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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
I was a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps in 2002 and 2003. I taught English as a foreign language in a secondary school. This story, "Norig," is about a boy I met in the town where I worked.

This is part of a book I would like to publish some day, "Courage in Poverty."

Submitted: January 12, 2010

A A A | A A A

Submitted: January 12, 2010




By Thomas Eric Ruthford



Norig fingers through the pages of the album of pictures I brought from America. He stops at one of my favorites, the flag at Fort McHenry. “Fifty-one stars your flag has?” he asks.

“No, only fifty,” I answer. “But this flag is very special. It's at a...” — I stop to leaf through my dictionary — “krepost’ where a famous battle was fought 180 years ago. The country was very small then, so it only has about 15 stars.” He begins counting the stars on the flag, and three of my regular “admirers” walks up to our bench in front of my apartment building. They stand very close around me and Norig, as if to make a little fortress with their pre-adolescent bodies. “Kotori? chas?” One of them demands. I begin to tell them, but Norig answers for me in Russian, that it is 8:40.

Norig asks me if there are many rich people in America. I explain that we have some rich people in America, but that most people don't have a great deal of money — just enough to eat, have a car, maybe a house and go to the doctor. But not rich.

The three Ukrainian boys step a little closer, attempting to tower over me, something that they can do since I am sitting. They begin laughing derisively and ask Norig, “Ty ponimaiesh?” (You understand this?) Norig replies in Russian that he does.

At this point, I tell Norig that I'll walk him home, and we can talk on the way. We get up and leave. After five paces, the boys begin shouting the English obscenities they learn from American films. They shout things in Russian at Norig that I can only partially understand, but I know they aren’t Angela Khranitelia (May the angels be with you). He doesn't respond, either.

Norig begins to explain to me in English: “Understand that we have people like this, but it doesn't mean that all people in a country are this way. They drink, they smoke tea, and they smoke grass. They think they can say these things because you can't understand. In America, I think, people behave better.”

“Why do you think that?” I ask.

“I see it in American films.”

That is a first for me — someone who thinks American life is calm and orderly because of what Hollywood portrays. Most people I encounter think America is a nation of drug gangs, terrorists and cowboy cops who take care of the former two. The thoughtful people add on: “But that's all we see on the television.”

But Norig is a bit different from the other Ukrainians I meet. He is from Armenia, and his olive skin and black curly hair make him “the other” in a town whose streets are not very friendly to foreigners.

Since I came to this town and heard the terrible things the boys and young men say to outsiders, my heart goes out to every person of a slightly different ethnic background, whom we might describe with the outdated term “people of color.”

We are the entertainment for this town's bullies. I don't think Dniprorudne has many more of them than a similar-sized town in America, but people who are slightly different attract all of them. For this reason, I know that Norig can understand me a bit better. And I can understand why he might think America is an orderly place after watching our films. In a relative sense, it is, when you're a short, 12-year-old boy who looks different than everyone else.

“Be very careful,” he says, “there is a big mafia of 17- and 18-year-olds in this town, and they'll beat you if they don't like you.”

Norig overstates the case a bit here — “mafia” is the term Ukrainians use to describe any person who has friends who aren't nice. I have met this “mafia,” but all they do is smoke and spit. Near me, anyway. I can get away with a lot being a foot taller than they.

“You're big, Eric, but you're only one,” warns Norig, “Be very careful. I am worried about you.” These boys about whom Norig spoke can't beat me up, but I could see why a short boy who looked different would think so. We walk some more and I ask Norig what he wants to be when he grows up. He wants to be like his father, who repairs houses in Moscow. Or, even better, an engineer. He doesn't want to stay in Dniprorudne; he wants to go to a big city like Kharkiv or Kyiv, or maybe America.

The street is dark. Most days, I make a point of staying in my apartment after the sun goes down because the groups of foul-mouthed boys come out more when they can't be seen or identified. But tonight, I think it is worth it because I want to talk to Norig despite the verbal abuse of these bad boys.

They begin shouting similar words in English and more Russian words at him that I'm guessing are equally as bad. I can tell that Norig can understand everything in both languages. But he doesn't wince.

“We need engineers and house-builders in America,” I say. Norig smiled. We hear a few more epithets. Another boy demands that I give him ten hryvnia. I didn't pay attention. I don't wince.

