Katia Kulyk on living in Asia, her passion for writing, and the power of meditation
We've made two episodes of Exchange Me Podcast is Katia Kulyk, a FLEX alumna of 2004-2005. After this experience, she traveled to 30+ counties, lived in Asia for 7+ years, became a meditation and life coach, and published 2 books. Now, she lives in a small Ukrainian village and organizes yoga and meditation retreats.

Katia tells about her FLEX experience, years of living in Asia, writing books, and following a journey of a life and meditation coach.
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What is FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange Program)? One goes to the United States for an academic year, lives with a host family, attends a local high school, and, basically, gets to know the culture and live the American life. The program is highly competitive—around 2% get in. When you become a finalist, the program covers everything: from the tickets to the US insurance and the monthly allowance. FLEX was created from the belief of the former Senator Bill Bradley that the best way to ensure long-lasting peace and mutual understanding is through exchange programs like this.
Katia Kulyk on living in Asia, her passion for writing, and the power of meditation
Listen to a recording of this conversation
About coming to West Virginia and living in the nature

When I was chosen for FLEX, I was super-excited and happy, that was my dream at the time. I didn't pass the first time I applied but I did in the second year. I remember that I was scared to go to some state like Pennsylvania because I thought it was really not developed. And I had no idea that West Virginia existed.

When I arrived in West Virginia, I found it very strange. I grew up in Vinnytsia, with a population of 300,000+ people, and I lived in the center of the city. While in the US, I was going to live on a hill in a double trailer, literally in the middle of the forest.

My coordinator assigned me to my host family because I wrote in my questionnaire that I liked camping and tracking, which I do. Recently, three years ago, my partner and I moved to a village in a Ukrainian national park. When I told my American host mom about it, she wasn't surprised and told me that she knew all along that I would end up living in nature just like we did in West Virginia.

About cultural shock

What really shocked me was that I got allergic to something as soon as I arrived. Before that, I never ever had an allergy.

I got allergic to West Virginia as soon as I got off the plane.

The second shock was, of course, food. When I arrived, my host mom cooked me a tomato soup, and I had never had tomato soup before. Then I discovered that the normal foods for them are KFC takeaway, Pizza Hut takeaway, etc. That was horrible food compared to what I was used to in Ukraine.

I also remember my host grandmother kept drinking root beer (it's a sweet bubbly drink). She had it all over the house and even had a special fridge in her bedroom filled with it. I didn't understand how she could drink so much of it.

Another thing that really surprised me was that West Virginia was one of the most religious states in the way that people go to church a lot. In Ukraine, I was not used to going to church and my grandpa was a communist. So I grew up in a family that wasn't religious at all. I never really believed in God, until I started my own spiritual journey, which was much later than the US.

About community service and volunteering

When I was 15 or 16, I was lucky to interpret English in Vinnytsia for some American missionaries who came to orphanages in our region. I was really surprised at how these young people around my age collected money in their church communities to come to Ukraine and help people halfway across the world.

I remember my community service in the US, it was a class at school in my second semester. I would go to the library for one hour and help out the librarian. It was so lovely because I loved books. I loved being alone in the library, and also being of use, and I developed a beautiful relationship with the librarian.

About a passion for reading and writing

What I really loved about my American school was a program in English class where we had to read a certain number of books, and each book had its own points. So you go to the library, you pick a book, and you check how many points it is, you read it, and then you go to a computer and take a test. If you pass it, you get all the points for this book. I read a book about Lance Armstrong and how he fought cancer and survived—it was one of the most influential books in my life.

I've always loved books. I love writing and speaking as well so I'm all about words.

I think that my American experience has laid the foundation of feeling good being a foreigner somewhere. When you arrive somewhere and can learn so much from others just because they are different. I got hooked onto this. Later, after spending five years in China, I would tell my friends lots of stories about foreigners in China, and they encouraged me to write a book about it.

