Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ukraine: Part Three

At times I can’t seem to praise this program enough because it would provide elemental learning experiences for absolutely anyone, not just those seeking a career in international relations. Hell, maybe this program should be included in our public school curriculum: Once Little Billy’s done Social Studies, send him on the next plane to Ghana to discover a human condition other than his own. When the world’s becoming a tighter network what’s the harm in people trying to become less alien to one another?

We Canadians gained invaluable insight through absorbing various degrees of culture shock provided by our counterparts and host-families. All of us probably felt one step closer to becoming true-blooded cosmopolitans as we spoke in nothing but parables to loved-ones back home; so many stories of delightful madness … reading through my journal, I realize my abattoir of bizarre anecdotes will likely become indicator of a swift decent towards senility come my golden years…

Experiencing the lifestyle was just the first step to this brilliant social experiment! The most enlightening aspect was our weekly group discussion. We would have been shut off from one another a generation earlier, but now as Canadian and Ukrainian participants we were able to sit down and scrutinize various issues surrounding us. An exchange of different perspectives to broaden our minds and better understand our foreign brethren… this exercise proved difficult when Canadians began addressing the more troubling aspects of Ukrainian life. In other words, we couldn’t avoid mentioning the prejudices we’d been noticing.

…some of my most interesting stories raise this touchy issue, which hasn’t made them any easier to discuss years after the program –an element of controversy sure to make any grandchildren think I’m certifiably bat-shit crazy and warrant an early check-in at Shady Acres, where ‘pirogue-night’ will have to be discontinued after instigating many of my discomforting rants.

Now as I flip through page after page of notes I come across one brief instance that begins simple enough but takes an odd turn for the worst:

My counterpart and I would frequent his grandparents’ apartment. Initially, I was uncertain how I’d be received as an outsider by people possibly of an older soviet mindset, but his grandfather and I ended up getting along famously; it felt as if we'd known each other for years. Who knows, being a very successful businessman himself maybe any Westerner with an affinity to free enterprise was no stranger.

This was the place where I rubbed elbows with Ukraine’s high-society. During a dinner party with his family, friends and other aristocrats I sat next to a woman who was a judge for the Supreme Court of Ukraine. This was a surreal opportunity not only because I was in the presence of someone who played a pivotal role in the revolution but someone who attained prestige within a profession not known for gender diversification. I asked whether she faced any obstacles in her career being a woman. She explained how, despite her success, she encountered many stereotypes which made it difficult for Ukrainian women to move away from the traditional roles set out for them; Stereotypes that weren’t overtly disrespectful, just persistently discouraging.

As we spoke, the grandfather had grown concerned watching me use a fork and knife to eat a piece of salted fish. He urgently interrupted the conversation.

“He says only a little girl wouldn’t use her hands to eat that,” my counterpart informed me.

I looked around the table and expected to see at least one smirk reflecting the facetiousness of this remark, but there wasn’t the slightest reaction from anyone. This comment wasn’t a little off-colour… no?

The man wasn’t fooling around. He watched me silently, waiting for me to drop the cutlery and save what manhood I had left. He was patient because he really didn’t want to resort to calling me a pussy in front of everyone.

So… my ability to brave greasy hands was what separated me from a female? A little girl none the less: the epitome of sissy-dom. Was this worth the interruption and having me reprimanded? I wondered what trouble I’d cause if I had tampons fall out of my purse at that moment. Would he immediately phone the circus to report a fugitive?

His insular comment couldn’t have been better timed to illustrate his indifference towards this woman’s issue. He was genuinely oblivious to providing case-in-point which was a shame he couldn’t appreciate being part of one of the finest examples of irony.

The room fell silent and everyone’s eyes were on us. A cross-road had been reached between two old friends. Was I going to let my testicles descend so I could finally finish my meal? Why was I having dinner-table stare-downs with so many people in this country?

I have other stories related to prejudices I’d encountered, some far more drastic that could paint Ukraine as some sort of bigoted backwater, especially for those accustomed to more politically-correct overtones. These instances might be worth mentioning, but I can’t help worry that by simply reciting them there’s the danger of stepping atop a moral high-ground… and missing something… something important. Or should I just go with my instinct and play the critic and provide my diatribe of Ukraine? Don't I deserve to? I am Canadian after all, a people renowned for tolerance.

