Border Crossings and Personal Bubbles

We pulled our car up to the Ukrainian border station and stepped into the brisk morning air. My breath billowed out in front of me and I pulled my coat closer to ward off the chill. Ukrainian winters are a brutal attack on someone who never feels quite warm enough.

This Ukrainian-Polish car border is a bleak stretch of land. The only buildings in sight are intimidating government structures that lend nothing pleasing to the eye. Guards walk about, looking impressive in their camouflage uniforms with their pistols at the hip.

Most days, a long line of cars waits to cross from Ukraine into Poland. The drivers play a cunning game of wits to see who can cut around the others and shorten their wait. Depending on my mood, I either laugh or fume at the “push-and-shove” tactics. My husband has become proficient at this game, mostly from a “survival of the fittest” kind of necessity.

We had waited through the usual car line. Josh and I now made our way to the border guard’s window. I peered inside, saying a silent prayer for a kind guard who’s having a good day.

She was dressed in the military green, no-nonsense uniform. Her hair was pulled tightly back in a pony tail.

In her hand was the infamous stamp. The stamp that equals power in my mind. The stamp that I always watch wave unpredictably over my passport while the guard takes an eternity to review my legal status. Over the years, I’ve sweated out many of these moments, hoping a border guard will just stamp my passport and not hassle me.

Hassle about what, you ask? Take your pick. Some document I don’t have that no-one has ever heard of. Some vague reason that my work in Ukraine doesn’t match my visa type. Some fee I didn’t pay or deadline I didn’t make.

A familiar sense of dread filled my heart, a sort of fear invoked by uniform. But I looked through the guard’s window and offered a respectful, “добрий день” (good day in Ukrainian). Then I held my breath for her response.

She looked up and smiled brightly. “Добрий день,” was her cheerful reply.

My mind went through a time warp in that moment. I remembered that I’m in 2017, not 1996. It’s actually unusual these days for a border guard to hassle me. They might ask some questions, but as a whole, border crossings today are not what they used to be.

My fear subsided, my heart stopped pounding. We went easily through passport control and customs, and then drove on our way to Poland.

Josh and I began to talk about my reaction and more broadly about how living overseas affects the way we think.

You see, I moved to Ukraine as a missionary kid in the early post-Soviet days. Abuse of power and corruption posed major problems. Militia patrolled not only the borders, but the city streets as well.

Things have changed over the years, and my interactions with authorities here are generally good now. But those emotions of fear and dread still rise up at times. Old habits die hard, you know.

My mentality has been altered by our inter-cultural lifestyle.

It got me thinking…how else have other cultures changed our mentality?

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Elbows are made for pushing. I think it stems from rebellion against the history of Communist lines for “bread and toilet paper.” Here in Ukraine, lines are a loose concept. If you leave more than a few inches between you and the person ahead of you, beware! You will lose your place in line.

Personal space? What’s that? Whether on a public bus, in the metro, in a grocery store, or in a friend’s living room, personal bubbles do not exist. We stand close, really close. In fact, my younger brother visited the States once, and someone thought he was coming on to them because he was standing so close!

Take off your shoes. We consider it rude to wear shoes into someone’s home. Even our water repairman yesterday took off his shoes before inspecting our pump. We went on U.S. furlough this summer, and my 4-year old daughter took off her shoes every single time we entered someone’s home.

Don’t flush it. Sewage systems here aren’t designed to handle toilet paper. When we go to the bathroom in public places and sometimes in homes, we throw used toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet. I have to consciously remind myself to throw it in the toilet when we visit the States.

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Let’s get real. I was born in Indiana. In the Midwest, we value politeness. We smile when we greet others, and we say, “I’m fine” when someone asks how we are (even if we really aren’t). I know this is a generalization, but it takes Midwesterners some time to open up.

In Ukraine, people are BLUNT. Ever heard the saying, “What you see is what you get?” Well, here, what they think is what you get! I used to take offense at brutally honest comments my Ukrainian friends made, but over time, I learned to appreciate the raw truth they spoke. I never have to guess where I stand or what they think. And now, my own speech has morphed into a blend of bluntness and politeness.

Ukraine has changed me. So has travel to other countries and making friends with people from all over the world. It’s a privilege and an honor. I believe we are richer when we learn from others, their experiences, their cultures, and their differing perspectives on life.

So, how about you? Whether you’ve lived overseas, traveled internationally, or visited other parts of your own country, what habits or ways of thought have you picked up along the way? How have you been changed by the people you’ve encountered?

7 thoughts on “Border Crossings and Personal Bubbles

  1. I think some of that straight talking could be used more in the West. We’ve noticed it when we’ve travelled too, especially in India. I think we really learned a new perspective. Gratitude is the single thing that should be motivating a person born in a good economy – we are so lucky.

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    1. I’ve wondered how much more straight talking there is in other parts of the west. How much does it depend on country or, if in the US, the state?
      India! What an awesome experience!
      And yes, gratitude is so critical. It’s something we all struggle with at times and need to practice more. There’s something truly beautiful about thankful people.

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      1. Yeah I think a big part of that conversation has to be upbringing and influence too. I agree, I think gratitude is often a large indicator of humility – and often success

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      2. Most definitely upbringing plays a big part! My husband and I have found that to be one of those adjustments in marriage – learning to relate to each other and communicate in a way that’s right for our family, recognizing the differences in how we were raised.

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  2. My wife and I currently live in a small Central Asian republic, also formerly part of the Soviet block, and your account here describes our reality to a T. Oh, those pesky “needed” documents that may or may not actually exist. But you’re right. I think overall things are moving in a better direction here. Yet I still experience a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time we have to pass through any type of security check point. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I love that even living in different countries, different continents even, we can share similar experiences! I had friends who lived in a Central Asian post-Soviet nation, too. It sounds like there are many commonalities among these countries because of joint history. And yet, it’s fascinating to think that a nation can tenaciously hang onto their own heritage and culture. Glad to hear things are getting better there in these areas! Thanks for the comment.

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