A month earlier, I would've explained that these words were bad and that friends don't say them to friends... do you want to be my friend? My Russian is good enough to do this, but I don't say it anymore — I've already said it to all of them twice, and the knowledge that these words really are hurtful just encourages them.

Before, I felt badly about doing the cold-shoulder routine to boys who swore at me because I didn't want them to think of me as closed and inaccessible. Now, I realized that it is the only choice. So does Norig, devoting all his attention and his wisdom to our conversation despite our entourage of a half-dozen harassers.

Despite his young age, Norig better understands what my life is like here than any other friend in the town. When I tell the other teachers at my school about the boys who follow me around and swear at me and demand money, they become embarrassed and apologize and show shock that such things can happen. And then, they tell me what bad people the Tatars are.

As I walk with Norig, I amaze him with stories of how my city has huge airplane factories that employ 100,000 people, all the while pretending that the diversity appreciation committee isn't following us. I realize that night is a metaphor of my experience — a wonderful opportunity to share knowledge with the most receptive, interested and resilient people I've met in my life. But I do this amid a great amount of painful, vulgar noise.

** *

I met Norig a few days ago under the most unlikely circumstances. He’s the best friend I ever made at a cemetery.

At the end of church on Sunday, I saw about 25 babushki loading into a bus. A friend of mine explained that they were going to the cemetery for an event, invited me along and suggested that I bring my camera. I told her that I needed to retrieve the camera from my apartment, but that I'd come later.

I went home and changed into my usual cycling clothes — a pair of running shorts, a not-very-new T-shirt and a rain jacket. This was a bit informal, I thought, but I reasoned that it was outdoors, and that the only other people to show up would be my 25 church babushki, all of whom knew me pretty well. Showing up like a biker bum didn't seem like a problem.

I came to the path that led to the cemetery, and I saw whole families coming towards me, all of them well-dressed. I thought about going back home and changing clothes, but I worried that maybe the event would end before I made it back. I dismounted my bicycle, and began to walk up the long, winding path, passing at least 500 people — and this was before I even got to the cemetery. None of them were on bicycles, and the looks on their faces seemed to indicate that the Amerikanets' attire was a bit funny — I suppose this is true in that bike helmets hadn't quite caught on here yet.

I made it to the square at the front of the cemetery to find several hundred more people, all cheerful, and vendors with carts selling hot dogs, ice cream and mineral water. What, you might work up an appetite after visiting your dead relatives? This rather foreign thought actually turned out to be an understatement. As I soon discovered, the purpose was to dine with one's dead relatives. I entered the cemetery to find families sitting on benches in front of the graves with large lunches on little picnic tables. I had seen these benches and picnic tables before in the cemeteries of other cities, but I never understood what their purpose was. Every Ukrainian grave has them, but I thought that they provided a place for flowers where the worms couldn’t eat them.

No, these tables and benches accommodated one of the best meals of the year, and sharing is a must, as I discovered when a man called out “Boy!” to me and cheerfully waved me over. I set my bike down and I sheepishly walked over as the man and his family began offering me vodka and wine. “Net, net, ia ne piu, no spasibo,” I pleaded. I was able to get them to back down on the offers of alcohol, but I did end up eating a great deal of sausage, cheese, bread, chicken, cakes, eggs, candy, sausage, cheese, bread...

That's when one of the children of the family began asking me questions in English about why I was here. I explained that I was a teacher of English, and that I was a volunteer of the U.S. Peace Corps, a government organization.

“Oh,” said the boy. “You are a good man.”

That is how I met Norig.

I was finally able to escape the hospitality of Norig's family, but only after they loaded me up with enough Pascha cakes to prevent my bicycle from balancing properly. I waved a respectful goodbye, and said “Shchastliva!” to them and their dead great uncle. Norig kept following me. I told him that I'd be staying in Dniprorudne for two years. His eyes got big.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “You are a very good man!”

As soon as I reached the top of the cemetery hill, a skinny young man, Serge?, called out to me from the grave of his grandfather-in-law in Russian: “Eric! Come here. Three girls want to meet you!” And, indeed, there were three young women sitting on the lunch bench looking very hopeful. I wasn't sure if I wanted to accept this offer. I could feel my bellybutton blushing from the embarrassment of having gone into this formal event in an outfit that I'm a bit self-conscious about wearing in upscale grocery stores back home. But Serge? was quite insistent and kind, so I went over with him, Norig trailing along as my interpreter.