Any doubts, just look how we’ve been brought-up by the greatest teacher of the Western World: television. When we witnessed the inner-city children of Sesame Street living peacefully amongst multi-coloured puppet monsters with crippling neuroses, we believed all levels of acceptance possible. Any of us left doubting the senselessness of hate were at least instilled with the fear of Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning. We were educated to say no to discrimination with the same determination we were supposed to say no to drugs… Well, the older I got the more I realized this campaign was just as fail-safe as the other. Let's just say our PC mantra can become a thin veil to our own brand of prejudice.

I met many Ukrainians who told me a series of jokes intended to insult the intelligence of citizens from one neighboring country. Someone asked, “How does a Moldovan cook an egg? He throws it against the wall and then irons it. ” Unbeknownst of the stereotypes of this obscure nationality, the only thing I could appreciate was the absurdity in such unbridled maliciousness. After hearing several of these jokes I had to laugh and ask, “What the hell has a Moldovan ever done to you?” But switch-up Moldovan with any familiar ethnicity and haven’t we all heard this joke a million times before?… well, not specifically about cooking an egg on the wall, I still don’t know what the fuck that really means.

As I’ve mentioned before, it becomes reflex to point out and even dramatize the unfamiliar – and a new tone of prejudice can be as potent as an unrecognizable body odor! Self-reflection can be neglected just as easily in a place as distracting as Ukraine, so I must remind myself that stepping atop higher ground while discussing intolerance would be removing myself from an issue I know all too well, every Canadian does. Canadian participants lent just as much insight into the topic as Ukrainians. We could even play on irony just as well as my counterpart’s grandfather.

This doesn’t really surprise me because I believe absolutely every single one of us is fully capable of gross generalities, prejudice, discrimination and being overtly racist, homophobic or sexist. Aversion is a rigorous process of self-policing because we can fail to recognize our own unhealthy preconceptions when the harm they have on other people isn’t as obvious as say, lighting a torch, tying a noose and joining the late-night Welcome Wagon.

So how does such a brief story about a dinner party raise so many questions? Well when I think of stories that could instigate discussion I can’t help but refer to one of my oddest experiences… at the banya.

It all began at the house when I was sitting around the kitchen table with both my host-brothers and their friends from out of town. It was rowdy night of drinking and talking shit about those wily Russians.

Suddenly everyone wanted to move the party elsewhere. I heard the word banya being tossed around. My counterpart wouldn’t explain what this was because he was too busy shaking his head. I was just told to bring a bar of soap and a pair of sandals. Soon we were marching through town.

The banya could be considered a sort of spa or bath house, where men sat in an absurdly hot sauna (wearing pointy felt hats so their hair wouldn’t singe) and then they’d step out and dive into a deep, stainless steel vat of ice cold water. After this it was back into the sauna where they’d repeat this process until their body began feeling the euphoric sense of shock. This was considered to be healthy for some reason, maybe because it conditioned the body to handle extremes in temperature. If we weren’t doing this we were showering or sitting around drinking tea. Most importantly, all of these activities were done bare-assed naked.

Needless to say this was a confusing experience. One moment, we were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking our faces off like a bunch of ruffians then, an instant later, we were at a different table, naked and quietly sipping tea. I’d never imagined twenty minutes could provide such a drastic transition where my primary thought-process of, “I sure hope I don’t feel sick from mixing vodka with beer,” could immediately turn to, “I sure hope I don’t spill any of this hot beverage on my balls.”

With no escape in sight, I overcame my fear of exhibitionism by trying to think of this moment as just another unique cultural experience. I’ll admit, after a while there was a strange sense of freedom in being able to shamelessly wear our skin like poorly fitted suits; elation familiar to elderly men meandering locker-rooms the world over… but everything was soon spoiled by some weirdo sitting across from me.

This guy started looking down at my business. After having a good long look he looked me in the face momentarily only to look back down again. He repeated this several times and began smiling to himself. Aware of the difficulty in establishing dialogue, I gave him the universal “can I fucking help you” look. Once this failed to deter him I noticed everyone staring at my penis, even my host-brothers were catching the quick glance while whispering to each other.

I’d become anxious to figure out why I’d become lead spectacle in this freak-show. Firstly, I thought people were amused with what I’d been born with, but this didn’t seem the case amongst so many other show-stoppers. Then, I worried whether it was because we were worlds apart in relation to body-hair grooming. As negligent as any traveler, I looked as if I were auditioning for a skin-flick circa 1967 and, being the ambitious method-actor, I was trying for the part of the homeless man… well, everyone else looked to be waiting outside the same casting office so that wasn’t the case either. THEN WHAT THE HELL WAS IT? People were acting as if my penis had suddenly become animated and started telling dirty jokes.

