Whitney L. Carter and the Teddy bear hair

I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with the brown mop atop my head.

I’ll get to the point about how this relates to my time in Ukraine if you’ll just bear with me for a moment. This will probably be split in to a few parts.

Whitney L. Carter and the Teddy bear hair

When I was little, my mom had to learn how to do black girl hair, which is no small feat. She learned all kinds of tricks, like doing zig-zag parts, which look WAY cooler than your basic straight parts and also you don’t have to be precise because it’s a dope zig-zag. We always got lots of comments on those.

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I had all your classic “little black girl” looks. Giant puffy ponytails, braids, twists and then natural in the back, head full of twists, with these weird beaded hair ties that will ACTUALLY GIVE YOU BRUISES ON A REGULAR BASIS. One thing I never had was relaxed hair. For my white friends, relaxed hair is basically the opposite of a perm. It’s putting a chemical on your hair that “relaxes” it and makes it easier to manage aka straighter.

I liked my curly hair. My white friends did too. I pretty much never wore it down, I hated brushing my hair, I was 100% ‘tender headed’ (@white people, it just means I cried when I had to get my hair brushed).

When I was little, we had a ‘hair chair,’ it was just a little stool where we’d sit in front of my mom so she could manage our manes. My mom still has that chair and I’ve maintained that I want the hair chair when I have my own kids eventually.

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I loved all the ways my mom would do my hair and got used to white people touching my hair and asking if I had a ‘fro,’ but there was one style that I had once and never again.

I was eight years old. The fact that I remember this so vividly should tell you how defining of a moment this was in my life. My mom did my hair in these adorable little puffs on the sides of my head.

I was enthralled. I thought I looked like a million bucks. I went to a private school in the Seattle area where I was usually either the only black kid or maybe one of two some years. They didn’t quite think the same.

They said I looked like Mickey Mouse, some compared me to a teddy bear, others Princess Leia. I WAS DEVASTATED. I thought I was SERVING LOOKS, not embodying stuffed animals. I cried in the car on the way home.

This was one of the first times my curly locks let me down.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Update

I haven’t been the best at updating this recently. I’m in this weird place where days seem to go super slow, but weeks have flown by.

I’m writing this with one day of classes left before summer. I had my last adult and student English clubs of the school year.

I ran a half marathon last week. It was incredibly challenging, but I loved it.

I’m preparing for my American Sports camp that will be taking place in my village two weeks from now. There are an incredible number of details that go into coordinating 7 visiting Americans and activities for an, as of right now, unknown number of students, but as things are starting to come together I’m really excited to see the final project.

Looking ahead, I’m moving out of my host family this week and into my own place, this summer I’ll be helping at a few other camps, exploring this country as much as I can and preparing for my clubs and lessons next year.

It’s wild that I’m nearly a third of the way done with my Peace Corps service, but time does fly when you’re having fun!

This last week of school has been a lot of tests, grading tests and then just hanging out with kids. I showed my 4/5th graders snapchat filters today and they thought that was hilarious. Moments like those are my favorite.

Peace Corps Fit (Part two)

In the summer before I came to Ukraine, I started attending yoga classes at the YMCA where I also worked. I worked at that gym for over four years and worked out there only a handful of times during that period. That summer, I was only working a few shifts because I had a different full time job, but it allowed me to be able to actually attend classes.

I fell in love with yoga. Something about being able to take an hour and focus on nothing but my breath and my body was intoxicating. It helped that it was hard work, but it wasn’t too strenuous on my hip while I worked on that with my physical therapist. I could mix cardio (running) with yoga, in a way that gave my hip time to heal, but also allowed me to train for the half marathon a week before my departure that I had somewhat foolishly signed up for months before.

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When it came to packing, attempting (and failing) to fit my life into 100 pounds a carry-on, my yoga mat was a must. My mom considered it a bubble-item, but it was something that I refused to compromise on. If I could go back and repack, know what I know now, I would pack completely differently, but toting my yoga mat along wouldn’t change. It was a lifesaver over the winter when it was too cold to do much outside besides shuffle to and from school.

