(You can also read this article on Medium.com)
Fifteen years ago, living and working as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was assigned to a small village in Ukraine. At the time I saw it as an adventure—an opportunity to travel the world and save others from a life of despair. I was so naive. Little did I know this incredible country would teach me far more about life than I could ever teach them. What began as a mission to help others became a journey of self-discovery.
No Turning Back
Landing in Kyiv, I felt sick to my stomach. Following a moment of panic, an unexpected surge of strength pushed me forward as I considered what might become of my life if I were to throw in the towel on day one. I felt like a coward at the time but, looking back, I see how much courage it took to stay.
My first few days were rough. Living with a host family meant nightly charades, as we tried desperately to communicate; but those awkward moments would come to be some of my favorite memories, ending so often in fits of laughter. Slowly but surely my language improved and we began to share more meaningful stories. We were no longer strangers and an unbreakable bond was formed.
Kids are the common ground
When training ended, I was sent to work. As a Youth Development Volunteer, it was my job to teach Ukrainian children how to live a more “meaningful” life in an increasingly global community. I had no kids of my own, and for all intents and purposes, I was still a kid myself. I knew nothing of these people or their culture; not to mention I had little life experience at the ripe, old age of 23.
But I loved every moment of being with those kids. Just as I would begin to feel the weight of our cultural differences, a student would remind me that beyond the frustration there is always common ground. Kids are the common ground. They are the same around the world—seeking acceptance and love, eager to share their greatest dreams and worst fears, counting on us to keep them safe.
I look back on that experience now and see the many mistakes I made. I worried too much about doing my job, and took little time to cultivate a real life. Instead of getting to know my community, I was laser-focused on “fixing” my community. I failed to listen to their wants and needs. Instead, I pursued what I thought was best, based on my narrow American views. I did it all wrong.
Hindsight is 20/20. As an adult I see how I could have been a better volunteer, but none of that matters now. My time in Ukraine may not have been what I expected, but it certainly changed me in the best possible way. It steered me towards a life abundant in love and gratitude, family and friends. These values are all deeply rooted in Ukrainian life, and it’s what brought me back there after fifteen years away.
Ukraine has changed a lot over the years, but people remain the same—asking if I’m warm enough, if I’m hungry or tired, if I’m catching a cold. At first glance they appear distant, but one attempt at casual conversation in my broken Ukrainian and the thaw is almost immediate. A warm smile reminds me they are unaccustomed to Americans in their small town, but it’s clear that I have made a new friend for life.
The people of Ukraine are not broken and they do not need fixing. They love passionately as we do, and they too want what is best for their children. There is common ground aplenty if you just take the time to look more closely. This is the power of travel, helping us see through our differences and find strength in our likeness. But that power only comes when you are willing to be at your most vulnerable—giving up your perception of how you think the world should be, while remaining open to the beautiful truth of what it really is.
Can you see it?