Then it suddenly dawned on me: Everyone was still wearing their turtlenecks; not one trouser snake had its collar hemmed; no one had ever seen Private Johnson still wearing his helmet while ‘at ease’ – I could attempt making analogies for circumcision all day.

So that was it? That was what was causing me so much attention? The idea of such superficiality caused me to develop an unabashedly pretentious air; walking around while shouting in my head, “Look at it all you want assholes! For the longest time I thought smegma was a name for some sort of soup!”

Passing through the locker-room I encountered one guy who looked at it, looked me in face with intense disgust and turned away abruptly. A reaction like this felt like a swift kick to the stomach. It seemed a little extreme for someone simply disliking the aesthetics of it. I had to double check whether he’d read something personally insulting tattooed above my groin. What the hell could invoke such a reaction from someone? Well, this nude exposé proved circumcision wasn’t prominent amongst the majority of Eastern Orthodoxy nor the secular crowd in Ukraine… so did that just leave a Jewish affiliation? This reaction made a little more sense considering that anti-Semitism was still alive in Ukraine.

A short walk through the woods near my host-family’s house quickly turned into a horrific history lesson when I stumbled upon a mass grave where 2,500 Jewish citizens of Ostroh and the surrounding area were assembled for execution by occupying Nazi forces. Those who had once made up sixty per cent of Ostroh’s population were now reduced to several families.









Ukrainian Jews have experienced a history of devastating pogroms long before World War Two. Long afterwards, cultural sensitivities in Ostroh amounted to bulldozers clearing away headstones at the Jewish cemetery to make way for a park. An ancient synagogue with a mystical history was now nothing more than a refuse dump. Taking a trip to the western city L’viv, Canadians could easily see where prominent Neo-Nazis left their mark. A grievous conversation with some Ukrainians could easily entice an anti-Semitic rant. While all of this seemed overwhelming to Canadians, we had a chance to discuss the matter with our counterparts.


















Now, one thing I should mention about our group discussions was how they could be… well…. complete fucking disasters!!!… when all fore- and afterthought was left by the wayside; when debates digressed into pissing matches; when emotion trumped reason and all productivity came to a grinding halt. At times we were nowhere near reaching any understanding... these moments were goddamn frustrating!

… Although… in retrospect I appreciated the genius of this exercise all the more because it showed us the pitfalls of diplomacy firsthand. I walked away with new insight into the dangers of misunderstanding, wondering whether shit ever got that petty at the United Nations.

– Sure, there are times when it seems like this program offers nothing but a grim reality-check, but I still think we should put Little Billy on the next chartered flight. He’s already dealing with more disconcerting allegories in English class. Weren’t we all handed Lord of the Flies to read in our youth? Our teachers’ way of saying, “This is what you pubescent piss-ants would do to each other if left to your own devices and don’t think things change once you get older, so whoever relates to Piggy better shape-up before the real world eats you alive.”

Due to my own weaknesses I hadn’t grabbed the conch near enough. Upset and confused I spent too much time trying to rationalize my aggravation to a dog with a broken leg. Now that I’ve had time to internalize what happened I hope it’s not too late to share useful perspective.

Well, one such car-wreck of a discussion combined the complications of language barriers, age-old questions of Jewish identity and quick tempers. It started when Ukrainian participants mentioned a distinction between being Ukrainian and being Jewish. This knocked the wind out of all of us Canadians considering the unfounded marginalization of Jews throughout history, especially in Ukraine… hell, most of us had seen Fiddler on the Roof.

“How can someone not be considered Ukrainian simply because of their religion?” Someone asked.

“Ukrainians are Ukrainians and Jews are Jews,” was the explanation reiterated to us.

However, the Ukrainians were speaking in the broader terms of ethnicity. Jewish identity wasn’t always exclusive to religion; there were many believers and non-believers who consider themselves ‘a people,’ just as many Ukrainians weren’t restricted to nationality; as their culture had been established long before having an independent state.

We might have not agreed with what we were hearing, but we should note how much of what you read on Ukraine cast its Jewish population among its ethnic demography, so Ukrainian citizens consider themselves many things including ethnic-Ukrainians, ethnic-Russians and ethnic-Jews. Maybe there was underlying ethnocentrism that demanded serious questioning, but I didn’t think we were hearing signs of malevolence from our counterparts.