I’ve recently started using Asana Rebel, after being bombarded with adds for it on Facebook and Instagram, and I do have to say I’m impressed. I’m excited to have more time this summer and that is one hobby that I will be spending time on during the warmer months.

Peace Corps Fit (Part 1)

Staying in shape during Peace Corps service can be a challenge. Every site is different and each holds its own unique challenges when it comes to this aspect of life.

When I first arrived to Ukraine in September for PST (holy crap, has it really been that long?), my biggest challenge was finding time. Fall in Ukraine is a lot like fall in the PNW, super short days. PST is a lot like having every minute of every day scheduled for you for three months. We had 3-4 hours of language a day, followed by technical training, practice lessons, English clubs and field trips. Needless to say, we were busy. During the first two months, we were lucky to be done by 4…and it was usually dark by then. This eliminated my usual exercise of choice: running. I ran a few times in the village, on weekends or on the off chance we got an early day.

Once PST got less intense, after we returned from site, it was winter and also being a PNW girl, I didn’t quite know how to function in that. Throughout PST I would do yoga in my room after dinner. The couple and babusya I lived usually ate dinner right after I got home around 4:30-5, leaving me with my evenings free.

Once I got to site, it was still winter. Shocker, I know. I started using fitness blender (thanks mom) to work out in my room. Any PCVs reading this, if you’ve got internet access I 10/10 would recommend fitness blender. They’ve got hundreds of videos that target cardio, strength, abs, arms, etc. I started with a yoga/Pilates strength series and I loved it. At the same time, I definitely got tired of being cooped up 90% of the time.

I started running outside in the snow, much to the chagrin of the babusyas in my village. I had to do some googling to figure out how to run in the snow without falling on my face all the time. I ran in my yaktrax and I still bundled up as best I could. I still didn’t wear a hat.

It started to warm up and my village became one giant mud puddle. In some ways, I preferred the snow to the mud, my Nikes and my clothes stayed cleaner and I was less likely to slip on the ice when I had my yaktrax on.

When I went to Lviv in the middle of February for a Peace Corps conference, it had already started to warm up and I was invited to do a half marathon in May. At the time, May seemed like it was ages and ages away, yet here we are. Once I got back from that conference, I had to become more serious about running if I was going to be able to run this half.

I’ve run two half marathons before, one just a week before I left for Ukraine. I’ve also dealt with some dumpy injuries relating to my running as well. I’m happy to say that my times have been faster than the last half I trained for and that my hip has been feeling pretty good so far.

My biggest concern was the heat. Ironically, I moved to Ukraine and have found it to be warmer most of the time than my sweet PNW home. I also wasn’t super sure of the conditions, whether the course would be flat or hilly and how often water would be provided.

*It ended up be stupid hot during the race and it was incredibly hilly. I’m still pleased with my performance given the conditions, but I’ve got my eye on another race in Kiev this fall to improve my time.

Victory Day

Ukraine has about a million holidays. This country that I now call home loves a celebration. They have had a difficult history, so in the context of that, it makes sense that they appreciate any chance to celebrate when they can. (If you’re still referring to Ukraine as ‘The Ukraine’ and you don’t know much about what I’m talking about, I highly recommend Borderland, it’s a fascinating book that details the complex history of this incredible country.

We celebrated Easter with what felt like a million loaves of паска, which is special Easter bread, a special dinner with way too much food crafts and time off of school. I loved getting the chance to be involved in this holiday and to observe these fascinating traditions.

Before Easter, we had Women’s Day. Celebrated on the 8th of March, this day celebrates mothers, women and girls. We had school performances, a day off of school and presents! I was given flowers, lotion and candy by my students. This teacher thing ain’t so bad.

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Most recently, we celebrated Victory Day. Victory Day celebrates the end of World War Two, or, more specifically “a holiday that commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War” (Wikipedia). This is most similar to Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day in America.