My first book is called Laowai—that's how Chinese people call foreigners, particularly white foreigners. It's a story of a girl who goes to China and writes a bucket list, a list of 25 things she wants to achieve before turning 25. All those things miraculously start coming true. And the background is China and all the weird and unexpected things about its traditions and different cities.

About living in China

In China, everything is different. The first thing that shocked me was the roads—they were so good and so big. Another thing is the smoke: the air in the cities is really dirty. And, of course, the Internet. I arrived there in 2008 and shortly after that, Google left China. They didn't have YouTube and Facebook got blocked the year I got there. They had their own search engines, their own messengers, their own everything.

Finally, the Chinese characters are incredible. The language itself is so logical that I believe everything inside the heads of Chinese people is built differently. I love the language. It can use very short syllables to explain a lot of things. I remember one time I was interpreting for a Chinese geologist in Kyiv, and we mentioned an emerald stone in Ukrainian. With no context, no one is ever going to know what it means. While in Chinese, it's something like "a shiny green stone". Even if you have no idea what an emerald is, there's an explanation of the word inside the word.

I lived in Beijing for a year to study the Chinese language, it was the best experience of my life. Then, I ended up living in Kunming, a city located in southwest China. I loved it there because the people there are very relaxed: in my university, they had a three-hour break for lunch. Nobody is in a rush. There are a lot of national minorities and it's very culturally diverse. Plus, it's rather warm, except for the two cold months in winter because they don't have heating. You almost never get cold outside, but you're pretty much always cold indoors. And Kunming is called Spring City because it really feels like spring all of the time. But when I was going there, I brought only dresses because I thought it would be what the name suggests. But I realized that spring is not that much about dresses: think about March in Ukraine, you need to have a coat. So my mom sent me over a bunch of shoes and jackets.

About traveling by train

I think Russia was my first foreign country. I went to St. Petersburg when I was 13 because our friends from Vinnytsia live there. That was the longest and the hottest train trip in my life. It took one and a half days, and we had lots of long stops with grandmothers carrying around varenyky and other food. It was incredible. I've traveled like this a lot since then. And I loved it

I had friends in China who traveled by Trans-Siberian train. They shared that it was really a beautiful experience. I would love to do this as well. But not right now: it's okay not to feel safe in Russia as a Ukrainian currently.

About feeling like a foreigner in Ukraine

My second book is also about foreigners. I wrote it after coming back to Ukraine after seven years of living in Asia. I realized that Ukraine was so foreign to me at that moment. I wrote a novel called Adventures of a Frenchman in Ukraine which looks at Ukraine with the eyes of a foreigner, my own eyes. But in the book, it was a Frenchman who noticed all the weird, beautiful, and interesting things about our country.

Recently, it happened so that my partner and I settled down in a small village in Podilski Tovtry, which is a national park near Kamyanets Podilsky.

Living there is like living on another planet. We are surrounded by people who really are very different from us: we are sitting at home and working from our laptops, while our neighbors are planting tobacco behind our windows.

It's really interesting to look at them and to observe the small talk happening between them. I was so amazed by this that we took a gap year just to live in a traditional Ukrainian house. I also started recording videos. On my YouTube channel, I have a whole playlist of videos on what it's like to live in a Ukrainian village, which is very similar to living abroad, but also very different.

About appreciating your country after coming back to it

I remember the summer after the US: I was so happy to get on a tram and to go somewhere in my city. I was appreciating Ukraine all over again. I had no idea how amazing Ukraine was. Even now, after traveling the world extensively, I am so happy to be Ukrainian. I love Ukrainian culture. I love our system of transportation. I love our black soil. I love our fresh vegetables and fruit and everything that my country offers.

I've learned that going abroad is the best experience to appreciate your own culture.

About FLEX as an empowering experience

What I received from the US experience is seeing how things work there, seeing that everyone is fulfilling whatever they want to fulfill. If there's a project, it will happen, you just need to organize your resources. I realized that it can happen exactly the same way in Ukraine.