Hostility arose from several Canadians, the severity of which depends on who recounts the conversation, but it was undeniable judgment had been passed on the Ukrainians. They definitely felt it and thought it was cause of a major sore spot on group relations. Was this our innate reaction to speak out against what we thought were signs of intolerance? Well whatever it was it came off as alienating.

Not long after this discussion I joined a Canadian participant, and good friend of mine, for drink. Several seconds into our conversation I was reminded of our own home-grown bigotry with the most racist comment towards First Nations I’d ever heard… and I’ve encountered plenty of racism towards Aboriginal Canadians through various lines of work. Racism that transcended tasteless jokes and ignorant stereotypes, constituting a level of contempt I thought could only be expressed from underneath a white hood. While my friend’s comment made my skin feel as if it was crawling off my body, it wasn’t surprising because I’ve known many good people who try passing-off sentiments typically published on the stalls of public toilets as casual conversation; Rational people unknowingly proving themselves as social liabilities. Well, we Canadians not only have the tact, but we have the dark history to boot.

While growing up I had to pass a residential school every time I went into town. I paid little attention to the big redbrick building, except when it was time for its elaborate Christmas light show. What happened behind its walls became of interest after reading a book of testimonials from former students. These schools were established across the country during the late 19th century and the last one closed down in 1996 (Gordon Residential School, Saskatchewan.)

These under-funded joint-ventures between government and church were notorious for decrepit accommodations detrimental to children’s health; over-working children on farms that provided a supplemental budget; providing minimal food that led to malnourishment; denying proper medical care to the sick. This created prime breeding ground for the school’s tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century, resulting in an overall death rate that has been estimated at forty two per cent. Some cite this figure as much higher considering how few records were actually kept. (At one point, File Hills Boarding School in Saskatchewan had a death rate of seventy five per cent.) Parents who refused to put their children at risk couldn’t contend with the fines or prison sentences coupled with compulsory attendance.

Despite wide-spread knowledge of the problems nothing was done, “The deaths, and the conditions of the schools pricked no collective conscience, wrought no revolution in policy, or even any significant reformulation,” explains John S. Milloy, professor of Native studies at Trent University and author of the bestselling book, A National Crime.

The inaction to prevent infection amongst students had been deemed criminal by various inspectors at the time. To the discomfort of Canadians, people reviewing this history today have been using that controversal G-word many consider too generally defined.

These children were put under the guardianship of the government and measures were enforced to distance them from the “backsliding” influences of their parents. Some parents were left to question not only how their children died but where their unmarked graves were. "They have been buried without the knowledge of their parents, in places that their parents cannot visit or get to … many children simply disappeared."

The extent of physical and sexual abuse within these schools hasn’t been revealed to the general public. “There was a pronounced and persistent reluctance on the part of the Department [of Indian Affairs] to deal forcefully with incidents of abuse.” Producing evidence for review was often futile as “excuses” from principals “backed by their churches would have greater priority.” There are personal accounts of torture and murder that will hopefully be addressed during Canada’s South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. [Kevin Annett is an activist that has been compiling testimonies.]

Results of an indoctrination designed to “kill the Indian and save the man” are broken homes and a culture put to shame. What consequence does this have on a people? These aims of “elevating” Aboriginal Canadians to their white contemporaries have failed, as now there’s a massive disparity between cultures. Third world conditions exist on numerous reserves that face contaminated water supply and over-crowded housing, sustaining a life expectancy five to seven years below national average.

But was the intention really to create equals? Many civil rights for Aboriginal Canadians came after the international pressure that followed Canada’s signing of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human rights in 1948. Not until 1951 was it finally legal for Aboriginal Canadians to perform culturally vital ceremonies such as Potlatch, and hire lawyers to deal with treaties. Aboriginal Canadians couldn’t vote in federal elections without having to renounce their status until 1960.

This is not distant history by anyone’s standards. So is there reason we do not educate young Canadians of the history of these discriminatory policies? – Not to create a guilt-complex but an awareness of how easily this could happen and become ignored.

I can only imagine how all of this sets-the-stage for further misunderstanding during times of conflicting interests as seen at Oka, Restigouche, Ipperwash, Caledonia and elsewhere. Despite how Canadians may understand these situations, we should recognize the rest of the world might not agree with us. In 2007, Canada stood by the few who refused to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I imagine if we were to explore these issues during group discussion we might very well bear the brunt of judgment.

