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Ukrainian Heart In America

Oksana Bihun

In 2003, my advisor asked me, “Do you want to go there?” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “If they take me, I will go.” 


“They will not take you if you don’t want it,” he replied.”

That night, falling asleep below the emptiness of the ceiling, I asked myself, “Do you want to go there?” Advice came to mind: if one dreams of something, the dream must be sent deep into the Universe; do not cling to it, let it go. The Universe will respond.

“Yes, I want. I want.”

A few days later I received an offer of a graduate assistantship at the University of Missouri, Columbia, USA. Several months went by during the preparation of my departure: going to Kyiv for a visa, arranging for an apartment, borrowing money and buying a ticket. This would be my first time on an airplane. Too excited to fall asleep at night, I often thought of this new land as a beautiful city with white buildings of unusual shapes: spherical, conic, pyramidal...mathematics was opening its world to me! Little did I know that this pursuit of a dream would transform into a search for identity in years to come.


I told the news to very few friends. Many would ask: Why do you want to go there? Who will take care of your ill relatives? What about Ukraine; aren’t you a patriot? Because I struggled with the same questions, my anxiety would be overwhelming if I discussed my decision with others.

Right after passing the border control in the Chicago airport, I was very amused: the plastic cover on a toilet seat moved automatically, and it flushed several times before I left the stall. “Wow,” I thought, “not bad…” My first classes at the University of Missouri were challenging; I found myself reaching for high standards as I was learning the topics I had dreamed of learning. Working on a unique research project brought deep intellectual pleasure and satisfaction. My dream was coming true.

The complexity of emigration legalities affected my life on the most elementary level. Because my legal status in the US was temporary, investments into a car, furniture, or other possessions that would improve my well-being significantly, seemed unreasonable. I did not risk visiting my family for the last two and a half years of my study for fear of not having my visa renewed. Although my behavior was very logical under the particular “immigrant” set of circumstances, my actions, questions, and requests often seemed strange to the people around me.

Adjustment to a different system of measurement--degrees Fahrenheit versus Celsius, pounds and feet versus kilograms and meters--seemed a fun game as I confused distances and bought too much or too little deli meat; but a misunderstanding of the US health care system had serious consequences for me.

It became my habit to pray the Office of Prayer--a standard morning and evening selection of psalms, scripture readings, and petitions, arranged according to the Catholic calendar--in English, thus allowing the new language to enter the most intimate verbal activity I perform. I made sure my roommates were American. Eventually, I was able to read The New York Times and non-mathematical books. I even wrote some poems in English and dreamed a few dreams in which I spoke English. But at this point I approached a border that was dangerous to cross: any further intrusion into my Ukrainian core threatened to shatter my personality and destroy my integrity.

I left Ukraine for two reasons: to mature as an individual away from my family and to pursue my vocation to become a mathematician. Delay in resolving either issue would cause spiritual death, which can be described as a state of being in which the human spirit loses its orientation toward God and falls into deeds of mere survival--not life--dictated by hopelessness and despair. If I denied my aspirations to come out of the womb of my family, the way I once came out of my mother’s womb, and follow the call to enter the realm of God’s intelligent mind--mathematical mind--I would still be functioning: walking, eating, working, talking; but my humanity would be compromised. I was genuinely afraid of spiritual death, certainly more than the challenges of adjusting to life in a different country.

As I made a furious effort to assimilate into American society, a deep nostalgia took root in me. Even though I was glad to get away from my native country and live in an environment that helped reshape my life and heal from much suffering, I found myself unable to listen to a Ukrainian song without tears. This I could understand. But it came as a surprise that Bulgarian folk songs had the same effect on me. Surrounded by alien culture, I discovered my Slavic identity. This vivid experience reminded me of Carl Jung’s theory of collective unconscious archetypes, according to which a part of human psyche contains symbols and ideas--archetypes--that have not been generated by the psyche’s individual experience, but are hereditary and belong to collective unconsciousness.

I came to understand that being Ukrainian means much more than eating certain foods, speaking a certain language, or practicing a certain religion. Ukraine is the cradle of my humanity, and I cannot remain fully human without maintaining a deep spiritual connection to my Motherland. God made Himself present in my life in Ukraine, in that nation which He formed to shelter me and other human beings, to which He chose to speak in Ukrainian, and to which He revealed Himself in a very particular and special way.

As I touched upon the profound mystery of God’s work in particular nations, I understood my vocation better. It was not bestowed to reshape my self entirely to most closely resemble an average American-born citizen; it was to maintain and foster my Ukrainian identity and to speak to all people of good will from the depth of my being, my Ukrainian core.

This is the drama of an immigrant: to live and function in the new land, be open and friendly to it, accept at least some of its customs, and accept its people with love. And, on the other hand, risk spiritual death by dissolution of self in the new environment. I therefore declare myself as an immigrant: a foreigner who is willing to contribute her best to her new community while remaining deeply rooted in the heritage of her ancestors.

This resolution will not bear fruit if the new community does not accept foreigners, as they are--immigrants--and instead expects them to be exactly like native members. Compassion and openness from the community are necessary for the elementary well-being of an immigrant. International centers, celebrations of diversity, rides to a grocery store, and care for ill immigrants are helpful. But the fundamental issue is the disposition of heart: the hearts of community members must be wide enough to embrace the presence of unknown elements and not signal them as threats. Historically, the “other” was often a threat to a community. A practice of mercy and compassion is required if we are to repel this natural reaction in order to truly welcome immigrants.

A community is like a castle. The immigrant sees many beautiful lights inside and imagines the castle’s inhabitants dancing at a ball and engaging in delightful conversation. perhaps they are even speaking of those outside, vulnerable to cold weather and wind. I am tapping on the window. Can you hear me?

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