Truth be told, I was never keen on going to Ukraine. It’s not a case of sour grapes, I’m relieved I’m not going; I’m not bitter. When I first accepted my assignment in Eastern Europe, I thought, “Oh good, I’ll be able to fit in better there.” My forebears are from that part of the world, my Polish and German features wouldn’t appear too foreign to the average Ukrainian. I would be able to pass people on the street without them gawking at me or my features. I would be able to blend in more easily among people with similar DNA, maybe disappear. I pictured myself walking down the same dirt roads that my ancestors, or their conquerors, trudged.
The food wouldn’t have been foreign in the least. I was looking forward to the beets and the dumplings, the sausage and the bread. Ah, the bread; I had heard good things about the bread and I was eager to learn from the babushkas.
The Peace Corps had been sending information on cultural differences and how Ukrainians and Russians behave and carry themselves. Just think about Vladimir Putin’s stoic demeanor. I would meld the Ukrainian psyche into mine. I would become even more dour and curt and untrusting. And there was the danger. The dark side of my personality might rise up again—not exactly the direction I had been steering myself in lately.
My insecurities and my need to please others would lead me down a rutted and muddy path over the Ukrainian countryside. I would feel a need to do more of what they did to further prove myself, to be evermore like them. I would do the things my comrades did to demonstrate my sameness. In solidarity I would try to act more the typical Ukrainian and my uniqueness would dissolve. I feared I would all too easily accept the bottle of vodka when it was offered and I would instinctively show them that I knew what I was doing, loosening the inhibitions while toasting the past, toasting the future. I would lose me again and that would change the present as well as the future.
For me, serving in the Peace Corps has always meant going someplace where you don’t fit in. The exotic appeal of service meant being a complete and utter foreigner. In Thailand I will be an oddity. I will not resemble anything Thai and I will be conspicuous the entire time there. I am 6 foot 2 and 200 pounds; I will tower over everyone around me. I will be the exotic one every minute of every day. I have green eyes and am fair-skinned. I will burn in the tropical sun and I will sweat profusely in the Thai heat and humidity. But I believe I have more of an opportunity to be myself where I don’t have to worry about fitting in.
The Peace Corps is again sending information on the differences I will likely experience while living in Thailand, the Land of Smiles. I visited a local Thai restaurant yesterday and ordered the papaya salad, som tom. I had never had papaya before so why not try it raw and unripe? The waitress, smiling through the metallic braces on her teeth, asked how I wanted it spiced: Thai-spiced or American-spiced? I would try it Thai-spiced, I answered. She continued to smile and asked if I wanted it with the pickled crab legs. Why not, I thought, if that’s what Thais do? She was kind enough to remain nearby after she delivered my lunch and saw how my face became flushed and my eyes teared up after two small bites. She offered to take it back to the kitchen and bring me the milder, American version. I was grateful for that gesture and was relieved knowing I didn’t need to prove I could handle the piquant spices. I have the remainder of the year to try other unfamiliar dishes and become acclimated to the heat, in some fashion, while still Stateside. The spices will not change who I am. Or perhaps they will.