A big part of my interest in coming to the UK was to re-engage with my Ukrainian heritage. Few places were as immersive as Winnipeg was for a kid growing up in the 1980s, and it came as something of a shock when I came to live in places that had little or no presence of Ukrainian people or tradition.
I never felt like I quite belonged with the other Ukrainian kids I grew up with. I sensed that they were very tight, a clique, and I was….tolerated. I was there, too, so they had to throw me scraps. I feel this still as an adult when amongst those peers and although those encounters can be hard for me personally, I see them as a blessing. The sense of not belonging gave me the impetus to get out, to explore, to broaden my worldview, to meet other amazing and wonderful people of all backgrounds, and to ask serious questions about the importance and validity of tradition and culture, of the labels we identify ourselves with as we create our own identity but also seek a sense of belonging. It’s human nature to want to stick with the tribe; yet my own family’s history, as I see it, is one of having been torn from the tribe. War, occupation, displacement: these things forced my grandparents to re-identify, or at least to adapt to a new life in a place where the people and the customs were different. They never forgot where they came from, though, and imbued a strong sense in us, the descendents, of those origins. And yet, is it nature or nurture? Is there historical memory? Is there something in being proud of where your ancestors came from? Does any of it matter?
My brief answer is, yes. My lengthy answer continues to formulate. To survive, a culture must evolve and adapt. It must make critical judgments about what is important, what the essence is and what the values are, and what to discard with the passage of time. I loved having Christmas Eve on January 6th as a child, keeping with the Julian Calendar as was the tradition of a lot of Canadian Ukrainian Catholic churches. Some still observe it, but for many, it’s just not feasible to do Christmas (including a 12-course meal) twice. So we adapt, and increasingly do Ukrainian Christmas on the English Christmas calendar.
I came to the UK after a year and a half in New Zealand, a beautiful, pastoral country where there were few Ukrainians to commune with. At times I felt an “other”-ness; an awareness that my experiences – social, musical, culinary, spiritual, what have you – were at times very different from the status quo. The things that made me me didn’t exist there, and so I felt peculiar at times, an oddity who couldn’t quite express what was so special about these things. Others around me before has just known, and I didn’t have to try to explain; to try to grasp the un-graspable.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find in the UK, as the post-war diaspora is waning and passing. In all corners, communities borne of that immigration wave are forced to re-evaluate how and why they exist. This weekend I attended the annual general meeting of the Glasgow branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, not realizing that this branch re-booted just last year. I walked into the basement of a bar in Merchant City and felt immediately welcome, familiar, like we were family. It was unspoken, but visceral. The people nearest me quickly introduced themselves and cleared seats, while the organizers swooped in to greet me. The proceedings were formal, but interesting: This is an entrepreneurial start-up. This is a grassroots thing with a beautiful past that it is making peace with, laying to rest what needs to be, while hearkening the future. This is the hard work of figuring out who we are, now, today, in this place in time. We are not our past, although we came from it. In my case, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met because of “being” Ukrainian. But we are not in Ukraine now, and we are not in our past. Who are we, and why does it matter to the greater world today?
I look forward to engaging with these kinds of questions, personally and with the community, in this next phase. I also look forward to re-tracing my grandparents’ journeys and the journeys of those like them, to the extent that I can. I have a small wish-list of places to see, and every slight tug of the thread gives way to a few more leads alongside a lengthening research list and much more excitement. I suspect it’ll be a whirlwind of discovery, and am eager for what I might find.