Culture and Language through the Eyes of a Missionary Mom

(This post originally appeared on Assist News Service in October 2014.)

As I write, I’m sitting in one of the cute little cafes that abound in the city where I live in the western part of Ukraine. I love this city. It’s not too large, but big enough to have just about everything an expat like myself could want, including well-stocked grocery stores, markets where you can buy Western groceries at discounted prices, movie theaters showing most of the American blockbusters (not in the original language, unfortunately, but that detail isn’t too much of a hindrance to me anymore), and a wide variety of places to eat out. Granted, there are no American fast-food chains here yet, but I’m not a fast-food kind of girl anyway. In my opinion, the prevalence of unique, inexpensive cafes more than makes up for this lack.

I’m in this cafe for two reasons: to have a little bit of time to myself free from the constant demands of small children and never-ending housework and to experience the culture, language, and city on my own. My husband and I were talking recently and decided that both these goals were important enough to warrant him holding down the home front for a few hours each week.

My husband has been living in Ukraine for much longer than I have. I’ve been here for eleven and a half years, which sounds like a long time, but I still feel like a newbie compared to his veteran twenty-two years. While I have been in this country for all of my married life, he has been here for well over half of his entire life. Given this difference in our levels of experience, I have always tended to defer to him and even figuratively hide behind him when we’re out and about together.

This pattern seemed logical during my first year in the country, when I was helpless, clueless, and afraid. But although it made sense, in hindsight, I realize that it was probably unwise. By always allowing my husband to act as a buffer between me and my new environment, I missed out on the joys of experiencing it first-hand and the thrills of making new discoveries on my own. From my experiences in other countries, I know that it is precisely these joys and thrills that give one a sense of ownership and help forge lasting bonds with another culture. Some call this the “honeymoon stage” of cultural adaptation, and it’s an apt description.

By refusing to do the hard thing and venture out to face the challenges of my new life without my husband’s help, I bypassed this honeymoon stage and entered immediately into the rude-awakening stage. The result was that it took me longer to learn the language than it should have, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve developed an intuitive grasp of the unspoken expectations and inner workings of the culture. Now, at a time when I should be well-integrated into my adopted home, I still catch myself feeling like an outsider. Whether it be while sitting silently in the middle of a group of laughing friends because I didn’t quite catch the punch-line to the joke someone just shared or while quietly fuming when encountering some aspect of life here that still annoys me, sometimes I feel like I’m living on the fringes of the culture.

And that bothers me. So I’m doing something about it.

First of all, I’m asking God to help me change, to replace my irritation over the inconveniences that arise when two cultures collide with a deep appreciation for the Ukrainian people. Secondly, I’ve started an online gratitude journal where each day I share one aspect of life in Ukraine for which I’m thankful. And thirdly, I’m being intentional about engaging my environment in ways that are more meaningful than a trip to the grocery store.

This last point may prove to be the most challenging, and I’m not entirely sure how it will look. I know that it will involve going places without my husband and putting myself in situations where I will be forced to interact with strangers. It could be as simple as going to a cafe by myself or as complicated as attending parent-teacher meetings while my husband stays home with the kids. What it may look like on a daily basis is rearranging my schedule so that I can take my younger kids outside to play on the playground at the same time that other mothers are out with their children, rather than going in the mornings when it’s deserted. Being an introvert, I much prefer the latter option, but I know that growth rarely happens in isolation.

Besides seeking deeper cultural integration, I also want to set a good example for my children, who are growing up in the fascinating position of being biracial (my mother was Japanese), bilingual, and third-culture. If you’re not familiar with the last, it refers to the culture of someone who has such intimate understanding of two (or more) cultures that he or she does not feel fully a part of any culture. The combination of two cultures results in a third culture that is unique to this individual. This can happen to adults who move away from their home culture and really embrace their new culture, but it especially applies to children who grow up in a culture different from that of their parents. Missionary kids and the children of foreign diplomats are two prime examples.

My eldest son and two of his Ukrainian friends, all wearing traditional embroidered shirts.

There are specific challenges to this sort of upbringing. Recently my second child, who is an extremely talkative 5-year-old, has been dealing with language issues. He doesn’t speak much Ukrainian yet, because until he started kindergarten this fall, he spent most of his time at home in an English-speaking environment. Being an extroverted social butterfly, he was excited by the prospect of starting kindergarten, until the day he realized that everyone there would be speaking Ukrainian. From that point on, he was adamantly opposed to the idea.

We had a church picnic just before he started kindergarten, and I found him in tears beside the trampoline we had set up for the kids of the church. He had wanted to jump with some of the other English-speaking children, but the person supervising told him he would have to jump with Ukrainian children (probably because there were too many American kids for them all to jump at the same time). “But I don’t want to jump with Ukrainians!” he wailed. It sounded incredibly racist, but I knew we were dealing with a linguistic aversion, not a racial one.

This experience only strengthened his resolve not to go to kindergarten. I finally managed to sweeten the pill by making a big deal out of all the arts and crafts supplies we bought for the occasion. When my husband dropped him off the first day, surprisingly, there were no tears. I waited and prayed until it was time to pick him up, and to my delight, he proclaimed that he had really liked it. His teacher had wisely taken a part of the class time to make him the center of attention and have him teach the other children several words in English. Now, just two weeks in, he is already speaking to his teachers and classmates in Ukrainian, and when he comes home, he excitedly tells me about the things he did with his “friends.”

My eldest child has a much more contemplative personality than his younger brother, and when he was in kindergarten, it took several months before he said a word to anyone. Then one day, when we picked him up, his teacher excitedly told us that he had said, “Bilyy,” which is Ukrainian for “white.” When they were passing out bread at lunchtime, they had given him a piece of brown bread, and he wanted white.

My 2nd grader is learning how to read in two languages at once.

Now, two years later, he is becoming increasingly fluent in the language. He especially enjoys reading and writing it, and he chatters happily with his classmates and kids on the playground. He has the most beautiful accent. My husband speaks Ukrainian with a Kyiv accent, because that’s where he learned it. People tell me I sound like I’m from Poland. (Go figure.) But our eldest child speaks with a pure Western Ukrainian accent. And our home is becoming a bilingual household, because often when he speaks English, he inserts Ukrainian words to replace English expressions that he doesn’t commonly use, like “homework,” “school workbook,” and “summer vacation.” I look forward to the day when all our children are fluent in English and Ukrainian, and the two languages fly back and forth with reckless abandon!

So, while there are undeniable difficulties to face with this sort of upbringing, there are great benefits as well. Personally, I believe the latter outweigh the challenges, and I want my children to realize that too. I hope that they will be encouraged to see their circumstances as a blessing when they watch me embracing the experience of living as a foreigner in an adopted land.

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