We need to empower people to act towards the life that they want, which is exactly what I work on.

I coach people individually to create the lives that they love. I'm sure that if everyone is empowered to live the life they love, there will be less gossip and fewer conflicts, and life will be pretty awesome.

About favorite classes in American high school

My high school in Ukraine specialized in English. A lot of our students were chosen for FLEX and visited the US. I heard that each one of them would choose to take math in their American high school just to keep up with the Ukrainian program. It was not so difficult, but still boring—most of the flexors that I knew were like me, they were not that much into math. I decided that math is the one class that I'm not going to choose. I allowed myself not to choose it. I took creative writing, theatre, guitar... I had to take English. I also really loved biology: I had microbiology and environmental science.

Life has given me some lessons of not expecting much from the name of the class. For example, creative writing was something that I really craved for, but I ended up dropping it just because I didn't like the program or the teacher, I don't even remember. The guitar class was very interesting. Can you imagine a guitar class in Ukrainian school?

My experience in environmental science was incredible. It was an AP (advanced placement) class. It means that if you complete this class and get credits for it, they will be automatically transferred to your college classes. Our biology teacher was incredible. He was so smart and fun that all of the students loved hanging out in his classroom during lunch. For me, the practical aspects of this class were the most interesting. We fermented meat and plants, and then we would observe which matter ferments faster. Or, we planted bacteria from different liquids of our own bodies. Or, we killed crickets to observe their coldest and hottest survival temperature.

It was so interesting to be doing things, not just learning with our minds.

I still regret not taking a home economics class. There, you would study things that can be applied to your daily life in a family. People who took this class had to wear a pregnant belly for a day at school. One of my classmates gave it to me, so I could try it on—it really makes you feel like pregnant. Even guys from this class had to wear it. It was so interesting to see how people are practicing stuff right here in school.

I think that hands-on classes are something that we are missing in Ukrainian high schools. That would be a great experience to bring here.

About looking forward to new podcast episodes

I did have homesickness in the US but I didn't allow myself to feel it that much. It was probably easier in 2005, to disconnect from my home country and my family compared to how it works today. Nowadays, a student can go to the US and still be connected on Instagram to all of their friends in Ukraine. It's easier and more comfortable to be in touch with who you already know than to try and integrate into a new community. That's why I'm really eager and interested to hear the podcast episodes about those who had just come back from the US and compare our experiences.

About the wonders of meditation

Before life coaching, I started meditating. Both are connected because it's about organizing your thoughts.

Everything that happens in our life happens twice. First, it happens inside our thoughts. And then, it happens in reality.

I found meditation when it was difficult for me to put my life together. It was nine years ago, when my partner at that time died unexpectedly. Nobody knows what happened to him, he just died. And I had to deal with this new world and build my life back together. Meditation really helped me. I remember the idea that touched me: we always pay attention to the outside and care what other people are up to, but we never pay attention to what's happening inside us. Since then, I started my journey of paying attention to what's happening inside me. And it's really powerful.

I had been meditating for so long that I forgot about the immediate benefits meditation brings to someone who had never done it. This May, I did a meditation marathon in Ukrainian: we had a group of 11 people and we meditated together every evening for 10 days. Two people from this group shared something with me after just 10 days of meditating. One of them said that she had noticed a lot of resentments that she needed to let go, and another person had a transcendent experience as if she noticed someone walking in her room during meditation. I always tell people that meditation is not about transcendent experiences or something unbelievable—it's a method to be able to observe what is happening inside you and to be okay with it. Because real life is what happens inside us.

Taking responsibility for your life starts with taking responsibility for accepting the feelings that you currently have, even if they are not very comfortable.

And that's why not so many people are ready to meditate, but I am sure that we are getting there and in years, every Ukrainian will know what meditation is and how to do it.

