Ukrainian Funerals

ukrainian in the us, alisa kaiser, expat blog, expat
Have you ever said your last goodbyes to a person over skype? Or across the ocean? Or just quietly in your head? An expat life chains people to these kinds of things and unfortunately, there is not much one can do about it. 

This week I had to say my internet goodbye to one of the greatest people on this planet. She was a person, thanks to whom I am able to write all these posts, a person who touched hundreds and thousands of lives. Someone whose fashion sense was the highlight of my school years: my smiling, caring, fiercely independent English teacher. 

Unfortunately, we cannot contain the things we are triggered by and that is how this post was born. Funerals and mourning in Ukraine are tricky subjects. Ukrainians take to mourning like a dear friend and spend hours, days, months, and years on end together with it. 'Celebrating life of the person departed' is not quite a concept adopted by Ukrainians just yet. To give you an even deeper perspective on the perception of death: when I was living in Florida at 16, I had a short conversation with my host sister. I don't remember how that conversation started or why but I clearly remember her saying "Alisa, I think you are afraid of death'. Many years have gone by and I worked through those issues but that conversation will probably stay with me forever. Accepting death is another concept Ukrainians struggle with, I believe. Small-town lives breathe together and most days it feels like everyone knows everyone. Corruption of the various institutions helps people connect as well (sadly). So when someone dies, chances are you knew them. 

Funeral arrangements usually take place a day after the actual passing in Ukraine. The family of the deceased is the one to take on everything: from cemetery spots to flower arrangements. On top of the stress of dealing with their loved one passing they have to get in touch with the restaurants to schedule a 'mourning dinner'. What that means is they have to feed and drink (hard liquor, of course) all the people who came by to say their goodbyes. Now, that is A LOT on the family, don't you think? Apart from their loss they have to come up with the finance, and strength to organize a party, where people who didn't even know your relative/friend/spouse that well will show up and drink your money away. Classy, I know. 

Oh, and the transportation! You are responsible for hiring buses and drivers to take people to the cemetery. If you are religious - you hire an institution representative to say a few words (and that, my friends, is costly. Religion is expensive nowadays). You will have to take all of these steps. If you don't - you are the worst human being in the world and everyone who showed up to eat your food and drink your liquor will judge you. I am not talking about good, understanding people over here - I hope you realize that. Unfortunately, the majority of small-town people are looking for a good meal. 

On the 9th day after the funeral, family gathers together for a nice remembrance meal. They do the same thing on the 40th day and supposedly, that is the time they have to 'let him/her go' but in reality, as I mentioned before, that rarely happens. 

The past is so hard to let go of, no matter what culture you live in. Compared to the US I think Ukrainians are having a harder time finding coping mechanisms when faced with loss. But again, Ukrainians also have to find solution to scheduled hot water or a lack of, to the thought of their friends/family being on the front lines of the war, and the constant fear of the worst. Overall: you can't really blame us (them? This expat thing gets very confusing sometimes). 

If you are drinking tonight - please raise a glass to Herasimenko Halina Ivanovna. I sure will. RIP. 


Ukraine and LGBTQ

wordly, expat, expat life, USA, Ukraine, lgbt, alisa kaiser, ukrainian in the us
Back in 2014, during the first days of the ‘EuroMaidan’ revolution, my then boyfriend (now husband) asked me a great question. It was as simple as it was powerful: what issue will I march/walk/protest/fight for? It could have been any social or political issue. Without a doubt in my mind I said: LGBT rights and was utterly surprised by this answer at first. My brain gave me no time to think, ordering my mouth to produce a string of noises that led me to this reply. The most honest answer, if you ask me. 

The reason for that is fairly simple to me: so many people all over the world are spending their days trying to find their other half, their ‘the one’, someone to call ‘baby’. And it breaks my heart to see others trying to prevent their peers, other human beings, from finding love while blindly following some outdated ideologies. This post won’t make some of you happy and you and I both know who you are. Well, read this carefully: who gave you the power to judge something as pure as love?

I chatted with one of my openly gay friends who lives in Kyiv, Ukraine. Being gay in Ukraine is not easy and it never was. So many people who are dear to my heart are spending their days in the closet, going as far as marrying the opposite sex just to hide from themselves and satisfy the others. Everything outside someone's idea of ‘normalcy’ is considered to be a deformity in Ukraine: change that blue hair color to something more acceptable, lady. The growing LGBTQ community of the country is trying so hard to change that. And with that they gain all of my respect. 

