As a visitor from the United States to Ukraine, I have encountered a few striking differences in our cultural customs. These differences have sometimes led to brief moments of awkwardness, but ultimately to a personal admiration of Ukrainians. Firstly, behavior towards strangers is very different from what I am accustomed to at home. For example, I was taught as I was growing up in Houston, Texas that it is polite to smile at people I encounter on the streets, even if they are strangers that I will never see again. In Ukraine, smiling at strangers is not considered polite – in fact, smiling at a stranger will most likely make them uncomfortable, and possibly cause them to wonder what’s wrong with you. Also, it is not common for Ukrainian women to shake hands upon introductions. I learned this on an occasion when a Ukrainian friend of mine introduced me to two of her acquaintances. I stretched out my hand, but they did not acknowledge it at all.
This is not meant to be rude. In reality, Ukrainian hospitality runs much deeper than a handshake or a smile. As a matter of fact, if you stay with a Ukrainian host, you should bring with you some sort of gift for them, because you can be sure that they will shower you with treats during your stay. The first night I spent in a private Ukrainian home, I was accompanied by some Ukrainian friends of mine. The woman who hosted us was a very good cook, and it seemed that as soon as I had finished what was on my plate, she was pulling out something else to fill it with. My friend Sasha, a native Ukrainian, explained, “You see Sarah, this is Ukrainian hospitality: feed them to death.” Bringing a gift to your host is customary also because it gives them a token by which to remember you. If you already have a relationship with your host, it acknowledges a deep mutual affection between you. If you are meeting your host for the first time, it is a sign that such a relationship is anticipated.
Personally, I have been fascinated by Ukrainian culture. Considering their tumultuous political history, most Ukrainians that I have met have a clearly visible awareness of their national identity. National history is a public matter – especially in the cities it seems that every couple of blocks there is a monument that tells about some person or event that changed the course of Ukrainian history. The people are familiar with these stories, proud to tell them, aware that they are instrumental still in shaping a young nation. In spite of the time that it takes to travel to Ukraine and a couple of surface discomforts in adjusting to a new culture, I would highly recommend that anyone who has the opportunity to travel to Ukraine should do so.