By Ruslana Westerlund, Author of From Borsch to Burgers: A Cross-Cultural Memoir.
On September 4, I will be celebrating 24 years of living in the United States. I have been reflecting on things that make me pause and say, “This is pretty remarkable that they do that. I can’t believe it.” I have grown accustomed to many things in the U.S., such as speaking English without thinking about it (unless it’s slang that make my linguistic gears rev up a bit) and having a car to drive to work. But there are many things that I don’t take for granted. Just the other day I was driving to work and I noticed a street sweeper on University Ave. I was blown away by the fact that as soon as the construction was over, the cleaning truck was there to take care of the work debris and dust. It’s such a beautiful sight. I started reflecting more on that fact and made my top ten list of things that I don’t take for granted and notice them daily.
1. Roads and Infrastructure regardless of urban or rural areas.
I still feel surprised every time I go to a rural town in Wisconsin that I get there on a decent highway and the roads within town are in good condition. Whenever I travel to another state new to me, I anticipate that somehow it’s going to be like traveling back in time, especially when I enter a rural area, because that’s what happens every time I go to Ukraine. To my surprise, the architecture, the infrastructure, the roads are in pretty much the same condition that I had in my home state. Of course, some roads are better and some are worse. They depend on the severity of winters in that state and other factors like funding. In Ukraine, in a town with a huge collective farm during the Soviet times and a sugar beet factory, the only roads that were paved were those where the trucks used for transporting sugar beets. The road that leads to my house is still not paved as I write about it in my memoir as the only thing that stayed unchanged in the last two and half decades.
2. Road Repairs
They say there are two seasons in Minnesota (and in Wisconsin for that matter): winter and road construction. Many people in the U.S. complain about road construction. I am happy to see road construction. It means the local government uses the funding in ways it has been designated. Whenever I travel to Ukraine, I rarely see road construction and the roads in the Cherkassy oblast are infamously known for being the worst. As I mentioned in my memoir, borrowing from a Facebook meme, “In England, they drive on the left, in Ukraine they drive on what’s left.” Ukrainians are sick and tired of corruption in the government patiently waiting for the local officials to have the funding and to distribute it to the road repairs. Because of corruption at higher levels of state and local government, the money rarely makes it its original designated purposes. That’s why I never think of road construction in Wisconsin as something to complain about.
3. Rest Areas Along Highways
I write in my memoir From Borsch to Burgers (available on Amazon) in ch. 13 that I don’t
take rest areas for granted and think of them as the most wonderful thing for travelers. I write about it on p. 171, “I wonder if they’ve been invented by the Democrats – such a people-focused service! No strings attached”. To read more about why rest areas are so amazing to me from the Ukrainian perspective, read my memoir.
4. Courteous Drivers
In all of my 22 years of driving (I didn’t start driving as soon as I arrived in the U.S.), I encountered maybe two jerks on the road. Otherwise, people drive in their own lanes and switch lanes courteously (unless you are in Chicago). Even my dad notices that when he visits me in the U.S. He says people drive and mind their own business, and stay in their own lane. They rarely cut in front of you. Instead, they turn their blinker on to communicate their intentions.
5. Adopt a Highway Clean Up
Every time I drive on the highway and see people picking up trash, I am amazed at that sighting. Companies advertise their name by adopting a stretch of the highway to clean up. It is the most beautiful thing to see how people in the name of their company and in the name of the clean roads, bend down to pick up somebody else’s garbage. In my hometown there is a public quarry where people come to swim and barbecue. What’s sad about the people who use the quarry is that many people leave their trash behind. However, the hope for the town is the school which has a program teaching children and community members how to clean up after themselves. I’m very proud of my Buzhanka school.
6. Law Abiding People
I see this every day: law-abiding Americans put on their seatbelts with no cop around. I am one of them. When I go to Ukraine, get in my dad’s car, put on my seatbelt before he even starts his engine, my dad looks at me and says, “No need to put on the seatbelt. We are just driving through Buzhanka. There are no cops around. We only wear seatbelts in the city where you get a ticket for not wearing one.” Most Americans follow rules such as
- do not cut across the parking lot but drive only in the direction as marked by the arrows. Of course, there are those “rebels” that still drive diagonally but they get the looks (not that I’ve done that :).)
- pull through after parking in a two space area. You know that type, right?
- use the doors for entrance and exiting in public places (grocery stores, malls, medical facilities). When I don’t pay attention and use the Exit door to come in through, I get the looks or someone will say, “Excuse me” or “Sorry” or “Pardon” to hint at the fact that my behavior is wrong.
Ukrainians do not follow rules to the same extent. It’s not that Ukrainians are more “disobedient” by nature. Ukrainians learned time after time that most of the laws were designed to take advantage of people. Out of a mere survival instinct, to avoid getting hurt, people learned that rules can be avoided or “bent”. Now, there’s a tendency to avoid even good laws such wear seat belts.
Over the past 24 years, I have met many generous Americans who give freely to various causes. Many of those causes are related to health or human rights issues such as sexual trafficking, lymphoma, breast cancer, muscular dystrophy and others. They organize bike rides, marathons, 5Ks and other events to raise funds. I’m always impressed with that generosity. I never take that for granted. It fills my heart with gratitude. My church organizes backpack drive and food drive to give to local organizations like schools. They don’t wait for anyone to come to church and “repent” first. They serve and witness about Christ through their generosity, and occasionally, they use words.
8. Teenagers Holding Jobs
My boys (ages 14 and 17) hold jobs and there are work permits to give them permission to work but also to protect them from working late or too many hours. My boys are able to open a bank account, hold a debit card (I don’t let my kids get credit cards and live using money they don’t have). And we live in a small Wisconsin town, where they can ride their bike to work. In Ukraine, young people can’t have a job because the economy is not that strong. My cousin’s daughter graduated with an administrative assistant degree and can’t be employed because companies like hair salons cut those positions to save money. Ukrainians are generous but they don’t have as much money as Americans. They also have been burned out by various government scams and don’t often trust organizations that ask for donations. Many people are barely able to feed their own families.
9. Kind Strangers
I take the bus to work every morning. I park my car by my friend’s house and wait by the bus stop. People who live by that bus stop put out two chairs for us to use. I hop on the bus and the bus driver smiles, says, “Good morning” and proceeds to observe that I have a choice of chairs. I smile back, say something genuine and wish him a good day when I get off the bus. Now, of course, this is small town America. I’m sure in other busier cities, things are different and bus drivers can’t strike up a conversation with every passenger. But even when I walk my dogs on the street, people smile, joggers say hello to us and our dogs, and there is an atmosphere like I live in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
10. Access to Mental Health Care and Physical Therapy
The last aspect of American life that I’ll never take for granted is that mental health is not stigmatized by the community, there is access to mental health counselors, and I can see a physical therapist for my knee. I know of many elderly in rural Ukraine who don’t have access to either of those services. There is not even an option even if they had the money. The elderly are often left to suffer in silence and isolation. My dad visits them on Sundays and brings them communion. In terms of mental health, when my mom passed away, I was able to benefit from grief counseling. My church was able to subsidize a Christian certified counselor, instead of telling me to pray more. When I had a minor knee pain, a physical therapist gave me exercises to do and explained how the muscles and joints and bones are connected which informed me of how to what kind of shoes to wear and which muscles to strengthen.
This list could go on for pages and pages. I love the fact that I don’t get used to these things as take as “normal” because as soon as I do, I forget to be thankful for them.