So Ukrainians and Canadians had different minorities they discriminated against… well we weren’t lost of all commonality…

After Canadians took to confrontation some Ukrainians figured we’d be unwavering proponents of tolerance during further group discussion… but that role could never be so clear-cut; many issues still fall into grey throughout the world. When it came time to discuss homosexuality, we shared just as much ambivalence as the Ukrainians. Was this surprising? Not really. Didn’t people start feeling uncomfortable once they began suspecting Bert and Ernie were pushing their beds together?

— Canada has reputation of leading the way for gay rights but this hadn’t come without serious controversy. Our 2004 federal election saw debate over the legality of civil marriage make top agenda —

We broached the topic since there was a possibility of Ukrainians having gay host-family members when in Canada. One discussion had everyone share their personal feelings towards homosexuality. The Ukrainians were divided and the Canadians unanimously endorsed acceptance, but some were quick to emphasize their apprehension. I found this curious because over the years I’ve engaged many Canadians in similar conversation and this same underlaying theme comes up most the time: “I’ve got no problem with homosexuals… but the idea of homosexuality really bothers me.” After hearing this so often, it begins to sound as if people are swallowing some pride in accepting and if this is the case, I can’t help but think there’s much confliction and reservation that still exists.

No one should have to apologize for their taste, however, in a time when sex removes itself from taboo and becomes a fundamental recreation and marketing engine I wonder if people recognize the irrelevancy of their taste. An irrelevancy better emphasized if their displeasure was directed towards the unconventional heterosexuals who rub them the wrong way.

To help put this into perspective imagine if I approached a straight friend who was a sexual libertarian; I’m saying, a Saturday night for him and his girlfriend usually consists of setting up video-cameras and slipping into crotch-less gorilla suites just before they start priming their Ass Blaster 5000. Now imagine if I told this friend that I was ashamed of what he was doing and I think he should be ashamed as well. I let him know he’s heading down a slippery slope because who’s he going to take the Ass Blaster to next? His own sister? I explain how he shouldn’t have the right to marry his girlfriend because he’d be shitting on the principles of everyone who’s a Justice of the Peace, including those at Papa Pre-Nubby’s franchise of Drive-Thru Wedding Chapels/Cold Beer and Wine Stores. I also mention how he’ll be stepping on the b-line straight to hell and not because he decided to cleanout his garage on the last Sabbath.

After my friend laughs this off, then slowly realizes that I’m serious, he’ll be quick to remind me not only what a complete fascist I’m being towards matters that don’t concern me but how disparaging I am to all things that make life interesting and possibly enjoyable. Maybe he’d have a point. The reason I’m not reminded of this from my homosexual friend is because he’s probably resigned after knowing so many who approach homosexuality with a blinding sense of hatred, shame and fear.

While amongst the mob of ruff-necked nudists in the sauna I wondered what would happen if I were obviously gay. I suspect there might be trouble considering these guys probably believed they’d never met anyone homosexual in their lives. I thought there was something paradoxical about this idea.

That’s when he approached me, the brutish stranger whose body flaunted the timely ravages of testosterone; dreaded prevision along the path my own body was traveling. He inquired whether I’d be a Good Samaritan and give him a beat-down with bundles of wet weeds people were using on each other. As he lay down I heated the weeds over some coals, then I proceeded to tenderize him like a blob of hairy meat. Soon he insisted it was my turn. Why the hell not? I’ve abused my body thus far. I took the standard position of lying on my back and cupping my hands over my genitals. He beat me from head to toe – kind of felt like being belted with razor wire.

After explaining this to my male friends back home they stared at me wide-eyed, as if I’d just recounted my experience being molested in a Ukrainian prison and concluded the story by asking them for a kiss. It’s understandable; the banya would typically exceed my comfort level with naked men. How were these Ukrainians able to do this when strong homophobia still exists in Ukraine?

Then again, I had never held hands with so many men walking down the street then when I visited Tanzania, Africa, where homosexuality was illegal. It was customary for men to hold hands, particularly when one was giving the other directions. This was challenging but, just like the banya, there were no erotic intentions behind it… the banya hadn’t threatened my sexuality, just my privacy.

