Wednesday, March 15, 2023

You don't know?!

Day 15 of 31 at TWT!
"Do you know 'zelenka'?" My Ukrainian student blinks his blue eyes in his characteristic deadpan, almost-ornery way. His casually inquiring tone doesn't give me any clues about what he's asking. I work with him 1-on-1 for a period each day (and then another period where other students also join us), which gives our time together an unusually laid-back atmosphere, with more room than usual for random chitchat. From all our time together, I can guess that he wants to know if I'm familiar with either a video game or something Ukrainian, and this word sounds pretty Russian.

"Ummm... I know zeloni!" I grin sideways at him, remembering my attempts to learn colors in Russian while playing Uno with the Russian speakers at my morning school. "Is it something green?" 

"Not zeloni!" He grins back. "Zelenka!"

"Um, no..." I shrug. 

He pulls his hand up from under the table to show me the finger he scraped a couple days ago when he hit his hand against a table at home while playing VR (a story that made both of us cackle when he told me, despite the injury). 

It's a good thing I'm wearing a mask, because I can't keep my mouth from dropping open as wide as it can go. All the way down his hurt finger, EVERY. BIT. OF. OPEN. WOUND. IS. GREEN.




My teacher-mom brain freaks out. Did he COLOR his OPEN WOUNDS with MARKER?!?!?! A 6th grader should know better than that!!! It's going to get all infected!!!!

"Y!!!!!! WHAT DID YOU...??????" I screech, leaning forward and slapping my hands against the kidney table. 

Those bright blue eyes fly open wide. His eyebrows arch and his blond hair flops as he sits up straight in an astonishment that matches my own. "You don't know Zelenka?!?!"

Our mutual astonishment hangs in the air for a moment. 

"It's medicine!" he proclaims, then repeats, his voice still rising with surprise, "You don't know?"

I lean forward to look at his finger more closely, and realize that, shockingly bright green color aside, whatever it is has stained his skin with a consistency similar to iodine. I vaguely think I remember that people put iodine on wounds, sometimes, maybe. "Nnnoo," I sputter. "I don't know this medicine!"

"It's help..." he pauses, then reaches for his Chromebook, pushes the dictation button on Google Translate, and rattles off an adept phrase in Russian. Google Translate spits out "when a wound is festering". 

"So when you are hurt, you put this green medicine on, and it helps your skin heal?" I rub my own finger where his is scraped up. My brain still feels like it wants to explode at the sight of such a brilliant green color on his injured finger. I smile. "I was right though, right? Zelenka, zeloni; it's green!" I'm very proud that I actually guess the meaning of a Russian word with one of the approximately 10 Russian words I've managed to learn this year.

"Yes! But... you don't know?!" He's incredulous that I've apparently been deprived of this medicine my entire life. 

"No!" I lean in. Is this shockingly green medicine truly that commonplace in Ukraine? Does it really work? I'm dying to know more. "How do you put it on? Does it squeeze from a tube or drip from a bottle?" I try to act out those actions. The way his skin is stained really reminds me of iodine, so I predict it comes from a bottle with a dropper, and I'm hoping he'll Google the package so my stunned brain can verify that this is, for real, an actual medicine. 

"It's bottle." He bows his head slightly to say "zelenka" into the Chromebook, copies the Russian text (he likes that way better than trying to use the Russian keyboard), and pastes the word into Google. The screen fills with images of little green bottles reminiscent of iodine bottles, just like I'd predicted.

He glances sideways at me, then repeats, "You don't know?" as if, when I saw the bottle, surely I'd recognize it. 

"No, I don't know this!" I giggle. "Thank you for teaching me!" 

He throws his head back in an uncharacteristically wide-mouthed laugh. 

We move on to practicing narrative elements with a picture book, but my mind flashes back to about a week ago, when he'd asked if I knew a different Russian word, Luntik, which turned out to be a beloved Russian children's tv show. Just like with zelenka, he'd Googled the name, found pictures of the main character (a very adorable pinkish creature), and been absolutely blown away that I'd never heard of it. 

When I get home, I tell Husband about that shockingly green substance, Google "zelenka medicine", and learn that it is truly a common remedy in that part of the world. 

One of my favorite things about teaching ELs is how much I learn from them about the world, and one of the most profound experiences of interacting with someone from another culture are moments like this, when we both realize that something we absolutely held as "normal" is not as universal as we'd thought: that for each of us, our everyday, regular "slices of life" are so much more unique than we realize.

I remember my host mom in Spain cooking EVERYthing (including, to my repeated dismay, our breakfast toast) in olive oil, and trying to tell me that peanut butter was unhealthy (after my roommate and I scoured our supermarket up and down, past rows of Nutella, before finally finding 1 small jar of peanut butter on the Mexican / international shelf). I remember a girl on our Universidad Complutense de Madrid intramural volleyball team (cheer: "¡Fiesta! ¡Sangria! ¡Historia y Geografía!") asking if cheerleaders were really real. 

It's easy to think about the BIG things that are different from country to country or region to region. But what about all those little moments you grew up internalizing as "normal"? Your typical snack. Your favorite childhood tv show. What your mom puts on your boo-boos. How your mom makes toast. 

Just imagine all the things you. don't. know. 


  1. Jennifer, what a splendid post. I love your conclusion "all the things you. don't. know." Wow. So true, and that is one of the best parts of travel and teaching children from different cultures.

    I have been using Google to see that sweet little Luntik and the brilliant green medicine is fascinating. I see that it can cause eye damage if it comes in contact with the eye.

    I also looked up iodine on Wikipedia, and at the bottom of the article, in the See Also list, there was Brilliant Green. Interesting, but they aren't the same formula.

  2. I love this post. Love getting to learn about things I didn't know about, love what you write about learning from others in general (the question about whether cheerleaders were real is sort of blowing my mind). This line in particular stood out to me: "one of the most profound experiences of interacting with someone from another culture are moments like this, when we both realize that something we absolutely held as "normal" is not as universal as we'd thought: that for each of us, our everyday, regular "slices of life" are so much more unique than we realize." Thank you for a beautiful read!


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