About a journey to coaching

A Thai woman who was teaching me to be a meditator told us that we were not supposed to drink alcohol and take intoxicants. I was like, what? Not drinking alcohol? That's not a Ukrainian thing, I'm quitting this program. So at first, I thought that teaching meditation is not for me. I came back home and continued meditating, as a habit to support myself.

Later, I was studying for my Master's degree in Business Management in China. I imagined my career to be something to do with logistics and translations. When I thought about this job, everything would contract inside me. Finally, I decided to go on a volunteer program by a temple in Thailand where I had learned meditation. I quit everything in China and moved to Thailand. And after a month of coaching people on how to meditate, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. So I stayed in Thailand, worked at retreats and taught yoga.

Meditation is the best tool in the world, but I also wanted something more specific. I looked for neuro-linguistic programming, which can solve a specific problem, whilst meditation just expands you in every direction. I use two tools: coaching for specific problem solving and meditation for connecting to yourself. I do yoga meditation retreats in Ukraine: my mission is to support people to believe that holidays can be nourishing and good. Funnily enough, I did stop drinking: I haven't had any alcohol for like two years and I can't tell how much better my life has become.
Katia Kulyk on living in Asia, her passion for writing, and the power of meditation
About a trick of changing your identity

There is a small trick that I want to share with everyone. It's an NLP technique of changing your identity. When you don't believe that you can do something and you say it to yourself, you disempower yourself. To believe that you can do it, the easiest step is to think about the identity you want to have for yourself. Come up with any word that rings a bell inside your mind, the word that really empowers you, makes you shiny and joyful from within. Then, every time you are disempowered, just remind yourself of that word. It really works, just try it. And let me know how it worked for you.

For example, I managed to change my identity from a person who hated cooking to a master chef. We live in the countryside and can't buy different foods there, which really used to disappoint me. Now, I cook delicious and healthy food for us. And I'm having fun.

About a new retreat in Zavallya

I've been doing retreats in the Carpathians in different spots. I've always dreamt about doing a retreat in Zavallya where I currently live. It's a magical place. Finally this summer, we are doing one and I'm so anticipating this experience. We will combine yoga, meditation, coaching and also go to the cave where we will have a rebirthing experience.

I would call it the most nourishing holiday—when you take care of yourself and put yourself in the first place.

This is what everyone should have at least once a year: to disconnect from everything and give your total full attention to yourself because you're the most important person in your life.

Advice to those thinking about starting to meditate

If you know that you are a very disciplined person and you can push through, you can start with longer practices right away. But I recommend starting with five minutes a day and just doing it consistently and regularly. The best advice is to find the same time and same place where you would meditate. This would create time and space anchors in your mind. Also, it would be nice to have someone to guide you. Maybe, you'll need a group of people that you can connect to on a weekly basis, or even on a daily basis.

I can recommend a free 42-day online program. The NGO I used to work with—World Peace Initiative Foundation—features this program on its website. I am in the program among other trainers from different parts of the world. It's a very beautiful program where you start with 15 minutes and when you end on day 42, you already can meditate for 45 minutes. The best part of it is that you get a peace coach, a person who has been through this program and who volunteers on the platform to support you.

Advice to not be afraid and create a nourishing environment around you

If there's something that you really want to do, and you are really afraid of this, fear is the pointer that you are going in the right direction to expand. You can take small steps because sometimes taking a huge leap can be overwhelming. And when you feel in doubt or disempowered, think about your previous achievements that you are really proud of.

Think about things that you have already done that you thought you could never do. This will bring the energy of achievement back into you.

Secondly, look for communities that support you, people who are already doing things that you want to do. Join these communities, learn with them, or volunteer. Do something with flexors just to stay in touch with people you like.

Something that I want to remind everyone who's listening is that we are creating our future right now. Whatever we are doing in our current present, it's definitely going to influence the world.

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This episode is supported by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy to Ukraine. The views of the authors and guests do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.