Part 2 of our Interview with Oleksandr Shyn, a Korean-Ukrainian student activist living in Taiwan
Plus, book club details and a book event this coming Thursday in Taipei
It’s been hard to think or talk about anything besides Ukraine. Recent news of the bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol was particularly devastating.
Our interview last week with the Korean-Ukranian student activist Oleksandr Shyn struck such a chord with readers that we asked him to answer some follow-up questions. (It is translated here in Mandarin.) In Part 2, then, Olek describes what drew him to indigenous language policy education in Taiwan, and what Ukraine can learn from it. He recalls his first voting experience in Ukraine, discusses Korean-Ukrainian cuisine, and explains how hard it is to return to “normal” life in Taiwan. He also shares his favorite Ukrainian memes, whose humor offers some hope in dark times.
If you're in Taipei, come meet us at 左轉有書 TouatBooks on Thursday, March 17th at 7 PM. (Event page here.) Michelle will be in conversation with Ivan Wang, who works with at risk youth in Taoyuan. They’ll talk about the Mandarin translation of her book, but more broadly it will be a cross-border discussion on youth, violence, education, restorative justice, prisons, and connections across difference. The event is organized by 台灣廢除死刑推動聯盟 (Taiwanese Alliance to End the Death Penalty). Lihan Luo will moderate and Penghsuan Lee will translate. The conversation will be bilingual. As Michelle puts it, “Come to witness my terrible language skills, stay to learn about social justice activism.”
Michelle: We wanted to start by asking for updates on how you and your family are doing.
Olek: There aren’t many updates from the area where my parents live. It’s been a week or so since the regional capital was captured; that’s the only provincial capital occupied by the Russians. But you’re starting to see people in major cities and small towns across the province protesting against the Russian invaders. In a nearby town, my parents saw people sing the Ukrainian anthem and scream at the Russian soldiers how unwelcome they are there.
In my parents’ village, nothing has really changed. Of course, as the occupation has continued, there’s more uncertainty—for example, shops don’t accept cash now. They have to improvise with cards. Banks are closed, so they don’t know how get money. There’s a gas shortage, so sometimes they have to wait hours for gas. Yesterday they didn’t have wi-fi the whole day, but we ended up still being able to exchange messages. They told me they were okay. Since they live in an agrarian area, they still have easy access to food, like poultry or meat. They’re so deep in the occupation zone that they’re relatively safe. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty, and of course a lot of anxiety.
Albert: Do they see Russian soldiers at all?
Olek: Not in the village itself. They see helicopters and some vehicles passing by sometimes. When they leave the village to get gas in a nearby town, they sometimes have to go through checkpoints, or they’ll see some Russian soldiers guarding a highway.
The village, which has a population of about a thousand people, has organized a self-defense force. At night, the men patrol to make sure there’s no looting happening and to give a sense of order. The police aren’t reaching the area anymore and social services are interrupted. My dad goes out once a week, late at night, on patrol.
Albert: How are they feeling about the war?
Olek: We don’t really talk about it that much. Whenever I call them, we just talk about how the relatives are doing. Korean Ukranians gather at each other’s houses a lot, so I ask for updates about their gatherings. I’m glad they’re still doing that; it helps them stay distracted. And of course they’re starting to work because it’s the season now to farm. But I know they’re following the news, and they know I’m following the news, so we just talk about the usual stuff so it doesn’t feel like this war is omnipresent.
My brother and I chat all the time. We exchange news and important information. We share government updates and news about protests in the area. He updates me about what’s happening in the village or the district.
Albert: And how are you feeling, two weeks into this?
Olek: It’s been turbulent. Most of the time I’m hopeful. But it really depends on the news. Sometimes I go online hoping for good news and I get bad news. Sometimes I hear bad news from someone and then I find good news online. You know, there are constant updates, all the time. Of course it helps to share and repost information, but it also gets to be too much. Sometimes I don’t even notice and I’ll have spent two hours checking updates.
