Thursday, May 31, 2007

Go Home Yankees

It’s hard to describe the emotions, fears, and frustrations that run through you when, at dusk, walking alone through the back streets of Zaporozhye, you hear, “Go home Yankees!” called out from behind you. As Ashley and I walked to the Hope International Office from the bus stop last night around 7 pm, this is what we encountered. In the end, it turned out to be nothing, but it really caused me to think, as many experiences these past few days have, of the experiences others have living in a foreign land, and the struggles of individuals who are discriminated against on a daily basis. But more about that below.

Yesterday was both an extremely good and an extremely challenging day. After six days outside of the states, I had not spoken to my family in nearly a week. For those who know me well, my family is extremely important to me. We are very close – they are very much a source of encouragement, inspiration, and motivation for me. Long term separation from them is one of the most challenging barriers to Trav’s and my desire to do long term international work. While I was still unable to talk with them yesterday, I was able to at least hear their voices on answering machines and messaging systems. That, together with emails they’ve sent – including the sweetest emails from my nieces and nephews! – have helped me to recharge and remember why I am here when the challenging days arrive.

The start of the day was fairly routine – preparing for the day and allowing the Grove City teams time to prepare their lectures and business training programs. We spent the afternoon again with high school students of Zaporozhye. The Grove City teams continued the business training into marketing, production, and product analysis. It has been interesting to learn from them, and exciting to see how they conform business practices to Christian teachings, ethics, and principles.

A vast number of Ukrainians are skeptical of business and capitalism. Coming from a communist history – albeit a largely oppressive one – Ukrainians often see business as nothing more than an attempt to profit at another’s expense. Unbounded, modern lassiez-faire economic systems, as a large portion of the US population tends to ascribe to, indeed allows for and at times encourages this. But helping the students to understand that business need not – and as we hold should not – represent this helps them not only to understand business differently, but also to approach it in a manner that is designed to benefit them, their community, and their country while maintaining just actions toward others.

As part of the business training, the students have formulated a business plan, taken a small loan from Hope International, and created a short term small business. It has been exciting to see the innovation, commitment, and responsibility the students have approached their businesses with. They spent the evening yesterday preparing and refining their products and advertising techniques. On Thursday (today), they will be selling their products throughout Zaporozhye. Having seen the work they have put into their training and business up to now, I am excited to see their experiences in applying what they have learned.

Beyond the business training camps, yesterday involved a continuation of the ongoing process of adjusting to life in the Ukraine. I am still enamored with the people, the city, and the culture. While the process of adjustment is exciting and adventurous, it can at times be challenging and exhausting. I feel that I am making progress with the language, but it is still easy to feel alienated in a crowd of hundreds. For the most part, I feel welcome and at home here, but there are still places and times where it is important – essential – to mask where I am from. For instance, it is best to not speak when securing a taxi, as they tend to charge Americans quite a bit more for transportation. It is best to speak quietly, especially if walking at night or in the evenings, to not draw attention to the fact that we are American. Even so, it is fairly obvious were are not from the Ukraine, and it can create some strange and difficult circumstances.

In general, the challenges tend to take the form of irritation or scoffing. People tend to become irritated when we cannot understand them or when we unintentionally act or speak in a way that outside of the cultural norm. But there are also instances like Ashley’s experience on the bus (see earlier entries) and possibilities of what happened last night being a reality.

Desperate to talk to our families, we set out for Hope’s office as soon as I returned to our flat from the business camp. As we made our way to the office from the bus stop, we heard a group of young voices (we thought high school) speaking in Russian approach from behind us. One of the men’s voices called out “Go home Yankees!” We looked at one another somewhat in shock – we were forewarned of such experiences, but I think both somewhat taken back by it anyhow. We acted like we hadn’t heard and continued walking. The group was laughing and speaking again in Russian. The voice again called out “Go home Yankees!” followed by a woman’s voice that called “Hey you! Hey you guys! Hey you – turn around!” The sound of their footsteps approached and we became somewhat nervous and flustered. We were just a few blocks from Hope, so we sped up our walk and headed straight for the office. As we entered, Ashley turned and said, “I think they’re following us.” While we never felt truly threatened, it did cause me to think what it must be like for those who are harassed and discriminated against on a daily basis.

In the US, there are hundreds of thousands of immigrants, international students, and visitors. Not only do they face the struggles of a new culture, a new language, and separation from their homes and families, but they often face hostility and discrimination from nationals. Even within countries, marginalized groups are made to feel out of place in the only home they know. The vast majority, as in our case, are not out to harm or take advantage of the economy or people. As in our case, many are simply there to contribute to it, to become a part of it, and to largely benefit it if even for a short time. Why is it that we are so quick to be possessive of what we have been blessed with? From money to possessions to even a nation with politically determined borders, we are slow to be generous with what we have been given, and quick to treat those we consider outsiders with hostility. So many hold an immediate assumption that “they” are there to pillage, to take advantage, and to harm – that “they” are there to take what rightfully belongs to us. A fact that may be shocking to some: the US is one of the richest nations in the world but ranks last in foreign aid given as a percentage of GNP among major Western donors of foreign aid. In other words, the US – one of the wealthiest world leaders – gives the very least of what we have.

As it turns out, the group “harassing” us turned out to be one of the Grove City teams joking around. In the end, it was nothing, but it was still an experience that brought home to me in a very tangible way the experiences of so many throughout the world. I am blessed to be largely free of such treatment in the states. But it is also something that helped me to see what individuals in foreign relief, development, and ministry face. They sacrifice much out of love and a desire to contribute and advocate. At times, we must draw our determination and comfort from our conviction that regardless of the challenges and barriers, this work is worth it. To some degree, yes, I am a “Yankee” (though it is not the primary source of my identity – I would call myself a Christian and a world citizen first and foremost)… and I am staying.

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