A few fun facts:

  • Ukraine has recognized this holiday since its independence in 1991
  • It wasn’t until 2013 that people got the day off, if it falls on the weekend, then they get Monday off. We got two days off because it fell on a Tuesday, but not everyone is as lucky
  • Since 2015, it’s been officially recognized as “Victory Day over Nazism in World War II,” separating it from Victory Day which was how it was celebrated when Ukraine was a member of the former Soviet Union
  • They used to refer to World War Two as the “Great Patriotic War”
  • The symbol of Victory Day is the red poppy
  • The motto of the day is “1939-1945. пам’ятаємо. Перемагаємо” or “1939-1945. We remember. We prevail.”

In Mamalyga, Victory Day started with a parade. The students armed with balloons and flowers, walked from the school to the monument across the street. Every city, town and village has at least one WWII memorial. At the monument, we listened to a speaker talk about the history and importance of the day, had a moment of silence and the kids put the flowers in front of the monument. Someone read the names of the men who died fighting in the war and a priest came and blessed the veterans standing in the front.

Afterwards their was a concert by my students in the house of culture, which is another fascinating remnant from the Soviet era. It’s basically a large meeting and recreation area. Like WWII monuments, every city, town and village has one. They generally have concert halls, dance studios and other rooms. The idea being these “Culture Houses” would provide meaningful leisure activities to the inhabitants of the villages or towns. In Mamalyga, I’ve seen it used for concerts and for ‘discos,’ which was basically school dances.

Update on me, I’ve got two more weeks of school left. I’m running a half marathon next weekend. I’ve got a camp for my students the week after school gets out. My summer is starting to fill up with camps I’m helping out with and with trips I’m planning to explore this beautiful country I call home. It’s been ridiculously hot already, so this PNW girl is in for a treat/rough summer. All in all, I’m excited to spend the summer exploring and preparing to jump back in to clubs and classes when we come back for school in September.

 

Sometimes I have days that don’t feel very “peace corps.”

I talk a lot about the places where I have found successes on my blog, but I think it’s also important to highlight the days or times where I have struggled. There are plenty, trust me.

For example, when I got back from Lviv, I was sick on Tuesday. The long week of travel and the overnight train just took me out and I took a day to recover. I headed to school on Wednesday knowing that my counterpart wouldn’t be there, so I’d be covering the lessons for our shared classes. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to teach without a Ukrainian teacher also being present, so there was a bunch of confusion over being in different classes and not being able to teach and the lessons were just messy and I felt useless. I was able to end my day with my (crazy) fifth formers, who are obsessed with high-fives and handshakes, and that helped the day. I can’t say they actually learned anything, but class was fun.

When my crew from that class walked me home that day, they asked me what my favorite music was. I considered this an excellent time to plug my English club because the topic is music this week and told them that if they came to English club, they could find out.

The students in this particular class have a test during the day before club and one of them said that he wouldn’t be at school tomorrow. I asked чому? (Why?) and he said because he didn’t want to take the test, but that he would come to English club. I told him I appreciated that, but if he didn’t come to class, he couldn’t come to English club. They all laughed at that and told me that I was very funny. (Does that sound like someone who was voted the least funny in her family? I don’t think so).

Everyday brings new moments like these ones. Moments that challenge me and moments that make me laugh. This kids are incredible and I love getting to know them and seeing them learn. I can’t believe I’ve been in this country for five months now! Time really does fly when you’re having fun I guess!

Looking ahead

I’ve got a lot coming up in the future and I’m excited to see where it goes. My clubs are continuing. I’m getting more involved in lessons. I’ll be helping out with some workshops that some friends are putting on and hopefully hosting one of my own soon.

I’ll start working on our project soon, doing some grant-writing. If you or someone you know has some experience in that world, I would love any tips you could offer.

I’ll also be travelling a bit more, for Peace Corps events and for fun, exploring this new country I call home. If you want to surprise your favorite Peace Corps volunteer with a sweet surprise, I know she’d appreciate Airbnb gift cards to help with travels!

Last but not least, I’ve had a couple people reach out to me and ask about the political climate given what’s happening in Eastern Ukraine. I am safe. I am fine and will continue to be so unless Peace Corps sees something change. I recently had the safety and security officer for Ukraine make a visit to my site and that’s basically what he told me. I encourage you to read this piece written by a fellow PCV about how her students are dealing with the conflict. It’s heavy, but it’s worth the read. This conflict is very real here.