I'm trying to go back to my routine now. I’m going back to my classes, and I’m starting new projects. Other Ukrainians here in Taiwan, they work, they have their lives going on. They manage. And I realized that I’m probably not as strong as them, because it took me two weeks to get back to normal life. Others are definitely stronger than me.
But there are triggers everywhere. I’m sitting in class and somehow we start discussing war—we weren’t even talking about Ukraine. The teacher showed a clip from Britain’s Got Talent in which some dancers stage an emotional number about a father going to the Middle East, and they show his heroism and how his family is waiting for him. But as I’m sitting there the only thing I can think about is that this is the reality for Ukraine. This isn’t just a staging, you know? It all feels so unnecessary.
Sometimes I just feel like people around me are too happy. I know it sounds horrible. I’m in a class full of people and they start joking, and I just start thinking about the war. I think I just need to force myself to be out and do something that feels normal. I would say my family is managing better than me. [Laughs]
Michelle: Some of our readers were really fascinated to learn that your sense of Ukrainian identity deepened in Korea. Can you expand on that?
Olek: I definitely feel Korean. I do have a connection, in terms of language, in terms of culture. It doesn’t necessarily come with feeling South Korean, which I’m a hundred percent sure that I’m not. I don’t have much connection with that country anymore, not since I left in 2018. I only visited once for a short trip in 2019, and that’s it. And since then I lived in Spain and Germany and then Ukraine and then Taiwan. It’s in the past.
For example, I’ve been following the recent election in South Korea, but when I read the news it feels more like a presidential election in a foreign country. I have so many friends who stayed in Korea, and I know the outcomes of these elections are going to affect them. But affectively I don’t feel that these are elections in my country, you know? You can’t compare this to how I felt when there were elections in Ukraine.
When I interact with people in Taiwan, people often treat me as a Korean, and they’ll ask me, “Do you like this Korean restaurant?” And I’ll respond, “I don’t think it’s authentic.” On that level, I do feel I represent Korea, and I do feel somewhat connected.
Albert: Speaking of food, is there a specific diasporic Korean cuisine that developed in Ukraine and Uzbekistan?
Olek: Yeah, for sure. It’s probably the most famous thing about the Koryo-saram, or ethnic Koreans living in former Soviet countries. I don’t think there’s a clear distinction between the ethnic Korean cuisine in Ukraine and that in Uzbekistan or in Russia. Our parents all came out of Uzbekistan, so we share that. The best-known aspect of that cuisine is what’s called, in Russian, a “Korean carrot.” It’s a carrot sliced into small pieces. Like kimchi, you soak it in vinegar or a marinade and let it stay there until it’s fermented. It’s become so widespread that you can buy it at the supermarket. Factories produce it in Russia and Ukraine. Since it’s so popular, there’s a trend now in Ukraine of calling anything fermented in vinegar Korean. So if you go to the supermarket in Ukraine you’ll find “Korean eggplant” or “clams Korean-style.”
Even when I lived in Korea, sometimes we would go to restaurants that serve Korean food from Uzbekistan or Ukraine. I’d hear non-Korean Russians who traveled to Korea and couldn’t find the “Korean carrot,” and they would be surprised. They’d say, “Oh, maybe some Russians invented it and they just called it a Korean carrot.” But yes, it is indeed a Korean carrot, it’s just not South Korean Korean. It comes from Koreans who moved to the Soviet Union and then got deported.
Albert: Are there any Koryo-saram restaurants in Taiwan?
Olek: Not that I know of. I'm pretty sure I’m the only Koryo-saram in Taiwan. [Laughs]
Albert: You mentioned elections. Did you vote in the one that brought Zelensky to power in 2019?
Olek: Yeah, that was a very meaningful election for me. I had voted once before, in parliamentary elections, but I was living in Korea and voted at the Ukrainian embassy in Seoul. The 2019 election was the first time in my life that I voted in person with my family. It was very moving—I was with my family back in my village, where we had a voting area. It was very heartwarming to see all the villagers there, believing in the system of democratic election.
