Linh Nguyen, a junior at DePauw from Vietnam, reminisces about a time she and her father used to walk to “Maidan Nezalezhnosti” (Independence Square) in Kyiv, Ukraine, every day to admire the views of one of the most magnificent, bustling cities in Europe. Exploring the landmarks of Kyiv and comparing them to Vietnamese culture was Nguyen’s favorite activity while she lived there for three years during high school.
As of now, Ukraine looks different from how Nguyen remembers it: historical landmarks and busy streets have turned into a warzone as Russia invaded Ukraine and started bombing major cities on Feb. 24, 2022. Nguyen finds it difficult to accept that her home for three years will never look the same. However, to cope with sadness, she looks back on her life in Ukraine to appreciate important moments with her Ukrainian friends and teachers.
“The Ukrainian people are humble and welcoming,” Nguyen said. “My classmates in high school did not separate me from others just because I did not speak their language or came from a different culture. Rather, they were always interested in learning about me since I was a novelty there.”
Nguyen cultivated meaningful friendships during her time in Ukraine and still keeps in touch with her friends. When the conflict started, she reached out to them to provide emotional support. Luckily, most of her friends are safe because they fled Ukraine immediately and found refuge in neighboring Eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania, and Belarus. Nguyen said it has not been difficult for them to adjust to being abroad because, culturally, those countries are similar to Ukraine. “My friends do not think they will have to live abroad forever,” she said. “They have high hopes that the war will end soon.”
Some Ukrainians found shelter abroad just in time before the war started. However, others have to stay in the country as they are unable to leave due to several reasons: the closed airspace in Ukraine, the military draft of men aged 18-60, and a backlog of thousands of refugees on the Ukrainian border.
Nguyen takes a pacifist stand when it comes to the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. She wishes the two countries would negotiate and reach an agreement. “I am not on the side of either Russia or Ukraine,” she said. “I am on the side of the citizens of both countries because they are the ones suffering the most right now.” She thinks the well-being of the citizens should be the first priority of both governments because if people are not happy, nothing else matters.
“Ukraine is very dear to my heart but I am not strongly tied to Ukrainian culture,” she said. “I am still Vietnamese.”
That being said, she thinks living in Ukraine still made an impact on her mindset and outlook on life. Living in such close proximity to other European countries allowed her to travel more, making her a global citizen. As a result, global citizenship opened up opportunities for her to consider viewpoints that differed from hers. In particular, Nguyen got introduced to new historical perspectives.
“When I went to Ukraine, I realized that everything I had been taught in my Vietnamese school back home was just one side of the story,” she said. “For example, in history classes in Vietnam, the Vietnam War is interpreted differently compared to Ukraine. Ukraine looks at it from an outsider’s perspective.”
Living abroad taught Nguyen to look at historical narratives from different angles to get the full picture.
“After living in Ukraine, I am not as traditional anymore,” she said. By moving abroad, Nguyen became more accepting of people with identities that are different from hers. “I would not have evolved as a person in that regard if I had not left Vietnam,” she said. “Whenever someone has an opinion that is different from mine, I step back and listen instead of staying stuck on my ideas.”
For Nguyen, living in Ukraine as a foreigner came with responsibilities. “Since I was the only Vietnamese in my school, I was representative of my country and culture. Therefore, I was always more cautious with what I said or did in order to represent my identity in the best possible light,” she said.
Nguyen hopes that the Russia-Ukraine conflict will get resolved soon so that she can go back and visit Ukraine. “I love my Ukraine and my Ukrainians,” she said. “If I could tell Ukrainians one thing right now, I would tell them to stay strong, take care of yourself and your family, and keep yourself alive.”