On Being a Ukrainian American Teenager in 2023

Before February 2022, people didn’t really understand my Ukrainian background. They’d ask, “Why do you speak Russian if you’re Ukrainian?” For me, it was never really worth explaining it. But when the Ukraine War took over every headline in the country all of a sudden everybody cared. The responses I would get when I told someone my family was from Ukraine went from, “Oh, that’s like Russia, right?” to “Wow! Keeping your family in my prayers!” Suddenly, I found myself wanting people to know about my background and how my Ukrainian culture surrounded my identity.

When war hit Ukraine, Emma's extended family moved into her previously-four-person house in Washington. (Graphic by EchoX)

Throughout the first 16 years of my life, being a second-generation Ukrainian immigrant was never the focal point. My parents came to the US from Ukraine in the 90s and, as much as my family would eat Ukrainian food or celebrate Ukrainian holidays, I felt as though “being Ukrainian” wasn’t ever truly part of my identity.

Other people didn’t really get it. Someone would see my last name and they would ask, “Wow! I love that last name, where’s it from?” When I responded saying it was Ukrainian, I would often get a response along the lines of, “That’s like, by Russia, right?” And most of the time, I couldn’t even be bothered to explain any further.

It didn’t help that my whole family speaks Russian. Although my whole family is from Ukraine, my parents grew up on the Eastern side of the country, where the majority speaks Russian as opposed to Ukrainian. It was hard for people to understand what it meant to be Ukrainian but speak Russian. Sometimes, people didn’t even know the difference between the two nations. As my sister puts it, “Sometimes, I didn’t really feel like explaining the fact [that I’m Ukrainian]… It can be a lot to explain.”

Most of the time, people just don’t really get it.

Throughout my life growing up, it felt like everyone in my family identified so strongly with their Ukrainian background while for me it didn’t quite feel that way. Even my sister, Maya, who’s four years older than me, was always able to connect with her Ukrainian culture, while I was left feeling out of place. I grew up speaking Russian, visiting Ukraine, even joining a Russian-speaking community group in my area. But even with so many opportunities to explore my background and create an identity within it, I never really felt connected.

Then, Spring 2022 came around and all of a sudden it seemed like every day. Headlines all around the world were filled with news of the Ukraine war.

Out of nowhere, my Ukrainian background went from being nearly irrelevant in my life to filling every aspect of it. People I didn’t even know personally would come up to me and ask me if I was okay. I would receive Instagram DMs from people I’d never talked to asking if my family was doing alright. Even though I knew it wasn’t fair, I found myself thinking, “It took an entire war for people to recognize my background?”

It felt as though my Ukrainian background, which I never really identified to begin with, began encompassing my whole life.

The Ukraine War felt as though it flipped my life around. My parents were flying to Europe every other week, grandparents were coming to the States, and my comfortable, one-family home went from just my family of four to housing 11 people.

Being put into a position where it felt like my life was taken over in the worst way possible while trying my very best to be there and support my family members who had to flee their homes wasn’t easy. As hard as it was for me to give up my house and my free time for my family, I knew it couldn’t even compare to the hardships they faced—living through a war, hiding in bunkers, and leaving friends and loved ones behind. The guilt I felt for thinking of the situation as even just an inconvenience was immeasurable.

Feeling the impacts of the Ukraine war surrounding my everyday life altered the way I identify with my Ukrainian background. Before the war, I avoided anything that involved my background. But after, it became my whole life—even over a year later it is still prevalent in it—I felt like I could understand my Ukrainian background more than I did before. Still being in high school, it feels as though I approach my background very differently on a social level than I did before.

And I learned from my older sister it feels the same for her, even being in university. Although she always felt a much stronger connection to her Ukrainian background than I ever did, the war forced her to face her background in a way she had never done before.

“[Now] I have to prepare myself when I tell people I’m Ukrainian,” my sister explains. “There might be a lot of follow-up questions with that.”

We used to never care if people could understand what it meant to be Ukrainian. But, as the war made worldwide headlines, all of a sudden all I could do was care. Now, I always make sure to explain my Ukrainian heritage and what it means. People still get confused when I tell them I speak Russian, but it doesn’t feel like such a hassle to explain anymore.

The war in Ukraine forced me to confront a new reality. As someone who never really connected with my entire background, it was a huge change to see it in my daily life, but it was a change I felt like I needed. For the first time in my life, I began to incorporate my Ukrainian culture into my identity.

The war has been something that helped me better understand what it means to be Ukrainian, and I’m proud to identify and stand by my culture.

Emma is a high school student at Inglemoor High School. She was a fellow in the 2023 pilot Story Gathering Workshop, a program that gave twelve students the opportunity to write and publish an article for our news outlet, Voices.

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