SAN FRANCISCO, California – Sitting in an immigration office another day, I had to answer a few questions in order to extend my stay in the United States. An officer with a peculiar name, Mr. Ennis, was a grey-haired civil servant with a vacant look on his face. He began the procedure by looking at my application documents. “You were not born in Ukraine,” was his first reaction to my file. “You were born in the U.S.S.R.,” he added sternly, crossing out what I had written.
Mr. Ennis was technically right: Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union in 1982. But does that make me Soviet when it comes to defining nationality? Avoiding trouble, I didn’t ask him, but the thought crossed my mind. I am glad he left my Ukrainian-ness without further questioning.
It so happens that we are haunted by the ghosts of our geopolitical past through most of our life. Being labeled Soviet may sound derogatory to some people, but to others, it’s a part of identity that’s not worth fighting with. In my reports on culture, I circumvent sensitive subjects by referring to them as Slavic to please the crowd. Yes, I try to stay neutral. Because if I say that it’s a truly Ukrainian habit to drink tea leaving a teaspoon in a cup until you finish, someone would argue that Russians tend to enjoy this eye-poking experience just as much.