Michelle: Can you talk more about Zelensky and that campaign? From everything we’ve been reading, it seems so meta, a TV star starting a political party with the name from the TV show.
Olek: Definitely—it did feel so unreal. I still can’t believe he won that election, but I guess there are more unbelievable things happening now. I watched the first season of his show. You know the series is entirely in Russian, right? Everybody knew his Ukrainian is very bad. Of course, we used to have presidents who couldn't speak Ukrainian very well, like Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrown during the Maidan Revolution. But when Zelensky was running for president, I thought, Wow, there’s going to be a lot of making fun of him. He would make basic errors in the language. I mean, you’re an adult and you can’t manage to learn the language of the country you want to be president of?
So there were many reservations I had about him—he’s a comedian, a TV star, inexperienced. He also had some connections to oligarchs in Ukraine. For me, the main thing that I thought at the moment he was running was: we’re going to have a lot of memes for you in this country.
But yeah, I did vote for him. [Laughs]
At that moment, with all the corruption in our country, with the strength of the oligarchs and rich people, I thought that if you wanted to beat rich people, you needed something as strong. If not another oligarch or a rich person, what is there, right? Well, here’s this very famous and charismatic person, and maybe that will translate into something better. And then he won with an overwhelming victory. It was surreal.
I’m not going to tell you whom my parents voted for. [Laughs]
But after Zelensky won, there was a lot of disappointment with his policies, especially among activists and young people. There was the failure of police reform. The person he chose to lead it, Arsen Avakov, had a very bad reputation, and under Avakov the police got worse—they would attack LGBTQ people on the street.
He also didn’t do as much as he promised he would to fight corruption. One of his famous campaign slogans was that spring would come and we’d put all the oligarchs in jail. But then spring came and, well, very few of them went to jail. So, yeah, his ratings weren’t as good. Before the war, if we had an election, I’m not sure he would have won again.
Right now, of course, we’re closing our eyes to all this. The same applies to other people who are famous and emblematic of the Ukrainian side right now, like Vitaliy Kim or other members of Zelensky’s team, many of whom were quite questionable before the war. But it’s war and they’re fighting for democracy in Ukraine. If Ukraine loses now, the fight will be thrown back by many years. He's defending the foundations of our democracy. After this war is over, we’ll go back to questioning him and his team about what they’re doing and what they should be doing better.
You know, some pro-Russian members of the parliament who fled Ukraine before the war are still active overseas. One of them even went to Russia, and is helping spread Russian propaganda. They still have channels operating in Ukraine that they use to spread disinformation—that Zelensky left the country, for example. You can see the free media in Ukraine irritated by the fact that these people are still undermining Ukraine from overseas and that Zelensky did so little to prevent this from happening.
Albert: How have you responded to his sort of outreach, his speeches and constant messaging? From an outsider perspective, I feel like he’s just been brilliant playing the media. It’s also such a contrast to Putin. They’re so on message: we’re a democracy, we’re going to be transparent in showing you what’s happening here.
Olek: He’s been doing that all along, you know? He’s known as the president who was constantly using video to communicate with the people. Before the war, I would get irritated. I would think, “Why are you speaking to us now? Shouldn’t you be trying to get stuff done?” I'm sure many people felt that way.
But I think what he’s doing now is a very good way to help people. His physical presence in Kyiv alone helps us all feel motivated and hopeful. It’s so important to show that he’s with us. The way he’s updating us in real time on important things, not dressed in a suit but in a military T-shirt. All that gives a lot of strength to the Ukrainian people. It’s important.
And I think the internet memes help. The humor gives us hope. I can share with you some of my favorite ones.
Albert: Switching gears a bit, some of our readers were interested in the fact that you studied Taiwanese indigenous language education policy. Why Taiwan and why Taiwanese indigenous language education?
