Valeriia for The Hello Series

Alisa's note: 

I am so happy to be the 'keeper' of yet another wonderful expat story. If you know me well you are familiar with my social media addiction. I accepted it. She is a good friend now. My addiction and I grab coffee together, we shop together - she never really leaves me. A few months ago she kind of got bored with me (I was stressed and no fun I guess) so she led me to the great world of the Instagram, where I discovered Valeriia. This universe is rather tiny so we instantly connected and realized we have a few friends in common even though we've never met! This kind, wonderful, talented, and hella smart lady is sharing her story with you today. Please show her a lot of love. 

James Schaffer @jmy.jam
Hey yo, let’s get to know each other! I was asked by wonderful wordly Alisa to share my little American story and I will gladly do this on this rainy Pennsylvania Sunday night (it sounds depressing but I have Ben & Jerry’s salted caramel blondie ice-cream, so I’m okay here, thanks for asking).

My name is Valeriia, or Valerie, or Lera, or LRK (coming from Lerka) – whichever one you can pronounce, I don’t care that much, Starbucks people prepared me for a lot in this life lol. I’m 23, coming from Zhovti Vody, Dnipropetrovska oblast in Ukraine. I came to the US when I was 21 for my Master’s degree in Law (LL.M.) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. It is a one-year Masters program for international lawyers (I graduated with Bachelors in Law from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute the same summer I came to the States). 

My first year here was a stressful kaleidoscope of unwanted events – law school was hard, my legal English sucked so I had a feeling I’m learning this language all over again. I didn’t have much friends, it was hard to link with local people of my age, and my first attempt to start dating a guy resulted in a “I thought you wanted to hook up” type of conversation. I felt like the world is against me, I missed Kiev and my wonderful creative friends the most. The end of my law school year decided that I’m not having enough “fun” so my body gave me anxiety and panic attacks, which was quite a surprise. Of course, body, thanks a lot, that was fun.

So graduation was a great accomplishment for me, I was proud of myself going through that hard year almost as much as going through 6 hours tattoo session on my ribs (that hurt about the same as law school lol). Then I started an internship at a law firm, and they hired me as a paralegal. It was a beginner’s dream job – huge law firm with offices in over 8 major cities in the US, with an office on the 30th floor with beautiful downtown view – as Biggie Smalls said, “it was all a dream”. Or Drake with his “started from the bottom now we here”, haha. So now I’m here – starting my legal career, meeting amazing local creative people. And I feel blessed to be a social person who got to meet couple “right” people in the city. My great friend RB, an event manager, whose clothes brand I modeled for, hooked me up with a lot of great DJs, photographers, designers, producers, etc etc. It’s great going out and randomly meeting cool people you know everywhere, I love Pittsburgh for that. 

Right now I’m working on my visa extension, modeling during my free time, painting, riding my bike, blogging on my IG (it’s @chillbaby_babychill if you’re interested) and still getting used to American mentality. As they taught us to think during FLEX (btw, I’m 2010 FLEX alumna, so hi to the FLEX fam) – “not bad, not good, just different”. America is a great country with a huge variety of crazy opportunities that you do not even expect to happen to you. It’s important to stay strong and positive to go through hard times, because good times are not that far – you gotta be prepared for all the blessings.

*The Hello Series features stories in their original form written by Ukrainian expats living in the USA*

Birthdays: Ukraine vs. USA

Happy Birthday to me! Yep, it has indeed been another year of my life. It’s funny how my brain stopped registering my birthdays after my 18th one. It is almost like the one after that never happened. Maybe they didn’t - maybe this is a part of the TV Show where Netflix asks you Are You Still Watching? Existential crisis aside - we are all going to die one day so there is that.

Growing up I had the best birthdays on the street. No, I am serious: my birthday parties had scenarios and well thought out games and fun activities. Oh, you think I was that Type A person since the early age? Please! I was spoiled rotten from the very beginning, so the responsibility of kickass parties were on my mom’s todo list every year. I think, at some point, my grandma was the one helping me pick the right outfit. I am telling you: I had the whole team of highly skilled professionals in house and it was rather nice.

My usual birthday parties included guests (duh), a table filled with delicious home cooked food (by a masterful chef, aka my grandma), different generic games like ‘who can cut the gift from the string of gifts while wearing a blindfold’ (child safety 101: do not try to replicate in real life), and some more serious games like ‘can you draw Alisa without looking at her?’ Wow, my birthday parties were too much… #ThanksMom

The thing that bugged me the most about my amazing parties is that there was a lot of planning involved on our part, a lot of party favors for my guests, a ton of prepped food… All my guests had to do is to show up and ask their parents to pick up a gift. At the end of every party my family was exhausted, I was happy, my guests were waiting for the next one.

I believe around my 14th birthday we decided to stop with the whole party extravaganza and do something small just for us. It was a nice change for me and I think even a nicer one for my mom and grandma. My birthdays when I was in college were stressful: I always wanted to celebrate with people but since I had to organize everything, purchase and cook food, and pay for the entertainment - it was always a stressful day, followed by the next day where I counted up my expenses and slowly felt my hairs turning gray.

When I first came to the US and was introduced to the concept where on your birthday you are actually the one being attended to, I was thrilled. My first birthday in the States (I was turning 17) was not what I would have wanted but I enjoyed it nonetheless. You see, I was leaving the United States the next morning and was 99% sure I won’t ever be coming back (haha!). My high school friends were bringing me toys and cards, giving me sweets and telling me how awesome I am without me giving them anything in return. I didn’t have to cook for the whole school or share a birthday cake. It felt like I was celebrated. It felt like people were happy I was born that day and not just happy to have a three-course meal on me.

