Life in Ukraine is rich, intense - and stressful
In August, Bill and Kendra Mohn packed up their lives in Detroit Lakes and moved their family to Kiev, Ukraine, for one year. It's certainly had its ups and downs along the way, but it's an experience they'll certainly never forget -- but not nec...
In August, Bill and Kendra Mohn packed up their lives in Detroit Lakes and moved their family to Kiev, Ukraine, for one year.
It's certainly had its ups and downs along the way, but it's an experience they'll certainly never forget -- but not necessarily one they'll want to repeat either.
Bill and Kendra teach at Kiev Christian Academy, and their children, Josiah, 9, and Katja, 7, attend school there.
Bill said their time in the Ukraine thus far has shown them what they have here in the United States and what they could live without.
"It is definitely eye opening to see we have it so good in the United States. I knew that but, wow, do I know that so much more now," he said. "How can we complain? We have it so easy it's unreal."
He said he sees things differently now when people come to visit the United States, knowing how difficult it is and how much they can miss home.
"Everyone should have to do this because it makes you appreciate what we have in our country. It just opens your eyes and you see people are the same -- those fundamental things we all want, to be healthy and happy and love our families and have a comfortable life."
The Mohns found their way to Kiev because of a friend they met through Camp Cherith near Frazee. And no matter how much someone tells you about a place, it's nothing like showing up there yourself.
The population of Kiev can be disputed, depending on whom you ask.
Though it's listed as 2.7 million, "somebody told us based on the amount of bread they sold, it's 3.2 million. But, other people will say, it's 5 million."
That's quite a population jump for a family happily living in small town Detroit Lakes.
"We've been here three months and I feel like it's been a lot longer. It seems like 'did I ever live back there in America?' So much has happened, but it's good," Mohn said.
Someone can hear stories, see pictures and read up on a location, but before they live there, no one can really know what it's going to be like.
"I knew it was going to be really different," Mohn said. "Just to experience though, just the reality of it, it was intense."
Mohn said he is more sensitive to things than most people and notices things most people wouldn't -- like the difference in traffic lights, gas stations or street signs from country to country.
"Then I come here and it's 'oh, my gosh,'" he said with a laugh.
The culture shock started from the moment they stepped off the airplane -- literally. There was no jetway where they landed but rather passengers deplane on the tarmac. They walk into the airport and there are billows of smoke because everyone is allowed to smoke indoors there.
"OK, we're not in Minnesota anymore," he said was his first thought.
Though they may have looked like they fit in, they didn't.
"You're all paranoid, like everyone is watching cause you don't know what you're doing."
They blend in easily, so people come up to them and speak in Russian, but the Mohns have little to no idea what's being said.
In fact, Mohn said that Kendra has said she wishes they didn't blend in so well because people wouldn't assume they are locals.
"There's a huge language barrier."
He said it's not like western European countries where those who only speak English can get by OK. In the Ukraine, even though English is taught in schools, he said he's been told that it's not taught well.
"We were warned before we came here that it would be the biggest challenge, and I would say that's probably right," he said of the language. "People just do not speak English, and Russian is such a foreign language. It's not like Spanish where you can kind of figure it out."
They are learning a few words here and there, but nothing to be able to carry on a conversation.
To add to the confusion, some of the signs, he said, are in Russian and some are in Ukrainian, a completely different language.
At first, they carried a translator dictionary with them, but he said they gave up after a while.
"We know the basic greetings," he said. "We've found you just bumble your way through and hope."
Seven floors up
Everywhere they look, Mohn said it's apartment buildings. The smallest are nine stories tall.
Overall, he said Kiev is pretty poor.
"My understanding is there are super, massive rich people, like billionaires, but there is a very small number of them. Then pretty much everybody else is poor."
It's been 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Mohn said he feels the people there are still trying to feeling their way into capitalism.
He said it's common knowledge there that the government is corrupt because there is no foundation to the country.