Olek: As a human rights activist, I was drawn to Taiwan when I heard that President Tsai Ing-wen apologized to indigenous people in 2016. Early the next year, the Legislative Yuan passed the Indigenous Languages Development Act. Those two events drew my attention because it’s unusual to see progress like that in an East Asian country. Of course, the apology and the law had some problematic aspects, but I think it was nonetheless a major achievement.
As for why I decided to focus on the question of language, partly it’s my own love of languages. I just love learning different languages. But it was also partly because the activists told me that language constitutes such an important part of who they are, even if many only speak a little bit of their indigenous language. The younger ones told me that knowing even a couple of words in an indigenous language makes them feel different—knowing those words exist only in their community, not in Mandarin.
Albert: What do you think Taiwan’s doing that could be exported elsewhere?
Olek: I’m not that familiar with other places, but I know New Zealand is a leader in revitalizing indigenous languages. Their “language nests”—with immersive teaching of Māori—are really at the forefront. Taiwan isn’t the best; there's a lot of work to do. I know activists are demanding more, and they’re not necessarily getting the government support they need. So Taiwan could be doing so much more.
But if you have to compare, I think Taiwan can set an example for other countries, like Ukraine. We have the indigenous Crimean Tatar population in Crimea, currently outside of Ukraine's control. I think we could follow Taiwan's example and try to integrate indigenous Crimean culture and language more into modern Ukrainian identity. It’s happening, but very slowly. In Taiwan, many indigenous singers manage to become famous nationwide, even those who sing in indigenous languages.
Take the indigenous singer Abao, for example. I’m a crazy fan. I learned about her when I was in Europe, and I fell in love with her music. I went to a concert in January, not long after I got to Taiwan. It was the longest concert I’ve ever been to. It was very, very long. But I understand why—she invited so many indigenous artists on stage individually. She probably sang for only a quarter of the concert. But it was so inspiring to see these young new rising artists.
And it was because of her that I got interested in the Paiwan language. I went out and bought a Paiwan language book. It’s for kids, but I’m starting to learn some words.
In Ukraine, we have a Crimean Tatar singer who's very famous, but fandom isn’t as widespread as in Taiwan. Crimean Tatar language education isn’t anywhere near where it is in Taiwan. I do hope that once Crimea becomes part of Ukraine again we’ll be able to do much more to help the Crimean Tatar people revitalize their language, to make sure they feel like their language and culture are treasures for Ukraine—and not just museumified treasures, but treasures to be proud of, that are thriving and developing.
Michelle: Someone on Twitter, responding to our first interview with you, made a comment about cosmopolitanism, and how your self-reflection is likely related to your moving around the world, which allows you to have a deeper sense of your Ukrainian identity. Do you agree with that?
Olek: Yeah, I saw that. I think it’s not just the fact that I’ve traveled around the world, but also that my Korean Ukrainian identity allows me to reflect more on the Ukrainian struggle. Also, I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social sciences, so I have the conceptual tools and frameworks to understand what’s happening. I told you last time that not many people call the Russian-Ukrainian relationship a colonial one. For most Ukrainians, when they hear the word colony, they think about Britain or France—they have a typical high-school understanding of colonial regimes. They don’t necessarily see that there are parallels between Russia, Ukraine, and those former colonies. So I think it only makes sense that people who have more conceptual tools would be able to communicate this idea better.
I don’t think I would have been able to reflect on this even a few years ago. It took me a long time to understand that a problem was even there. As I told you, my family is Russian-speaking; when I started going to school, a Ukrainian classmate who didn’t speak Russian told me that the Ukrainian language was undeveloped, a language of villagers. I didn’t question that, I just said, “Okay.”
And until then, the Korean community lived separate from the rest of Ukrainian society. We didn’t live in the villages. We built our own huts—well, they weren’t exactly huts, but sort of. For me and my family, it was normal to have the perception that Ukrainian was an undeveloped language. And it took me a long time to even speak it in public in Ukrainian cities. I had this constant feeling that someone might say, “Why are you trying so hard to be Ukrainian?”