I think the idea of celebrating the person is so pure and so right. My last few years in Ukraine a lot of my friends understood and accepted this concept (hence, they were my friends). In the last three years I’ve been living here, I spent my birthdays by receiving love and care and not slaving away in the kitchen (ok- ok, ordering take out). I am still hinting at Andrew that I never had a surprise party thrown for me… He says that it is silly to ask for one and maybe he is right. I don’t know what ideal birthday looks like and I don’t think it exists. But as long as I am surrounded by the people I love it’s always gonna be a darn good day. 

Go hug your mothers today instead of commenting ‘Happy Birthday’ on this post. You can always come back and do that later.

8 Things About American Culture That Still Baffle Me
I have been living in the US for a little while now and I am sinking into the ‘routine’ of an average American. It remains a mystery to me whether I like it or not but life is moving and if I am not moving with it then what am I doing? Existential crisis aside, there are still some things in American culture that puzzle me and I hope this never goes away (once they do I believe I will be able to call myself ‘assimilated’). But for now, I am just confused by some of these things. So, if you know the answer to why these things are so hard to grasp - please let me know. I am all shades of confused over here and it is not a pretty color on me.

1. Sugar in Bread
Now, bread is life. Trust me when I say: I can give up chocolate but bread? NO WAY. #CarbsWontLetMeGo. If I am being completely honest - I can give up American bread in a heartbeat but not my perfect Ukrainian one. Why you ask? Well, sorry, but your bread is not tasty and SURPRISE! American bread has sugar in it. Hm… why? So that you can get addicted? If someone can explain to me why is it necessary to have sugar in your bread I will send you a postcard.

2. Free Water in Every Restaurant
I know, I know - it is just tap water. But it is a thought that counts, right? And the fact that you will stay hydrated and you won’t have to pay for it! I honestly am enjoying this ‘feature’ of the American life so so much. When go back to Ukraine and have to pay for my water it actually makes me a bit mad. Granted, you wouldn’t want to drink Ukrainian tap water so I guess it is understandable. I am sure if I ask politely for some tap water in a Ukrainian restaurant they wouldn’t mind bringing out that glass of cancer to me.

3. Consumerism/Choices
When I need to buy something out of the ordinary (like a new water bottle for example) I am petrified. You want to know why? Because I will spend hours on hours on end at the store or online because of the numerous choices I am offered: the water bottle where you can keep fruits at the bottom, the one with a cute design, the simple one, the plastic one, the glass one, the one with a handle, the one that screams out my name when I pick it up… The longer I live here the more it becomes clear to me why people have so much of the same stuff here: they just can’t make a damn choice because it is too difficult to settle on one.

4. The non- GMO Products Obsession
I can’t even talk about this one. Really, America? Ukraine has been on this topic for years now. Thank you for not being so proactive and realizing that GMO is bad for you until a couple of years ago. Makes this Ukrainian very proud of her country (I mean, I am always proud but this ‘extra’ doesn’t hurt).

5. The Throw Pillow Obsession
I don’t like throw pillows. There, I said it. I mean, they are cute and of course I have some in my house but they all serve a specific purpose: some are covering the parts of my couch I don’t want people to see and I have one in my guest room cause y’all are obsessed with throw pillows! Apparently, the more throw pillows you have on your bed in America - the fancier you are… Ok, so when I sleep over in the houses that have 25 thousand throw pillows on the beds you know what I do? I take them off and put them on the floor. They stay there for the duration of my stay, blocking my way to the bed. Tell me this: why? Why do Americans think that throw pillows are the stuff? Please tell me - maybe I am missing out?! Don’t want to catch any FOMO.

6. Insurance Craze
How many insurance packages does an average American have? Oh, I don’t know, let’s count:
a) Health Insurance
b) Dental
c) Vision
d) Car Insurance
e) Rental Insurance
f) Life Insurance
Am I missing something? COME ON. I can’t live in this country unless I have a Medical insurance. I can’t drive a vehicle unless I have car insurance. I can’t rent an apartment unless I have renter’s insurance… You can read more about my stand on American Healthcare here but oh, my goodness I sometimes feel like this country is a giant ICU. Not that it is bad to be protected and insured - it is the part where it is mandatory that bugs my free spirit.

7. Free Stuff
It is astonishing to me how far companies and organizations will go in order to keep their customers satisfied. I understand that this is all a great marketing strategy (when you go to a coffee shop and you take a sticker with their logo you are most likely going to place it on some surface. Someone will most likely ask you about it. ‘The word of mouth’ at its finest). There is an Art Crawl in Nashville happening every month. Some galleries provide free wine and hors d’oeuvres. For free. Just because. Just because you came. And also because you are going to remember that gallery over any other. ‘Cause food. We always buy in for food.

8. The Sense of Community
We had Andrew’s brother visiting us and my neighbor across the street waited on her front porch for me to come home so that she could tell me that there was a strange man on my property earlier that morning. She was rather disappointed that is was just Matt and not some juicy gossip but my point is: the neighborhood cares. There is a scene in the movie Footloose (2011) where they decided to do the dance and the whole community is decorating the barn? Yes, that is exactly how I feel about the community closeness of community in America. It maybe a little Hollywood-y but I think the heart is there and I think it is beautiful.

So there you go! Were you surprised by my list? Are there things that should be making me all puzzled and confused? Which aspects make you question culture? Let me know in the comments below!

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