Whenever I read depressing news from eastern Europe [1. Is there any other kind?], I look up and utter a short prayer. It goes like this:
Thank you, great-grandfather.
I’ve never met him. He died before I was born. But he did more to shape my life than anyone I’ve ever met. A little more than 100 years ago, he decided to leave Ukraine and come to America, leaving behind all the terrible things that would happen in that part of the world in the century to come. Because of him, those problems are all someone else’s. Not mine. [2. You could argue that I wouldn’t exist at all if he hadn’t left, because then my exact genetic makeup would never have occurred. I like to think I am more than my DNA — but even if that’s the case, there’s a still a decent chance my direct ancestors would have been wiped out in one of the wars or man-made famines or political purges or nuclear disasters that casually befall Ukraine from time to time. The odds were not in my favor.]
But the story of the Stanchaks in America isn’t like most European immigrant stories. There was no master plan to start fresh in America, no drive for a better life. My great-grandfather wasn’t one of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. He came over on a lark and then one thing led to another and then there was a war and he just kind of … stayed. [3. You could do that back then, apparently.] He left people behind. And some of those people must have died in the horrors to come, but not all. Some survived and had children, who had kids of their own, who had kids of their own. And some of those people came to America later and are some still over there. I know. I’ve checked. [4. They’re on the Internet and they’re not hard to find.]
When I was nine or ten, I asked my father’s father if he spoke any Ukrainian. He was quiet for a second, like he hadn’t heard me. Then sat down beside me, looked me in the eye and said,
“You don’t need any of that. Always remember that if it were better there, we would have stayed.”
That was good enough for me. At least, until I went away to boarding school.
My school had students from all over the world. I disliked them all instantly. I told myself it was because they insisted on speaking German or Thai or Korean to each other, which I saw as both rude and foolhardy. Didn’t they know English was the best language? Didn’t they know that if wherever they were from was better they would have stayed?
But of course, I was just jealous. Nothing puts a middle-class Pennsylvania childhood into sharp relief like hearing about someone else’s much more exotic upbringing. I envied everything about their homelands, even the parts they found embarrassing. Being from another place gave them a story to tell, a secret to share — and an excuse for any and all uncool behavior. [5. If nothing else, it seemed like coming from a foreign culture would make the whole teenage rebellion thing much easier. How do you cast off Pennsylvania? Root for the Bengals? Forswear UTZ potato chips? Move to New Jersey? That hardly seems worth it.] I wanted what they had. I wanted a better story to tell.
I started to play up my Ukrainian heritage. Of course, I didn’t actually know anything about Ukraine, its people or their customs. I was just making educated guesses by extrapolating family traits into national ones. My dad was always feuding with one of our next-door neighbors, so blood feuds became a part of my ethnic identity. My grandfather was a great salesman, so of course I came from a mercantile culture. You get the picture.
If I’d been more modest in my fabrications, the whole thing would have been out of my system in a week. Someone would have called me out for making stuff up and that would have been the end of it. Very embarrassing. But I never tell a small lie where a big one will do — and luckily the big lies were funny ones. The whole thing morphed into a series of running jokes about my “homeland” and its goofy traditions. As the hyperbole got more ridiculous and profane, I started to feel bad about pretending I was still talking about Ukraine. And so I made up a new homeland for myself: Stanchakistan.
One spring I wrote a gag article for the April Fool’s edition of the school newspaper about a new class being offered in Stanchakistani studies. I sent a copy to my dad. He responded with a list of “factual errors” in the original piece. From then on, Stanchakistan wasn’t my joke; it was ours. Now we bat around ideas for national mottoes on car trips, we debate what the currency should be called over lunch. At this point, my dad has added more to the mythos than I have. He’s drawn up maps, people. Real maps for a fake country. [6. I used to insist that Stanchakistan was an “unmappable land” — that its territory consisted of everywhere Stanchaks happened to be at any given moment. I liked the idea that I was always on home turf — that I carried a nation with me when I walked.]
Does that mean I’m from Stanchakistan?
It’s 2008 now and I’m having lunch with a cousin I don’t see very often. [7. I’m notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people. Even people I really like. ] I make a casual reference to Stanchakistan and she stares at me blankly. I explain the joke. It’s not that she doesn’t understand it — she’s just not sure how she feels about it.
At this point, I’ve been making up my own heritage for a decade. My immediate family might think its funny, at least part of the time. But I’ve never consulted any of my other relations about Stanchakistan. Explaining it to my cousin, I feel embarrassed. That’s never happened before. [8. Not even when I came up with the moves for our national dance, The Funky Shrew.] I realize how weird it must sound to her, hearing that I’ve invented a shared identity for my family without consulting them — especially since a lot of the mythology centers around us being shiftless, untrustworthy schemers. The trouble with being the father of your country is that you’ve got to share it with other people.
I’m willing to bet that before last fall, the average American knew nothing about Ukraine. A small percentage would be capable of one of the following three sentences:
- That’s where that nuclear power plant exploded, right?
- Is that the one with all the mail order brides?
- The Ukraine is weak! [9. I actually own a t-shirt with that printed on the front. I no longer wear it.]
I know a little bit more about it, but I’m no scholar. After all, if it were better, we would have stayed.
A lot of the uncommon stuff I know about the country comes from a charity flower show Blair and I attended, which was sponsored by the Ukrainian embassy. The day was dedicated to the handful of things Ukrainians do really well — decorating eggs, braiding hair and pretending that cold beet soup is edible. Volunteers were handing out a tourism brochure called “Ukraine? Ukraine!”. [10. How can you not love a country that is the answer to its own question?] The booklet was a list of incredibly specific “frequently asked questions” such as “Was Odessa one of the largest cities in the world in the 12th century?”, “Did Balzac have a Ukrainian lover?”, and “Is the Bandura the national instrument of Ukraine?”. [11. You bet your sweet ass it is.] Of course, anyone who would be capable of asking those questions would already know a fair amount about Ukrainian history and culture. They gave us too much credit. They should have started off small — maybe with “So where exactly is this place?”
I went home conflicted that day. On the one hand, I really dodged a bullet here. Ukrainian history is incredibly sad and the cultural highlights are beautiful, but they’re also very specific. On the other hand, none of that matters. You don’t get to choose your ancestry. You may as well say you don’t care for the moon.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says we are all Ukrainians.
I don’t think that’s true. Many people don’t know or care about what’s happening there now. I won’t pretend that I have an especially deep understanding of the conflict — or that my blood somehow makes my opinion more legitimate than anyone else’s. I’ve read more than enough copy in the past few weeks written by people who have deputized themselves as speakers of the cause. It upsets me, perhaps more than it should. I suppose it’s because I think that in difficult times, people draw comfort from the knowledge that they’ll get to tell their story one day. I think that comfort is being chipped away at in Ukraine.
I’ve never been to Ukraine — and now I probably never will. [12. I’ve lived so close by for more than a year before the trouble started. I didn’t go. I thought there would be time! I always think I will have more time than I do.] I know my place is far away from it. I will read the news and fret. I will worry about all the strangers there who bear my last name. I will think about doing something. I will realize there’s nothing to do. The sun will go down and I will fall asleep, untroubled.
What is happening now is a Ukrainian problem that will, for good or ill, be resolved by Ukrainian people — real ones who live and die by their decisions. Ukraine is not Stanchakistan. It doesn’t conform to whatever narrative we place on it. Homelands don’t have narratives; they have people. And every last one of them gets to tell their own story. Remembering that is all I can do. That and say the family prayer.
Thank you, great-grandfather.