A Blog Post by Tanisha Kotowich
In conjunction with the documentary “Tanisha Takes Ukraine“
In front of you stands a stout man, totaling five feet ten inches; he is as wide as he is tall. The sweat on his face accumulates as rapidly as the Ukrainian words spilling from his mouth. You, with no understanding of the language or why he is angrily spewing out so many phlegm-driven words, stand there in a group of sweaty dancers staring with a blank look on your face. He takes a brief break from his rant just enough to catch his breath, wipes his face with a tattered hanky, and ends his aggressive speech with one simple sentence.
“Varenyky bez smetany yak tsiluvannya bez yazyka.”
“Varenyky without sour cream is like kissing without tongue.”
– Pan Poltava
From what was a terrifying and harsh atmosphere, the tonal change was about as drastic as his theatrics in telling a joke. Why, out of everything I experienced in a foreign country for a month, did this stick out you may ask? I’ll tell you why – unity.
You simply cannot have one without the other. Should you choose to forego one element, your experience is left empty and devoid of the other – you will be left with feelings of incompleteness. It is within this interplay of trade-offs that I find so acutely parallels the struggles that third and fourth generation diaspora experience.
Today I find myself in a unique yet incredibly difficult position. I am attempting to navigate the intricacies involving my individual identity and cultural identity, that swirl around each other like shy tongues weary of making contact – avoiding connection. Why do two parts of me have such a hard time reaching each other? Why must they swirl around the other when Pan Poltava describes the moment of perfection to be at their meeting?
Perhaps my mother tongue is at play. That, my understanding of who I am in a cultural and historical context has distanced itself greatly from my roots, so much so that my current individual understanding no longer recognizes itself.
Having been granted the fortunate capacity to travel to my homeland, two things became apparent to me:
- Despite Western education, where the different regions of Ukraine are understood to be incredibly unique, sharing no similarities, the reality is that each region is like a drop of paint. That, when dipped onto a watered canvas, they spread and intermingle with others. This mixing creates a multiplicity of resemblances while still possessing exclusive attributes. Not only does this metaphor apply to the ethnographic understanding of Ukraine, but it also rings true with respect to language, cultural identity, and citizenship. This is especially true given the ever-changing border delineation in Ukraine as influenced by surrounding countries.
- It also became wildly apparent that, while Ukraine’s diaspora tends to glorify and uphold traditions that are positive in nature, such as the music, dance, song, costume, and food, they greatly neglect the dark side which is just as much a part of their identity – the war, uncertainty of borders, cross-contamination of culture, and genocide. Just like the importance that smetany has to varenyky, any member of a cultural diaspora must recognize the good and the bad (which shouldn’t necessarily be considered negative) within their histories. Why? Because it is the truth, it paints the whole picture.
As my month-long endeavor in Ukraine has come to end, the lessons it has taught me will live on eternally in my heart. Don’t dance around the realities, let them come together in one joyous union. Uniqueness does not always mean a being of pure unshared capacities and qualities. It can, in fact, come from a melange of histories, experiences, backgrounds, traditions, and so much more.
What Pan Poltava was trying to explain to us at that moment, was that we cannot do justice to the authenticity of Ukrainian dance without acknowledging everything that brought us to this moment. The man does not make mention of this unity as being a homogenization of life’s components, but rather an existence of these parts together where the environment is conducive to a flourishing respect for each one.
So, I leave you with the paraphrased advice given to me by a man whose Ukrainian pride is only outdone by his love of living life to the fullest (especially through dance) – always kiss with tongue my friends. Because if you persistently leave two worlds separated and relentlessly dancing around each other, you will never discover what greatness and strength can come from unity.