Day 117 - Nickolai (1st person I approached)
April 27, 2014 - As soon as I asked, Nickolai said he would chat with me. I was carrying groceries, had a bag over my shoulder and was wearing headphones. As I sat down and got myself comfortable, I asked what he was up to.
“I just rode my bicycle here, and I was talking to a girl on the phone. I thought I’d sit down for a bit before I go to the gym,“ he said with a thick accent. Of course my next question was to ask where he was from, and he smiled at me and said
“I am from the USSR.”
Nickolai was born in Belarus, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. It's bordered by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. His father is an aviation airspace engineer in the private sector, and his mother is a meteorologist.
“They met at an airport,” Nickolai said.
When he was three years old, the family moved to Yevpatoria, in Crimea.
“I was born in 1984 and Chernobyl happened in 1986. It wasn’t until almost a year later that we left. Belarus is a small place that shares a border with Chernobyl. Everything was getting radiated, it was being carried by the wind. So that’s when we moved to Crimea,” Nickolai said.
“It’s the same as happened in Fukushima (Japan) with the earthquake and the nuclear power plant collapse and leaks. No government wants the truth to get out right away. Crimea is a beautiful country and so we settled there. My father became involved in geophysics and we moved around a fair bit, but we had a house in Crimea.”
Nickolai completed his schooling, and then hIs parents immigrated to Vancouver. He remained in Crimea to go to University.
“I took my first two years of University there. I studied sciences, mathematics and physics. Then I came to Vancouver to join my family. Because all my schooling took place in Crimea, it wasn’t recognized in Canada. I didn't qualify for my GED (General Educational Development - demonstrating the student has high-school academic skills). So I had to go back to high school, and complete Grades nine through twelve. It took me just over a year,” Nickolai said. Before coming to Canada, Nickolai had no formal education in English. I asked if it was a struggle to adapt and make friends.
“In night school, no, it was easy. I’m skilled socially, and I play sports, so that made it easier. In college it was different. People have misconceptions and stereotypical beliefs about all Russian people. At least I was proficient in the sciences,” he said. He passed his GED exams and went on to the University of British Columbia, studying Biology and Physics. Nickolai graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Sciences. He then went to the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and studied to become an Aircraft Engineer.
“I wanted to join the Canadian Military. But they wouldn’t allow me. Because I am Russian,” he said shrugging his shoulders and looking away. I asked if it was because he was Russian, or because he wasn’t Canadian. Without hesitation and with a strong voice, he told me
“I am Canadian.” In his spare time, he plays “football, you know they game you call soccer here,” basketball and ice hockey.
Nickolai is now working as a pilot for a non-commercial enterprise.
“I have had a number of close calls, that’s what flying is. Especially when you are training. Before I carry passengers I want to learn everything there is to learn about the aircraft, the mechanics,” Nickolai said.
“Pilots can fly planes, but do they know exactly how the pistons work? That’s what I want to know when I carry passengers.”
As I was going to take Nickolai’s picture, I felt he seemed tense, and I asked if my questions had annoyed him.
“No, not at all. I played rugby earlier today, and then biked here and now I’m thinking about the gym.” I think the picture summed it all up. #notastranger
Footnote: Ironically, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster happened exactly 28 years ago yesterday. I didn't know this when Nickolai and I talked. I discovered it afterwards, when doing some research relating to today’s story.