What Direction Now? Life at the intersection…

ThreeOdysseyThirteen – Touching on Culture

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First of all, thank you to those of you out there reading! My “Avg. Time on Site” stat has gone from two seconds (the little number two sadly overwhelmed by those bullying zeros – 00:00:02) to almost two minutes over the past two weeks since I started the challenge—perhaps at the same time as some of you! If so, I think you all should post on the Facebook page yourselves to let us all know how you’re doing on your own personal challenges!

It’s been a great two weeks, so thank you again for reading and for finding a way to force me into a habit of writing!

An increasingly rare piece of personal nonfiction…I feel a bit rusty, actually…

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Very early on here, I wrote some words about cultural differences, and how, though Ukraine and the U.S. are different in many ways—especially when compared to, say, the U.S. and Africa, where the differences are vastly apparent—one danger of volunteering here comes when you get too complacent and comfortable in the shallowest of their similarities, that is, in imprinting your own familiar cultural expectations onto what is and always will be a “foreign” culture. That’s not to say that I always keep this delineation clear in my own mind, and I’m not against comfort in general—it’s a natural by-product of good assimilation—but you have to be careful, or at the very least, self-aware. Which leads me to this piece of recent awareness: the longer I’m here, the more blurry the line between my “U.S. culture” and my newer “Ukrainian culture” gets. I have increasing embraced many Ukrainian mannerisms and customs into my own personal idea of what culture is and can be (whether I liked it or not). Nowhere is this more apparent than in my attitude toward touch.

Back home, touch is a big deal. You can get into a ton of trouble for touching someone when, how and where they do not want to be touched, and though hugs and handshakes are common, they aren’t really required. I can get by for days or weeks without touching someone in America if I really want to, and so touch takes on a special purposeful status. It’s either connection—when I touch or allow myself to be touched, it means that I really do want a bond, that I really do care—or intrusion. Maybe this is only true in my mind (how can one really ever know otherwise), but in the States, “Don’t touch me!” is one of the most emphatic and finalizing tell-offs that may be uttered. Those three words, to me, are just as powerful as a string of curse words and I kind of cringe even thinking about someone saying it right now, even if it’s just on television. Because even basic touch in America signifies an effort, at connection or toward more nefarious purposes, “Don’t touch me!” is an ultimate rejection of contact and connection.

Along with “Допоможіть!” (“Help!) and “Я не п’ю” (“I don’t drink”), one of the first safety phrases I learned when coming to Ukraine was “Не чіпайте мене” (“Don’t touch me”). It remains in my personal arsenal of things that I can say very well, but I rarely use it because if I said those words every time that I wanted to, every time that there was an unwanted touch, I’d be seen as a crazy person, muttering a personal mantra over and over again, screaming it at times—Не чіпайте мене…Не чіпайте мене…Не чіпайте мене!!!—and I’m not sure, even then, that I would be taken seriously.

In Ukraine, touch is unavoidable, often unintentional (though unfortunately not always, especially if you are an attractive woman), and general unnoticed. People cram their bodies onto marshrutky (mini-buses), fitting themselves into too-small spaces like forced puzzle pieces, so that from above it probably would look like some strange, hastily made mosaic of mostly dark tiles (because dark and darker are the two most popular clothing options here). Even at its absolute worst—when you are standing pressed against the person in front of you in a way that involves strategic placement of private parts and in almost any other situation might well be (but thankfully here is not) grounds for a sexual harassment suit—when this jammed-full bus is backing out of the station lot and you are absolutely certain that there is not enough oxygen, let alone body space, for even an infant, you will hear a frantic knock on the accordion doors and the driver will, beyond all sound reasoning, stop to let this person pack herself in (I wonder if Ukrainians are good at packing suitcases too). There is always enough room. Somehow.

