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  • Writer's pictureNataliya Apanovich

Why I never dated Eastern European men

I never dated a man from my country or even Eastern Europe. It was intentional - I just never thought I could respect a guy from that part of the world.

But I came close. He was a doctoral student in theoretical physics from Ukraine. We both lived in Washington, D.C. and together with our common friends hosted dinner parties and organized ski trips to West Virginia. Even though we had fun, I still wasn’t sure–I had already dated a theoretical physicist and it didn’t work out. In my early twenties, I didn’t care about dark matter or black holes and it bothered me that my boyfriend was two degrees ahead of me.

The Ukrainian was as careful with women as he was when looking for subatomic particles. His measured approach towards me was rather unusual. We had only one date and it felt strangely awkward to be the center of an Eastern European man’s attention. He regularly nodded to everything I said, asked questions, and looked me in the eye. But it was his words at the end of our date that let me know he really did listen. His cordial “you’re different, you don’t belong here” felt like a reward - finally, there was someone who knew who I was.

Years later, I realized what sadness those words meant. I didn’t belong in Belarus anymore, but he didn’t know that I also didn’t belong in the U.S. He mistook my confusion and out-of-placeness for sophistication and uniqueness. He looked at me as if I was the last Sumatran tiger alive–with nostalgia and regret—and it felt much worse than being suppressed or disrespected.

Maybe it was the contempt I felt for the Eastern European men that prevented me from dating them. The two men I grew up with always put themselves above everyone else. It took one fat tear from my little brother to get anything he wanted whereas even a full-blown tantrum from me accomplished only whipping with a belt.

If I complained, I was ordered not to compare myself to my brother because “boys have different needs from girls”. My parents subconsciously installed into my brother the same skewed power dynamics they grew up with and I could not be ok with it. When Dad took away the bicycle my sister and I shared and gave it to my brother as soon as he learned to bike, I fought my brother every time he got on that bicycle.

But my defiance made the matters only worse, my parents sided with my brother even more. Dad stopped expecting my brother to do any work around the house whereas my sister and I ran two greenhouses, cleaned, cooked, and fed the livestock. To appease my brother in moments of hysteria, my parents gave him anything he asked for and if they didn’t, he faked tears. When I cried about how colossally unfair the whole situation was, parents demanded respect, but respect was the last thing I had for my little brother.

I also struggled with respecting Dad, not only because he enabled my brother but for his own false sense of grandiosity. He made big family decisions without consulting with anyone. One year, he decided to upgrade his car instead of buying a washing machine Mom so desperately needed. He invited home his drinking buddies and ordered Mom, and later me and my sister, to feed and entertain them. He hid money from us and enjoyed when Mom begged for a winter coat or new pair of boots.

But it wasn’t just my brother and Dad who made me lose respect for men. My grandfather tried to kill my grandmother twice; my ninth grade computer teacher once said that if the girls in my class broke any of his computers, he would make sure we would never get pregnant; and the boy I liked in seventh grade kicked me in the butt every time I walked by.

I didn’t learn that men could equally share life responsibilities with their spouses until I visited the U.K. At the age nine, ten, and eleven, I briefly lived with a British family to get rid of radiation (from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant) in my body. When I first saw my host dad do the dishes, I almost laughed–I had never seen a man do that. I thought he looked too domesticated and weak but when I saw him cook, set the table, and treat me with more respect than my own father, I had nothing but admiration for him.

I was never the same upon my return to Belarus. I was obsessed with fairness and equality. I competed fearlessly with my neighboring boys in running, jumping, and soccer to show that even a girl could be just as good at sports. I started hiding in trees to avoid babysitting my brother and even asked Mom to divorce Dad. She had no clue what I was talking about.

When we immigrated to the U.S., I was relieved – I wouldn’t have to date one of my own.

At fifteen, my Belarusian girlfriends were already cheating, lying, and fighting with their boyfriends. When I left at fifteen, I didn’t even have my first kiss. By that age, I had already decided to never put myself in the same position my Mom was in.

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