After a couple of months teaching English in Ukraine, I learned a bit more about the country and its people. In general, teachers can tell within a few classes who their strong students are and those who need a little more encouragement.
Well, in one class I had three Natashas, three Katerinas (often spelt Yekaterina), two Annas and a few guys (who fortunately had different names). One of the Katerinas was typically quiet, but I knew she knew more than she let on. Despite numerous attempts to get her to talk she was more than happy to sit there quietly and watch me make an ass of myself in order to provoke class participation. So I finally called her out on it… And this one conversation would open me up to a whole new world of business in Ukraine.
“Katerina, how can you know English so well but sit there and let your English atrophy?… I mean, not use it.” (I’ve always found that compliments get students to smile and open up, but using strange words like “atrophy” or “nucking futs” confuse them.)
“Because I’m tired,” she says.
“Aha! Because you’ve had been up all night studying and at school all day! I knew it! Brilliant student!”
“No,” she says, politely smiling at my suggestion.
“So why do you come to class?” I ask.
“Because you’re funny.”
Oh how wonderful! She’s playing to my ego! I can’t wait for her to finally ask to come back to Canada with me (yes, some other students actually asked that question.) I smile, laugh, blush and revel in the moment. But I wasn’t satisfied.
“I don’t believe you,” I say. And that’s when the thought struck me that maybe, just maybe, she had an English boyfriend or something. But how do you ask such a question with tact? “Do you have an English speaking boyfriend… or husband?” I ask, thinking that was tactful enough.
She laughs and says “Five.”
Oooooooooooooooh. She’s one of THOSE girls. I knew Ukrainian women had a reputation for being flirty. Not only that, many of my students had two or three cell phones which, I could only imagine, was for perpetrating whatever scam they were working on that week, be it men, money, drugs, whatever. I wave those thoughts good-bye. I can see that she’s starting to blush and the other students are getting kinda weary of one student getting all the attention. So I decide to ask one last question, noting that it’s a sensitive subject.
“Are you a…,” I need to choose my words carefully as I don’t want my students having any more ammunition against me when they go talk to my boss as I already have a reputation for being an “impulsive” teacher and my classes “interesting”. I find the right word, “…A retailer…. on Symska?”
She laughs. I’m not sure if she understood “retailer” but she understood the reference to “Symska.”
Beet-red, students are laughing and I’m still like, I wish I was kidding but I kinda wanted to know. Before I get to the answer she gave me, maybe I should clarify what “Symska” is.
All cities have their red light districts and brothels regardless of whether you admit it or not. I was especially aware of Ukraine’s human trafficking problem and sensitive to the issue that maybe some of the folks in my class came from backgrounds that weren’t very stellar. Symska Street and it’s neighbouring Pushkinska Street have a few things in common: first, they both go through downtown Kharkiv; second, they are major shopping destinations lined with shops and cafes; third, and lastly, when darkness falls and just before the street lights go out (seriously, they shut them off at 12 midnight), some entrepreneurial folks (or forced labour?) hit the streets. If you get what I mean. Prostitutes, if you don’t.
I’ve never knowingly taught a prostitute before. To be fair, she didn’t appear to come from such a background and maybe she was legitimately employed on Symska Street. But I wanted to know the real reason why this lady knew English so well and kept on attending my classes but never participated.
Laughing again, she replies to my question with a simple, “No.” Since she’s laughing I can only believe that I can’t possibly be in that much trouble if things go to shit.
Cutting to the chase, I ask her what she does for work.
She resists and tells me that she doesn’t want to disclose that information.
Alright, I’ll throw a wild card, “A dating agency?!”
She confirms my question in Russian with the guy sitting beside her. Redder she goes.
“Yes,” she says.
My eyes bug out and my mouth drops in disbelief. I’d heard about those sites, though I’ve never used one myself.
The teacher gene in me truly wishes that my classes, my lessons, and my personal methodology for life can strike some sort of inspiration or imagination in all my students to strive to better themselves, to find good and respectable jobs, and to present themselves to the world as knowledgeable, caring and peaceful global citizens. Unfortunately, as an English teacher such noble ambitions are seldom, if ever, realized by the English teacher, and I assume teachers in general, until much much much later in life… if ever.
Aghast at the prospect that one of my students could be so employed I decide to take the pressure off this lady and her interrogation and open the question to the rest of the class. Who else works for, or has worked for, a dating agency?
Five other hands go up. All female.
Since this was a conversation class and not a regular class, I wanted to encourage my students to speak, to use their English voices and impress me with their vocabulary. I sit up and listen to what my students have to say.
And so it was explained to me the workings of such businesses. I hardly think that me mentioning anything will do anything to change the situation in Ukraine but, let’s just say, when you register and pay for those websites, you aren’t getting her undivided attention. She’s chatting with four other (American) guys too. There are the ladies who work the chat lines, the ladies who meet with men, and the ladies who do the interpretation. Guess which ladies know English best? The chat line and interpreters.
And so I learned all about the current work situation in Ukraine. I can’t fault them for it, it’s not like demand will ever really drop off, if ever. I even checked out her website, though never registered. I can’t justify such an expense in my life just yet, especially when I found out how rigged some of the “dates” are.
Oh, and the cell phone thing. If you ever go to Ukraine you’ll notice that many of your students or friends will have two or three cell phones. Why, Steve, why? Well, they’re not perpetrating money-laundering schemes or juggling multiple relationships (although I’m sure some do), calls between the same phone provider are FREE, calls between different providers are expensive. So, often when you call your friend they’ll ask you what provider you’re using and, depending on their provider, they’ll either call you back on their other phone or on one of their friends’ phones.
I took the lesson away with me and went out with my Ukrainian/Russian co-teachers that night. I brought up the conversation and three more ladies raised their hands. “It’s like working at McDonald’s,” one responded. I couldn’t help but laugh at the comparison between dating and fast food.
“It’s a job you do while in university or to make some cash on the side. It’s not a permanent job. That’s when you get married.” (1)
There you go, dating North American men is like working at McDonald’s. Everybody works a shitty job some time in their life, some get married to it.
(1) The person who responded to this question didn’t phrase it in the exact same way I have expressed it here, but the feeling is the same, and she was humourous with her response. To be fair, I have heard of several marriages with Ukrainian women that have been arranged through this sort of meeting. To say the least, it’s a common joke in Canada to buy a mail-order bride from Ukraine. Some have worked out, some have not. I have never tried these websites or agencies (yet?) but understand the demand for them. In the end, any sort of relationships always takes into account the agendas and intentions of both parties, for better and worse.