Growing up, I saw our arbitrary nature in distinguishing homoerotism. I remember high school and the clique of up-and-coming beer-league pro-stars who’d jokingly slap each other’s asses in the shower after gym class: the same guys who’d slam the effeminate kid into the lockers because he was shit at ultimate frisbee and hence, a queer. Not only does homosexuality balance on the thin line between acceptance and rejection but everyone has drawn their own thin line between good-clean-fun and foreplay.

We Canadians might have come a long way, but I wonder if we pat ourselves on the back while still keeping a watchful eye over our shoulder; wasted effort when we don’t even know what we should be afraid of.

Anyways, after long-term exposure to male anatomy I began thinking of women as even greater anomalies considering their attraction to such flawed design…. Although, there wasn’t sign of any women nearby, maybe they all had the sense to stay away from this sausage parade.

My host-brother had arranged for me to have a massage, so I knew of at least one woman here. Grabbing a towel for cover, I went to the masseuse only to discover I had to wait my turn. While in the lobby the manager approached me and insisted he take me somewhere I could stave off my boredom. He lead me through an entrance next to a sign saying “BAP” which I should have recognized as Cyrillic text for “BAR.”

I walked into a bar where a group of women were socializing and I was suddenly conscientious of the towel barely covering me. I struggled to cinch what now seemed like a hand towel around my waist as the manager pulled drinks out of the cooler asking, “Cola? Cola?” In my best Ukrainian I said, “No!... no thank you!.... no money! No! No!” Needless to say this incited much laughter from the ladies.

This would have been a devastatingly humiliating circumstance, but I was reconciled to bearing the justice of karma because only days earlier I had made a similar intrusion into a women’s sanctuary, causing just as much humiliation… but not on my part.

This relates to Ostroh University’s infamous no-smoking policy exclusive to females. During our orientation, prior to our departure for Ukraine, we were forewarned by past participants that any girl needing a drag near the university should do it in hiding — the washroom was recommended as her best bet.

I was walking home with a Ukrainian participant who wanted to have a smoke. She had a hideout in mind, so I followed her along a muddy path up a hill behind the university cafeteria. We reached the remnants of a brick wall where six women were crouching in the mud, smoking. I recognized some as the cafeteria staff. Once they saw me they extinguished every cigarette simultaneously and filed down the hill in embarrassment (such skill manoeuvring stilettos on loose ground.) With the hideout all to ourselves, my friend sought cover behind the wall and lit up. The mud was littered with hundreds of butts; sign of an underground society who just wanted a smoke free from a scorn reserved for those harbouring ovaries.

Many students told me any female caught smoking could damage her reputation at the university which could have drastic consequences. What about the men? Well, there was a canopy set up for their smoking-pit next to the entrance. This wasn’t the attitude of the university alone; women who smoked anywhere in Ostroh were frowned upon.

The point of this one-sided policy was divulged during the rector’s introduction, when he lectured all female participants of the adulteration smoking had on their god-given grace… a man of this status must have his word travel far…

“Women who smoke are disgusting,” a student was explaining to me while smoking in the local pub.

“Yeah, but you smoke,” I remarked.

“Yes… but women who smoke are disgusting.”

“So do you. What does that make you?”

“I don’t know… but women who smoke are disgusting.”

This logic was frustrating but how far was it from the rector’s own rationale which was predicated on women conserving an image? For whom were these women upholding their image? Who were the real beneficiaries?

“Yeah, but you smoke!” I wasn’t giving up so easily since beer was the equivalency of ninety cents Canadian.

“Yes. I smoke.”

“So are you disgusting?”

“No…. you don’t understand: Women who smoke are disgusting.”

Were women doing it for this asshole?

The purpose of our program was to help us become culturally understanding, but one Canadian raised an interesting point during group discussion. He mentioned the drawbacks of this resolute sensitivity. What if cultural differences challenged our very morals? Do we accept perspective and policy, despite being discriminatory, just because they’re part of someone’s culture? Do we tolerate the intolerant?

Well, maybe we had good intentions when confronting Ukrainians about Ukrainian Jews, but I found it strange how we let that issue became an elephant pissing in the corner of the room when we didn’t address this bullshit smoking policy. Sure it’s a habit worth discouraging, but it was also a glaring double-standard an establishment like Ostroh University should’ve recognize. I was sensitive to the fact that the university was kind enough to host us, but if we were in the game of pointing out prejudices such was the more obvious.