The bus isn’t the only place in Ukraine you find yourself basically humping random strangers. In line at the grocery store or the train station, if you are not making some form of bodily contact with the person in front of you—that is, if you maintain any modicum of personal space, what we call the “American bubble”—you are in danger of having two or more people simply walk into the “gap” in the line…because you are obviously not in line from way back there—I don’t know, maybe you’re just standing there because you love to smell the various bodily aromas which permeate the train station public waiting room—and even if you are, I only have a quick question. You have to stay close and keep your head on a swivel if you want to survive a Ukrainian line uncut.

Shaking hands is another touch so ingrained as to be largely unavoidable. Men shake hands with other men on the street whether they are brothers or old friends or simply the most marginal of acquaintances—basically, if they have met each other ever. Often, this is done on the move, a greet and release in stride as the men pass each other and continue on their way. My friend, Vitaliy, has lived in Rivne his entire life, and I think he knows just about everybody in the city at least well enough to shake hands; on any given day when we are walking around, he is stopped no less than four times by what seem to me to be random men on the street; at times, on walks of no more than an hour or two, he hits double digits.

I found out early that Vitaliy doesn’t exactly like to be touched. One of the first times we met, we were riding a marshrutka, this one thankfully relatively empty, and Vitaliy was performing this wide-stance surfing move as the bus jerked and shimmied around. It’s hard to stand up on a bus without grabbing a hand rail—I usually use both hands to stabilize myself—but Vitaliy was a pro at this no-hands bus dance. When I asked him why, he said some things about germs and filth, and when I then asked him about handshaking, I could tell it was just a necessary evil in his life; this handshaking ritual is just a part of what it means to be a man in this country. Since then, for the most part, we have appropriated and adapted the fist bump as our traditional form of greeting.

Which is good, great actually, because in truth I don’t actually much enjoy being touched either. My bubble, like most of the rest of me, is larger than the average person’s, and so, finding myself stuffed onto a bus with my head pressed firmly against the short ceiling with annoyed people packed in around me like the soil to my bent and broken tree, well, that’s one of the worst things that happens to me in this country. It’s just plain terrible. Especially if I am being prodded by an old babusya who is yelling at me (yes, yelling) to keep moving back. Especially if it’s summer time, when you have the added element of sweat and its accompanying odors—there have been so many times when I have just been pouring sweat and I’ll have to take my hands off of the greasy hand rail just to catch a drop before it falls on an unsuspecting victim below me. These special situation happens far too consistently for me to be anything less than panicked whenever I face the prospect of riding on a bus without a seat. Public transportation is very much my least favorite part of service in Ukraine, which in many ways is a blessing—it could most certainly (as it is with some other volunteers I know) be worse.

In the end, I’ve learned to “accept” touch more fluently, more fluidly. Now, after almost two years here, I shake some hands whenever I walk around the city, even when I’m alone—one or two at most as opposed to Vitaliy’s 11 or 12. And there are even times, especially in winter, when I don’t mind the marshrutky all that much. With all of the puffy coats and the slightly cooler air up high around my head, it’s almost like being wrapped up in a quilt, so tight that you almost feel safe. In those moments, I’m not sure I even need to keep putting the effort into standing—I feel like I would stay upright even if I let my legs go limp; in those moments, really nestled into Ukraine, I could almost even sleep.
You’re a kid with a bullet soul…Are you ready to go?!?!
@c

2 comments

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  • The idea of accepting that sort of ‘fluid’ touch after an extensive discussion on sweat, though…

    I also wondered on the ambiguity of the phrasing about getting through a line ‘uncut’– yikes.

    Totally agree, though, on the comfort/discomfort shift in balance over my time in Ukraine. The space I have now here feels huge, and when driving in a car by myself… where is everyone??

What Direction Now? Life at the intersection…

About Andrew.

Andrew Cartwright grew up in Indianapolis, IN, but has lived over the years in such places as Denver, CO; Fairfax, VA; and Rivne, Ukraine. He is a former nonfiction editor for both Indiana Review and phoebe; he has also worked for the intersectional feminist journal, So To Speak, and the national literary magazine, Electric Literature. His work has appeared in The Normal School Online, Copper Nickel, Esquire Ukraine, Literary Hub, and Word Riot.

For more information about me and links to other writing, visit my author page at cartwriter.com

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