My culture is drunk on weddings. It was something that I despised when I became old enough for the matronly mamas at social events to start asking me whether I had managed to snag a potential husband yet. Young ladies were expected to be married off at a very specific age, and the sooner one was able to pull off that feat, the more accolades she could acquire as personal trophies. What one did with those invisible trophies was anyone’s guess because I always had this sneaky suspicion they weren’t keeping anyone warm at night. It was obvious to me that the ring on my finger wouldn’t soothe my upset late at night when I was unhappy if I had only pursued it to prove a point to gossiping busybodies. At some point I started despising the Olympic-style competition for weddings so much that I became averse to the idea of dating at all. There were moments in my life that when a man crossed my imaginary boundaries in pursuit of dating me, I would have severe panic attacks. This also led to toxic relationships that I would only allow because I always subconsciously knew that the relationships would never lead to marriage. It was a self defeating cycle, one that I am genuinely relieved to be able to say I am breaking free from. To this day when in serious conversations about things that break my heart, people mistakenly, albeit with good intentions, slap the ol’ “we need to find you a boyfriend” bandaid on the whole thing. I am always taken aback because in essence they are saying that a love interest will fix all the things have been incredibly grievous to me in my human experience. Sure, I am not averse to love, but I am, and will always be, vehemently opposed to finding love for all the wrong reasons.
Ukrainians don’t say, “I love you” to each other. We could love someone fiercely and yet still cringe when it comes to verbally expressing that emotion. I remember the first time my mom told me she loved me, I cringed so hard that I kind of just wanted to crawl into a corner somewhere and hide. It made me feel so exposed. “Why are you doing this to me?” I thought to myself. It was something she had picked up from her American client whom she is a caregiver for, and she thought it would be a really nice ‘Americanism’ to incorporate into our inner lifestyle. I dreaded it. Every time I had a phone conversation with her and we were nearing the end of the conversation, I kind of hated that inevitable moment when she would tell me she loves me. So many times I just quickly hung up without saying anything in response. Yet it never deterred her. She would also start out her texts to me (when she finally learned how to text) by bestowing a blessing on me and wishing me all the best that God could possibly give, and that was easier for me to handle because texting “I love you” back wasn’t as hard. I could hide behind my screen, after all.
Over the years, I slowly got used to my mom telling us she loves us when it was time to hang up the phone or when leaving the house. Honestly, it wasn’t until very long ago that I started telling her and my dad that I love them, and it took moving out and living on my own to be able to really respond in kind. Weirdly enough, I am actually happy that we didn’t grow up hearing those three words, “I love you” bandied about because it taught me what it really means to be able to utter those words to someone. Every time you say it, you expose your most vulnerable self—something that does not come easy to a Slavic person. I had to choose to be vulnerable and consciously tell my parents that I love them, and when I say it, I mean it with every particle of my being. Something tells me I wouldn’t mean it as deeply as I do if it was something I had cut my teeth on and took for granted.
In this culture there is no room for individuality. There is only one mindset–conformity. Either conform or die.
What they don’t tell you is that to conform is to choose to die also.