My neighborhood of Soviet block apartments in Kyiv.

Arrival in Kyiv: Homestay Experience

Published: April 3, 2020

My arrival in Kyiv can be summed up in two words: CULTURE SHOCK! Driving into the city from the airport I saw dozens of Soviet-style apartment buildings. Rundown and leftover from the Cold War, they were 20-storey-tall, real-life pieces of history that I had only ever read of in books and seen in pictures.

I found the layout of the city also strange. As I grew up in suburban Florida, I was used to seeing tall apartment buildings mostly in the center of the city. Kyiv is basically a whole city of apartment buildings, however, with almost no houses in sight. Thus, the city itself provided me with my first moment of culture shock.

The second and most major moment of culture shock, however, came when I arrived at my homestay. I had been abroad before, but this time was different as I would be with a host family for the first time. It is a strange enough experience to be living in another person’s home, but it is much stranger when you speak different languages; I currently speak very little Russian and my host family does not speak English.

The Cold War stigmas were very present in my head: the people of East Europe were supposed to be cold and mean. However, my host mother is a very kind women who welcomed me with a hug. My entire host family made me feel welcome from the beginning. However, I was still troubled by my struggles to overcome a language barrier for the first time. As the situation became more uncomfortable for me, I made a poor decision to go hide in my room.

There, I called my parents. It was nice to hear from them, but it only highlighted the fact that I was alone in a foreign country. I missed them terribly, I felt homesick, and I missed the warmth of Florida, as temperatures below 30 degrees are also something new to me. I reached my tipping point and became extremely emotional. I was in desperate need of a pep talk and I knew exactly where to turn. I emailed my professor and adviser at Stetson in a panic, wondering what I had gotten myself into and asking for some moral support. She emailed back quickly with the simple advice: “get out of your room right now!” She told me to go attempt to speak with my host and eat something. I was skeptical but I decided to follow this advice.

The view from my window onto Kyiv.

I left my room and went to the kitchen for something to eat. My host mother prepared a delicious soup and gave me more than I could possibly eat. We attempted to have a conversation in the language I had come abroad to study. My sentences were broken and google translate was used frequently, but I was able to communicate where I am from and some other simple facts about myself. I had brought a box of saltwater taffy as a gift for my host family and we used the map of Florida on the box to discuss my home. This small interaction was extremely helpful in putting my mind at ease. Despite all the negativity I experienced at first; I realize now that this experience was the beginning of a grand adventure. More importantly, I learned a valuable lesson: sometimes you just need to get out of your room and engage in things that are far outside of your comfort zone.

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About the author

Jonah Helwig

Jonah Helwig has been studying Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasian history for two years at Stetson University in Florida. Having fallen in love with this region, he decided that a semester abroad would not only improve his language skills but also allow him to witness the culture firsthand. Jonah is currently studying on Policy and Conflict, a program hosted by partners SRAS and Novamova in Kyiv, Ukraine. Jonah hopes that the knowledge he gains about conflicts and possible solutions will assist him in a future career in foreign service.

Program attended: Challenge Grants: Funding for Study Abroad

View all posts by: Jonah Helwig