It did seem a bit odd to me that such a young man would be beckoning me to talk to girls, (Ukrainian men do this, but usually they're trying to unload daughters) but I soon discovered why — he was married to the one in the middle, Olia, who is 19. Without having to ask, I quickly found out that Olia's older sister, Le?na, was unmarried. Le?na had reached the advanced age of 22, the last year before an unmarried Ukrainian woman officially enters old-maidenhood.

They, too, offered me enough vodka to kill a Shetland pony, which I declined, and then they loaded me up with enough of Ukraine's best sausage, bread, cheese and candy to make walking difficult. They even got me to eat some salo, a Ukrainian specialty food. (You'll see in a moment why I avoid the term “delicacy.”) Salo is something that most Peace Corps volunteers won't touch even after two years of service. My host mother offered it to me during training, when I couldn't speak any Russian, and I put my hand to my chest and said, “Boom, ba-ba, boom, ba-ba boom, ba-ba ACK!” in an attempt to dramatize a heart attack.

Salo, you see, is raw pig fat, usually seasoned with pepper. There's no real point in cooking the stuff since it would just liquefy and evaporate, but Ukrainians see it as the most glorious dish of the Ukrainian kitchen while most expatriates see it as a way of welcoming trichinosis. On Sunday, however, Serge? offered me some high-class salo, so good that it looked like fish. Halfway through swallowing, I realized what it was. Retching didn't seem like a viable option, especially when Natasha, a family friend of the two sisters asked: “What do you think of Ukrainian girls?” Le?na, the soon-to-be old maid, paid especially close attention.

So, retching was out, what about running? I heard a little voice asking in about 10 years: “How did you and Mommy meet?” The answer I'm planning is not “I picked her up at a cemetery.”

I didn't run. Instead I answered, “Ochen’ krasivye, no ia ne khochu zhenitsia skora.” (Very beautiful, but I don't want to marry soon.) The girls nodded and tried to give me more salo. I thanked them for their kindness and squirmed out of this social engagement by pointing out that I needed to go to my Russian lesson, which actually didn't start for another three hours, but who's counting?

I almost made it out of the cemetery when a slightly drunk woman came up to me and asked me to teach her son English in one-on-one tutoring. No, I explained, in Russian, I can't. The government won't allow it. I only teach big lessons. She offered to pay me, and I explained several times that I was a dobrovolits (volunteer). This had no effect on her as she was quite insistent that her little son — who was tugging at her arm to get her to leave and stop embarrassing herself — get the best education possible. Norig explained the situation three more times to her, and finally she left.

My pockets stuffed with candy, my stomach full of sausage, bread and cheese, I finally succeeded in leaving this cemetery, a place where I thought people came dressed in black, spoke very quietly if at all and didn't bring food. I thought of cemeteries as the least likely place in a city where one would be spoken to. But, this was Ukraine, and it would appear that on Parents' Day, getting a business proposition (or a marital one), stuffing your face or making new friends at the kladbishche (cemetery) isn't at all out of the ordinary.

Back in the world of the living, Norig's attention to me didn't wane. I found him outside of the Internet club the next day, and he told me some more about his family. They came to Ukraine in 1991, when he was 3 years old, fleeing the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a conflict still simmering today. I asked Norig if his family wanted to go back, but he said no — there are too many incidents there. It was a sobering moment, much like the day I was volunteering in an elementary school in Tacoma when I realized that the reason Sopheap was drawing all his pictures of people missing arms and legs was that he came from Cambodia.

Sometimes I like to think that I was “roughing it” there, but life in Ukraine is relatively easy when I look at stories like Norig's. But Norig wouldn't let me know that with his amazing resilience. One easy thing for a Peace Corps volunteer to forget is that you aren’t there to save the people you serve by Americanizing them. You aren’t supposed to take them home with you, but rather, help them in their own setting.

Still, I hold a private hope that Norig does emigrate someday. He could make a great Peace Corps volunteer.

© Copyright 2020 tallestcousin. All rights reserved.

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