I’m happy, I’m healthy, I’ll try and update this more consistently. Thanks for reading!

‘Lviv-ing’ it up

Formal apology for the pun headline. I couldn’t resist.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Lviv last week. It was incredible. Lviv is such a beautiful city and there is so much going on. I was there for Peace Corps training on Project Design and Management. We spent five days in the city, in meetings learning about grant-writing and working with counterparts in order to create sustainable and impactful projects at our sites.

I learned a lot and I am excited for Chezara and I to start working with our community on the projects that we came up with. We are looking at pursuing a project that centered around recycling and the environment in our village. Creating and promoting a recycling center in the school and improving a school greenhouse to make a school garden.

I also got to spend time with fellow PCVs, which is always a blast. I’ve mentioned before how weird PST is to throw you together with a group of random individuals that you see all the time and then fling you all over the country. These people have become close friends and even family.

Even though they are basically constantly making fun of me, I appreciate them. Luckily, my family shows affection through sarcasm, so I was well-prepared for the savagery I encounter here on a constant basis. It was great to explore the city, eat western food (burgers! Pesto! Garlic bread! ENCHILADAS!), and hang out with these guys. I can’t wait to explore more of this country and Lviv in particular.

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I am gaining more confidence in the classroom, every lesson teaches me something. Some of my classes have switched from being classes that I dread, to classes that I cannot wait to teach. I gave one of my fifth graders a high five once, and now every time I walk through the hallway or when I get to class, I am immediately surrounded by 15 fifth graders with extended hands. I’ve even got a handshake with one of them.

I’m still working on lesson planning. It’s something that my counterparts and I need to work on. I’m excited to see what kinds of activities we can come up with together.

My school also loves a good performance. In the nearly three months that I’ve been here, I’ve seen my kids dance about ten times. The week before I went to Lviv was our second English week, which culminated in a Charlie Chaplin themed performance by my kiddos. Check out a clip here!

Clubs

I have had my teacher’s club as well as my student’s club up and running. My teacher’s club also has parents and other members of the community which is super cool. For the first two weeks, we learned how to introduce ourselves and family member words. On the third club, we learned the alphabet, which also was a great reminder of how AWFUL and CONFUSING the English alphabet is. For every rule, there are about 1,000 exceptions, which makes it really fun to teach.

I enjoy my adult club because they are excited and interested in the lessons that I plan. It makes my job easier.

My regional manager told a story about my English club during our training in Lviv. I’m definitely bragging here, so bear with me. For this part of the training, we had to discuss with our counterparts what our successes at site have been. My counterpart, Chezara, mentioned my adult English club. We presented our thoughts about the club, about how involved they are and how nervous I was before we started, but how successful it has been.

When we went to sit down, Oleg (my RM) started to tell a story. He said that he was on the phone with my director (principal) a few weeks ago, about me and about what had been going on at my site. My director had good things to say, but he told Oleg that he didn’t really have time to talk right now. Oleg asked why, and my director said that English club started at 4 and he didn’t want to be late.

I cannot begin to tell you how proud that makes me. Not that I’m that great of a volunteer, because there are so many other volunteers in Ukraine right now that are doing much more impressive things than me, but that my club is even on the radar of my director is more than I could have asked for. It definitely inspires me to work hard on it.

I also have my students club which is a blast. We talked about me for my first club, because who doesn’t like to hear about how cool I am? Mostly I showed pictures of me running half marathons and jumping out of planes to up my street cred. I also trapped a tennis ball (trapped is a soccer term, just means that I stopped it with my foot) and my fifth graders were дуже impressed.

During out second club, we talked about traveling and made travel brochures and the most recent club we talked about Valentine’s Day. I could spend a series of blog posts talking about impressive my kids are.

Every time I walk into these student clubs, I have a plan, but I also have no expectations for how they are going to go. So far, I am astounded by how much my kids participate and how excited they are for activities I give them. My kids are so smart and it’s incredible to see them learn. The best thing is even if they don’t understand, they still try. My kids are much more resilient than I was at their age.