"You can buy anything. There's no respect for the police because they are very corrupt. You can bribe your way out of anything."
He said there are nicer neighborhoods, where the cops patrol more, but he's never felt unsafe where they are either.
"It's much safer than an American city," he said. "I've never felt scared going anywhere."
Regardless of how poor an area is, everyone has a cell phone, and when anyone goes out, they dress up. He said it's easy to spot American women because they are the ones in denim jeans.
The average salary is $500 U.S. dollars a month.
The Mohns' apartment inside is the nicest of most around, but that's not to say the building is.
The hallways are tiny and dirty, and the closet-size elevator smells like urine. He said it's common for the lobby of apartment buildings to be in bad shape with graffiti all over and dirty, but then once inside the apartment itself, it's nice.
He said the buildings all look the same and were built 50 years ago under Soviet control, but have never been replaced or updated as was the plan years ago.
Another interesting point, he said, the Mohns have one landlord, but their neighbor, in the same building, has a different landlord.
It's difficult too, he said, going from living in a house with a yard, trees and privacy to a seventh floor apartment.
The kids miss their house, and they don't have nearly as many toys in the Ukraine as they do back home.
"It's awesome too to get out of the rut and realize there's more to life and you can live life and be happy with it being different."
He said sometimes he will complain about things being so weird there, and his wife will remind him no, they're different, not weird.
From Point A to Point B
The Mohns don't have a vehicle there.
He said that there are more cars in the area than the city was designed for from when it was part of the Soviet Union. So, when riding with others in the area, it's a bit chaotic.
"It's kind of the Wild West if you're driving," he said with a laugh. "I've ridden with people and it's just, 'OK, hang on and God protect me.'"
The school Kendra and Bill work at and their children attend is simply a five-minute walk from their apartment. So, he said, they only use public transportation about once a week.
Their church, on the other hand, takes over an hour to get to. They attend an international church, and many of their school co-workers and students attend the church.
In Detroit Lakes, the Mohns attend Lakes Area Vineyard Church, and Mohn said their Ukrainian church is very similar to that. The pastor is even from Milwaukee, Wis.
"It's great; it's kind of like a dream," he said of his job. "It's a wonderful school. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced as a teacher."
Kiev Christian Academy is a small school, with enrollment in kindergarten-12th grade at about 150 students, which is the most the school has had. Mohn's classes vary in size, with the largest at 18 students, the senior class. His smallest class is 10, which is the junior class.
Their daughter, Katja, is in second grade and there are seven kids in her grade. Josiah, their son, is in third grade, and there are 12 students in his grade.
Overall, he said the students are very nice and respectful, and the families are very supportive.
Most of the students at the school are children of missionaries, but some are Ukrainian as well. The staff at the school is 50-50 American and Ukrainian teachers, and many of the Ukraine teachers' children are students there as well. Some are also children of diplomats, where their parents work at the U.S. Embassy.
In the high school, there is no problem with the language barrier because the teens are all fluent in English, but in the younger grades, there are barriers because of the various backgrounds of kids.
"Katja, in her class, she has kids from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Ghana, South Korea, Japan. She is the only full American kid, possibly, in there. So there are kids in her class, and Josiah's, that came in this year basically not speaking English."
As they get older, and move around more, they learn more and more languages.
"A lot of these kids speak three languages."
In his classroom, Mohn said he teaches Korean and Dutch kids, even from the Republic of Georgia -- not to be confused with Georgia, the state, he added. While some of his students have lived in the Ukraine all their lives, many have moved all over throughout their lives as well.
"They are just so international. There's actually a term, they call them TCKs -- Third Culture Kid."
Some students may have been born in the United States, but they haven't lived there since they were toddlers. So, they're American though they've never really lived in the States, but they're not really Ukrainian either since they've only lived there a portion of their lives -- they're in this third culture.
Or Korean kids, for example, they were born in Korea but haven't lived there in years. They are in an English speaking school in the Ukraine where the predominant languages are Russian and Ukrainian.
