Culture is like a tree, and its complex biology must be learned.


marshrutka: a passenger van used for public transportation, similar to a small bus.

By Karen Hamilton - Peace Corps Volunteer, Ukraine (2005 - 2007)

In English class this week, we compared culture to a tree.

There are parts you can see:

Trunk, branches, leaves

And the parts you can’t: the roots.

Without the roots, the tree would die or fall down.

It would have never grown in the first place.

The culture, much like the tree, has parts you can see:

Clothing, holiday traditions, or amount of touching

And the parts you can’t: The concept of beauty, religious beliefs, and personal space.

We now climb the trunk and walk its branches more deftly than when we arrived:

Always arriving with a gift of cookies or flowers for our host

Reading menus or notes in cursive Cyrillic we thought we’d never learn

Always leaving a little bit of vodka in the glass, otherwise it gets refilled

Easter egg fights where the winner takes the damaged egg

We squeeze into the packed marshrutka or elevator like professionals

Whereas back home we’d surely wait for the next one

The cultural aspects we can see are explained by what we cannot.

Because of our service, we understand how the roots nurture the tree, give it life.

Instead of asking “why” about the tree’s bark, the color of its leaves

We can offer “because” with an appreciation for the complex system of roots

As we return home to plant its seeds.

This poem was entered in the returned Volunteer category for the 2015 Peace Corps Poetry Contest. The contest received more than 1,000 submissions, representing over 50 years of Peace Corps service in more than 100 countries.

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