The troubling thing for me was… it hadn't occured to me to raise the issue. It would have been easy but now it’s nothing more than an afterthought. Why didn’t I? I don’t know. All I do know is men throughout the world spend their life obsessing over women but most often fail to pay them respect somewhere along the way.

So what am I getting at with all this? Well someone back home might very well say, “Ukraine eh? I here there’s quite a bit anti-Semitism over there. When it comes to women’s lib isn’t it a throwback to the 1950s? I bet if you’re gay you sure wouldn’t want to visit.” Sure there was evidence I could cover but failing to mention what I’d learned from Canadians would be hypocritical. What can I say, other than, it was very revealing to see this broad cross-section of Canadians aginst a backdrop like Ukraine because it proved that timeless cliché about all of us “being the same” still applies when we don’t want it to. Standing back and looking at both camps of participants our most glaring discrepancies were our accents and haircuts.

I image this sermon of mine might piss-off some people, but I hope I've made my criticism as constructive as possible... because only we ourselves can change the way we think and act.

4 comments:

Gordo said...

Yeah, fuck Canadians. One thing about living over here for so many years is I've realized that Canadians more than any other group of people (on average) seem to think they have the moral high ground in almost every social conflict. The Canadian myth of tolerance has become the sole international identifier for Canadians, when in reality; Canada has as many skeletons in their closest as any other nation. That said, the moral zeitgeist in Canada appears to be constantly moving forward, and Canada and Canadians have made many strides in improving tolerance over the years. That said, a blindly inarguable pride over these accomplishments generally cheapens their appeal and importance; Canadians often reveling in their moral superiority remain ignorant of pending moral issues that have yet to be resolved...other countries with what Canadians consider to be darker histories have long since resolved or made efforts to resolve the same issues. The example you gave of Canada's failure to recognize the UN's resolution on genocide is the perfect example. As morally backward as the Ukraine seems in many ways, Canadians in the Ukraine perpetuating their moral compass as superior seems to me to be a colonialist mindset; a mindset whether Canadians want to admit it or not still permeates most of Canadian culture today.

anton said...

It's a great account, and quite a reflexive one.
Coming from Ukraine, I would agree on many points raised and situations described. However, the smoking policy/practice in Ostroh really shocked me. In my experience, probably more young Ukrainian girls smoke than men. They seem to do it in a false belief that they are cool and mature -- to sustain this belief one must smoke in public. It's sad, but walking pass high schools in Uzhhorod, you can see hordes of teenagers, boys and girls, smoking without any shame or intention to hide from teachers (de jure selling cigarettes or alcohol to a minor is illegal in Ukraine, but as most laws this is not observed, nor enforced). Indeed, when I was a kid in the 1980s and 90s, those schoolchildren who smoked had to hide -- not any more. During my university years in the late 1990s, my female classmates smoked openly in the yard of the faculty, in the faculty bar or in front of the faculty, next to professors and dean. It was not a manifestation of an audacious behaviour or a rebellion – it was a norm.

On a different note -- although it's just a thought. I really don't think many Ukrainians know about circumcision. Perhaps they heard about it, they might even know that Muslims and Jews (i.e. those practising Judaism) get it when they are kids. Nonetheless, i doubt many Ukrainians would be able to link a circumcised penis they might see to this knowledge:) Hence, I'm really sceptical that in your banya experience they identified you as a Jew based on you being circumcised, which in your account immediately lead to retaliation. I reckon the guys were perplexed, and given that Ukrainians are not very tactful in general, they made you feel uncomfortable. I've never seen a circumcised man in Ukraine, even though I know a couple of Jews (indeed, in Eastern Europe an ethnicity and culture are the criteria, not a religious affiliation). Most of ethnic Jews in Ukraine are, like a majority of other ethnic groups in Ukraine, atheists or Christian (mostly Orthodox and so-called ‘Greek Catholics’), which means that they would not get circumcised. The procedure is not common in Ukraine (I know it’s standard in North America). In Ukraine circumcision is used only as a religious ritual by the families which practice Islam or Judaism.

Dave said...

Nicely done dude. Well put together article. I agree that pretty much all cultures have their prejudices. I wonder if its easier to see them, when you're out of your element and everything is new.

Look forward to the next adventure.

Wanderlusting said...

WOW Jeff. Here I came looking for your humour and instead I got a very nice slice of commentary (not to say your humour isn't...nice?) anyway well done, you should honestly publish this! Total think piece.