"I had never heard of this before I came here," he said of the third culture label. "It makes sense. It's really interesting."
He said the parents seem to be more easy-going also because with the changing of cultures, they need to learn to go with the flow or they can get really stressed out -- including himself, he admits.
Kendra spends time in the office at the school and teaches music.
"She interacts with more of the staff than I do, and she said she's never felt so much camaraderie on a staff."
He said here people point out all their differences, whereas there, being in this intense, different culture they're immersed into, they all point out how much they have in common.
For Katja and Josiah, it's not just a matter of moving to another country and changing schools. While in Detroit Lakes, they were homeschooled.
"That's a whole other level of adjustment," he said. "They've done very well."
Difficult to socialize
"From where we know people is school and church."
And with the language barrier, it's difficult to go out and socialize.
Mohn said that Josiah is obsessed with "Star Wars," and his teacher, who is a first-year teacher at the school, is from Illinois. She had never seen "Star Wars," so Josiah asked her over to learn about the force. Also, the friend responsible for getting the Mohns over to the Ukraine had only seen one "Star Wars," so she joined in the movie nights.
Every month, the group gets together to watch a "Star Wars" movie on the weekend.
Kendra is also part of a Bible study.
Mohn said they have been invited over to some families' homes, but they don't go out much because it's so tough for their family to get around. But, at Thanksgiving, they are going to be with a couple other families that are getting together.
"There's an intensity to life, so we just kind of come home to our cocoon."
Coming back home
The Mohns will be back in the States on May 28. But from day one, there's been pressure from the school there to have them stay longer.
Many of the people they have met came to the Ukraine to live for a year, and that was 10, 20 years ago.
Mohn said that while he's trying to be open to staying, the plan is "definitely to come home and stay."
"There are things I really love about it, but my heart is back home. At this point, I still am feeling we belong back in Detroit Lakes."
What he'll do professionally once he returns is still in question.
"We're just praying about it a lot. I know God has always provided, he'll keep providing, he'll direct us, and that's cool."
In the meantime, they stay in touch with phone calls and Skype. But, with an eight-hour time difference, it's a convenience issue. When people are getting up to go to work here, the Mohns have just finished their workday in Ukraine.
"We talk to our families and it has been a godsend," he said.
He talks to his dad once a week, and he talks to his best friend, John Hutchinson, each week.
"That, for me, is a lifeline."
Would you do it again?
Obviously this is an experience none of them will forget, but it also doesn't mean they'd repeat it given the opportunity.
Mohn said that for himself, he'd have the experience over again from a spiritual standpoint because God called them to be there, "and that has been really cool. I wouldn't do it just for the experience though because I am way out of my comfort zone."
Things that people take for granted in the United States are so much more difficult there. Jumping in the car and being at Walmart in 10 minutes to get whatever you need just doesn't happen there.
"It's been really good for us as a family. It's been a bonding experience."
It's actually simplified their lives too, not having to be in this group or this club, running from here and there constantly.
"Just that simplicity that, you know, I don't need all this stuff that you think you need back home.
"Although I do miss a lot of it," he added with a laugh.
"But, you know, you don't need it."
It's the little things you miss, he said.
"Ukrainian dill pickles are disgusting," he said with a laugh. "And I love pickles."
And tortilla chips aren't anywhere to be found either. He said there might be one restaurant in the entire city that serves Mexican food.
"I did find out that next week there is a KFC opening and it's like ooohhhh."
There's a bunch of McDonald's and Dominos in the city.
He said food in the Ukraine is good, for the most part, but it's still different.
"With where we live, we are so blessed with the lakes and the trees and the outside. People complain, 'oh, I don't make any money.' I feel like slapping them now," he said with a laugh. "You have no idea how good you have it."
Mohn keeps a blog of the family's time in the Ukraine. Read it at http://kievdiary.areavoices.com .
Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.