of the best parts of driving 8+ hours from southern California to northern California are all of the beaches. We pulled off at Leo Carrillo Beach and watched the surfers and explored the small tide-like pools.

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We pulled off at another beach just in the nick of time to catch a beautiful sunset:

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Tropical Fruit Installment 19: An Ode to Mango

A friend in college, who had grown up in the Phillippines, had one thing to say to me before I moved to Asia: “You know nothing about mangoes.” She went on to tell me how the one, maybe two, easily found varieties we get in the US are sub-par. Needless to say, within about a week of being in Indonesia, I realized she was completely and totally right. Not only are there hundreds of varities of mangoes, they can taste like completely different fruits. Really I could write a Dr. Seuss rhyme here…

Mango Vendor

So in my effort to get to 20 tropical fruit posts, here’s my ode to a fruit most people know, but don’t really know. When mango season arrives across Asia, there’s an excitment among the vendors. And the fruit isn’t necessarily cheap. I would sometimes pay almost $2USD for a large, perfect mango in Jakarta. Often street vendores give you a spicy salt that you can dip the fruit into.

Piles of Mango

It seems that India wins on the mango craze. The Alphonso variety is considered the creme de la creme — here’s a NYTimes story on mangoes in India. And here is a CNNGo piece about the same area where the very expensive prized variety comes from. I have yet to try it.

Slices of Heaven

Sliced

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