Ukrainian Culture and People

Kyiv at Night

Kyiv at Night

I first traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine in the winter of 2002. I was stunned by the overwhelming hospitality of the people of Ukraine. Never before had I met a people so interested in making friends and being friendly. Upon my second trip to Ukraine in 2011-2012, I remain equally impressed with the substantial differences between the Ukrainian culture and the culture of the USA.

Here, family and friends mean something that they simply do not mean in the USA. They really mean something. Please, this is no slam on the USA, so please don’t take it that way. What I intend to communicate is a vast cultural divide, not a judgment about which side of that divide is superior. It might come off that way, however, because I have my own preferences.

That is to say, I have a certain way that I treat friends and family. I am incredibly loyal to those I call friend or family. I would never, under any circumstances where it is possible to help a friend or family member, refuse to help. I would always put forth every effort to be of aid to my friends and family when they request it.

I would refuse help only when it was not possible, or when the “friend” in question had proved themselves unfriendly through their actions. I would otherwise attempt to give any aid requested, provided I had the ability to do so.

Ukrainian Culture

Embedded in the very essence of Ukrainian culture is a sort of steadfast loyalty. The culture here has a high regard for friends and family that is simply not present in the USA. For example, if a friend were out of work, or traveling, or down on their luck, it would be taboo for a friend not to help them out. It would be almost unheard of for a family member to say “no” if a request were made for a couch to crash on, or a few dollars of help. It would be nearly forbidden or considered extreme for a person to refuse a friend or family member in need.

In the USA, by contrast, the practice is quite common. When I was down on my luck, or in need of assistance, I would turn to family and friends for support, and frequently find that support noticeably lacking. I might need a place to rest my head for a week or a month rent-free, and find that nobody was willing to support me in such a manner. Such a situation would rarely arise in Ukraine. In point of fact, a person who acted in such a way towards friends and family would be viewed as a very strange anomaly here. In the USA, however, such behavior is commonplace…the norm rather than the exception.

This was one of my primary reasons for expatriating to Ukraine. I want friends and family that will treat me as I would treat them. I want steadfast people close to me who would always or almost always help me in my time of need.

I can see the writing on the wall, and I know that the next few decades will be a time of great upheaval on planet Earth. In such a time, I want people around me who will uplift and aid, rather than turn their backs. I would never dream of refusing any  friend or family member in need, in a tough spot, or requiring some form of assistance – unless it were simply outside my current powers or ability to give that assistance.

I’ve loaned money to people knowing I’d likely never see it returned. I’ve allowed people to stay with me for (sometimes substantial) lengths of time without any request for rent or assistance. I’ve treated every friend or family member as I would want to be treated.

The only time I’ve made exception to this Golden Rule of friendship and family has been when some friend has first turned their back on me in my time of need, or rejected me, or forced me out when I was seeking their aid or understanding.

Ukrainian People

There is a saying in this part of the world. Some (Russians) say it comes from Russia. Some (Ukrainians) claim it belongs to Ukraine. Regardless of the origin, I have found it to be true. The saying is: The Ukrainian people are the most hospitable in the world.

The people here truly pride themselves on hospitality.

To be hospitable means to be inviting and receptive of guests. It means to offer a pleasant and sustaining environment. It means to be readily receptive to others.

The people of Ukraine meet this word by any definition. They are warm and inviting. Once you have made a friend in a Ukrainian, you can expect to be invited into his home, asked to dine with his family, and listened to with an incredible ease that is rarely present in the USA. It literally does not matter who you are, so long as you express yourself with a modicum of respect.

Ukrainians treat people new to them as if they were sure to become friends, rather than warily, as in the USA. They do not expect the selfishness and greed that American citizens have come to expect (due primarily to our selfish and greedy culture) in our fellows. They are open, warm and inviting because they know that’s simply how most people are.

The Contrast

When I speak to Ukrainians of some of my experiences in the USA, they simply look at me dumbfounded, unable to believe what I’m describing. When I say that I needed a place to stay for a few weeks, and had to hunt and search for a few weeks to find just one local friend who would allow me to couch surf, the look of shock on their faces is readily apparent.

They have a particular idea of the USA as a land of plenty. They have their own illusions about exactly what that means, because they do not understand the difference in culture.

Ukrainians simply cannot imagine a situation in which they need help, where the bulk of their family and friends would say “no” to their request. It is, quite literally, a non-issue here.

Reasons for Leaving

People in the USA frequently ask me my reasons for leaving the USA. They cannot understand why I would depart “such a great country” in search of a new life overseas.

People in the Ukraine frequently ask me my reasons for coming to the Ukraine. They cannot understand why I would depart “the land of the free” for their comparatively poor and developing nation.

My reasons are simple, when you get down to it. I want friends and family around me who treat me as I would treat them. I want friends and family who will have my back, no matter what.

As I have gotten older, I have started to think about a family of my own. I have a real and strong desire to make that happen.