I think Ukraine and Belarus had a similar path in this regard. But the situation in Belarus right now is very severe. Speaking Belarusian in public is akin to being a member of the opposition. By the way, I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on Belarusian language policy.
Michelle: The plot thickens!
Olek: Belarusian and Ukrainian are close languages—they have a 95 percent lexical similarity. We can understand Belarusian—I used to read literature in Belarusian—and Belarusians can understand Ukrainians when they speak. But our policies after the collapse of the Soviet Union were very different. In Ukraine, because of the rise of nationalism and a more pro-European orientation, Ukrainian became the main state language. In Belarus, Russian became the official language immediately after independence. Nationalists were labeled as oppositional.
Politically, our paths diverged. In Ukraine, we also had a president and a successful transitions of power. In Belarus you have a dictatorship, with Alexander Lukashenko being in power for the past twenty-six years. And the Belarusian language has really become marginalized. Most people there just speak Russian; very few speak Belarusian on a daily basis. And there’s a massive stigma about speaking it in public.
On a side note, it’s not like speaking Russian is somehow saving people. Right now, the most heavily besieged and shelled cities in Ukraine are Mariupol and Kharkiv, majority Russian-speaking cities. I studied in Kharkiv; there were fewer Ukrainian language speakers there. So look at what Putin is doing to the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. His words mean nothing. Maybe that’s one reason NATO is so afraid, because he’s acting so unpredictably—who knows what he could do next?
But back to Belarus. Belarus is assisting Russia, right? But you don’t see as much hatred towards Belarus in Ukraine. Ukrainians feel for Belarus and the Belarusian people. We understand that, yes, their offensive regime is aiding Putin, and many people in Belarus support that. But we also realize that we share another fight. Not only a fight against Russia, but also the fight of reclaiming our language, reclaiming our self-identification, reclaiming the right to be considered “normal” and standard in our own country, not a mental or cultural minority just because we speak our native language. We share the process of trying to reclaim what’s ours.
Olek shares a few memes and photos:
For our March book club we will read Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies. Please put Friday, March 25th at 7 PM EST (8 AM Taiwan time) in your calendar. We will also finish discussion of Brothers Karamazov.
The Mandarin version of our newsletter reflected on a class we taught at San Quentin Prison (the program is now known as Mount Tamalpais College). We interviewed Zakee Hutchison, our former student who served 21 years and was released in 2020. Here’s the link if you missed it. (The original English is here.) If you have not been receiving the Mandarin version, go to “My Account” to set up your preferences.
If you’re interested in the Korean Uzbek community in New York, check out the work of Emanuel Hahn. (Thanks to our reader Kevin for sharing it!)
In Commonweal John Connelly, a European history professor at Berkeley, has an incisive piece that compares Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. In both cases, the aggressor claimed destiny and civilizational superiority:
For Germans, Bohemia—today’s Czech republic—“naturally” belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, and the Czechs’ “destiny” was to assimilate into the infinitely higher German civilization. Today, many Russians find Ukrainian independence absurd because Ukraine long belonged to Russia in some form, either Tsarist or Soviet. Traditionally, Ukraine was called “little Russia.” During imprisonment a Russian officer told the Ukrainian activist Ihor Kozlovsky, “There are no nations. There are civilizations, and the Russian world is a civilization, and for anyone who had been part of it, it does not matter what you call it, a Tatar or a Ukrainian, you don’t exist.
A gorgeous sculpture by the late Taiwanese artist Huang Tu-shui disappeared for 50 years and was found again last year. It’s now being exhibited at the Museum of National Taipei University of Education (MoNTUE). We learned so much in these two pieces by Wenpei Lin (on her Substack) and Brenda Lin (for No Man is an Island).
Olek mentioned the singer Abao. This is the music video of our favorite Abao song, which we wrote about some time ago.