Before I sat down with Oleg Mashukov I had an idea of how this interview was going to go: he would tell me about how impossibly hard it is to be different in Ukraine, how people’s minds remind him of hard turtle shells and how the LGBTQ community is trying with every weapon in their arsenal to break through it. However, it went a bit different than that. I believe my interviewee (like all of us here) is trying to figure out this world and his place in it. 

...I don’t want my kids to be gay. I was born this way and there is nothing I can do about it. I understand that this is not traditional. I would love to have grandkids. Of course one can adopt but it is not the same, correct? One has to be a very strong person in order to open up to the world and I did it. I am very happy because now I don’t have any walls to hold me back. If my kids are born gay - I won’t be upset. But if I had a choice - to have a traditional family or a gay family - of course I would have chosen a heterosexual family. It is more natural. I believe that [homosexuality] should not have happened but it did and I have nothing else to do but to love my life. It is natural for me. I understand that I contradict myself but I just can’t understand how can someone declare they want their kids to be gay? It is weird, right? 

Honestly, there is so much lifestyle propaganda. For instance bisexuality: I am convinced it is a disease. You can’t be on both sides. All of these fetishes when you want to try this and that - it isn’t what you feel inside, correct? 

Why not? You see a man and you see a woman. They are just humans, and you feel attracted to both of them…  

It is not about you being attracted to them sexually - the most important thing is being attracted to them emotionally. Women don’t attract me emotionally that is why I am gay. My sexual tension comes from my emotional state and it is all connected. I always knew this and even when I was living back in Luhansk I blended in with the crowd, for instance. All those short haircuts did not suit me but I couldn’t do anything ‘cause people around me were like that and I considered it being the ‘norm’. It didn’t matter what kind of masks I was wearing - it showed. 

When and how did you open up to your parents? 

My dad knows but I still didn’t tell him ‘officially’. My mom reacted normally. I was shocked that she was so understanding. The only question my mom asked me when I told her was ‘Are you active or passive?’ - it was so funny. She said it is not a big deal and that she won’t love me any less. She started to make fun of me saying how she always wanted a daughter. When I told my sister… My sister is the scariest person in the world to me and her opinion is very important. She was the one who made me take boxing classes which I didn’t like. When I told her I was still in the US, about a month before my departure home (Oleg was a foreign exchange student in the United States - edit), she asked me and I said yes. She said ‘ok’ and then she disappeared. She would write to me but something inside her was different. After, she told me that when I opened up she blamed herself. She cried nightly for a month. We talked it out. She is such a close person to me. No one can be closer than us. 

From the moment I realized that I need to finally open up to the world I noticed that I was really happy. I am still happy, I don’t have those emotional nerves. Once you tried happiness it stays on your tongue. When I got back to Luhansk from the US all of my classmates already knew that I came out. You know, rumors fly. It is surprising but until this day I haven’t had any problems. Yeah, people on the street give me looks because of my hair but I don’t care. It is so important to find yourself at least a little bit. I understand that sometimes it takes a lifetime to do so - maybe even longer than a lifetime. 

Do you participate in gay pride parades? It looks like you are not too supportive.

No, no, no, no. It is propaganda and I don’t support it because what’s the point? If you are gay you should still be a man. 

You don’t think that those who participate in pride parades or work closely with the LGBTQ organizations are trying to build up some tolerance in people? If everyone will continue living their lives then people will continue throwing stones at pride participants. 

On one hand I agree with you that we need to build up tolerance but I also think that it is too early for our country. Everything started so suddenly, people weren’t prepared. We should wait for about 15 years and then it will all be ok I believe. 

Isn’t that how every revolution starts? 

Yes, it is true. You know, I think we took a risk and I hope this risk is worth it. Of course it would be nice to be someone’s husband and for it to be legal to be considered a family. But one should look at things realistically. [The Ukrainian government] talked it over, didn’t they? And how many people were against? All of them? It is cruel. Our parliament is our face and our face displayed that we can not be tolerant toward our own people. 

It was nice chatting with Oleg. It felt like even when you are out you are still afraid of yourself. I do blame the system and the ideologies implanted in people’s minds long before we came to this planet. I also believe that our brains are like our stomachs during Thanksgiving dinner: we can stretch them up to the point where it is not healthy to eat that much food. The revolution, however, starts within you. No matter who you love - you and only you can change your life and the lives of the people around you. I see a bright future for Ukraine’s LGBTQ community. Nothing is going to happen until we stand up and fight - the country is still learning it the hard way. There was something so disturbing in this talk of ours. It helped me realize that as much as Ukrainians want to break free from the powers of old-time thinking we still have a long way to go. I am happy more and more people are being true to themselves and are opening up about who they are. But I also think that although they know that they are different it is hard for them to figure out what that actually means.

To become best friends with Oleg you can reach him on Instagram.

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