When I look at the prospect of raising my children in a culture that inculcates selfishness and greed, it makes me a bit ill. When I look at the prospect of raising my children in a culture that inculcates hospitality, family and friendship as vital means to survival and true happiness, it makes my heart shine.

If you want to know the deep and true reason I left the USA, this is it. I want a family. Not only that, but I want a family that will see family and friends the way I see them, instead of the way the normal US citizen sees them. I knew I could find that here in Ukraine, and the more I get to know Ukrainians, the more I see that I made the right choice.

So I say this to my new Ukrainian friends (and future family)….  I love you already. You’re amazing people living in a truly authentic culture. You’re unafraid to be true to your friends and family, even when that means a personal loss on your part. I admire that. I respect that. It is the root of my reasoning in coming to your nation.

If you asked me why I came to Ukraine, I may have pointed you to this blog post. I hope it clears a few things up for you. I hope you either see my point (if you’re Ukrainian) or start to think about your family and friends in a new light (if you’re American).

Again, this is not to slam Americans in any way. I get it. The culture over there is simply different. This is not the way you were raised. I ask you this, though: how do you want to raise the next generation of Americans? Is the same kind of culture we already have good enough for them, or do you want them to have better? If your answer is the latter, I suggest you  learn a different way of relating to family and friends in need than the typical way in US culture.

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6 Responses to “Ukrainian Culture and People”

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  1. David says:

    Hello Mr. Sarver

    My name is David and I enjoyed reading your blog. You can find me on Facebook @ David Michael (Pomeroy WA). Are you still in Ukraine? I would very much like to experience a nice family orientated culture. My family is great but they are all independent to a fault. I hope all is going as planned and hope to hear from you.

    David

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    • e.b. sarver says:

      Hi David,

      Yes, I am still in Ukraine, and sent you a friend request on Facebook. I love it here, and plan to stay. I have a new job teaching English as a foreign language, and haven’t been this happy with my life and job in many years. I really do not foresee returning to the USA for more than a visit with friends and family. Living overseas has been a joy so far.

      Evan

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  2. Cy says:

    Hi Mr Sarver,
    I have lived in UA since 2004, I was born in Ohio, and lived some years in the southern states. Though I agree with much of what you say, I tend to not agree about the ( friends) aspect of this article. I have only about 1-2 males friends in Ukraine ( and I am a very social man) and I have a few good women friends..but most all my good friends are from the USA or expats here. To me the UA male mindset and the Western mindset are at two different poles.
    Also I think it depends where you have lived in the USA. If puritanical states ( like New England and MN) then I 100% agree with what you say about American people, but the southern states I have meet, very good, kind, and loyal friends in those places.
    Anyway..good luck in your pursuit of finding a family and happiness here. :) All the best!!
    Cy

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  3. Cybele says:

    I have the same values as you do when it comes to family and friends – real friends, and I have been as disappointed when my expectation for connection failed. I have always been supportive when a family member needed assistance. It never crossed my mind not to be. Including giving a brother a down payment for a house. But recently, when I needed emotional support after a bad breakup, I found everyone kept me at arms length. “Friends” were even worse with the “dust off your boots and get back on the horse” advice, or telling me not everyone is meant to have a romantic partner (?). Where was the compassion, sensitivity, love? I moved to a new state and no matter how hard I’ve tried for 5 years, I just can’t seem to make lasting, or emotionally intimate friends. I began to take it personally. Sadly, I see I am not the only one experiencing the “keep it light” and superficiality of our independent society here in US.

    I do have one minor question. I have seen on at least 3 occasions, Ukrainian brides enter the US, not taking their husbands last name, but changing the spelling of their first or last name. Usually changing an “i” to a “y”. Is it a code of some kind signifying marriage? For instance: Irina to Iryna.
    Good luck to you. Though, I don’t think you need it. You sound happy and “home”.

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  4. Cybele says:

    P.S. There is a large growing community of Ukrainians and Russians here in the Seattle area – mostly in the Bellevue and Kent areas. The warmth spills over.

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  5. Annette says:

    Dear Mr. Sarver,

    I am an American who served as a member of a Ukrainian/Russian evangelical church in Florida. I taught Sunday School to the English-speaking teenagers of immigrant Ukrainian parents. I was also studying the Russian language. In the beginning I was euphoric about the strong friend and family sense of loyalty. When we became members, I said, “Now we have an extended family.” After almost a year, though, we left because they made us feel that we would never really be one of them. It is hard to feel included when you are at a get-together sitting at a table, and the other members of the group speak to each other in their own language. The church had a specific calling to reach out to people of all nationalities. I guess America rubbed off on them, at least in the beginning of our time there. For all of Americans’ independence, individuality, and casualness aside, we are still the most tolerant of other cultures. After we left, I didn’t feel like such an outsider anymore. The love we were searching for was in our own backyard afterall. I have strengthened my relationships with my own family.

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