I was a Russian girl and an American teenager. I had no choice about the first, but I tried very hard to be the second. Now as a grown woman, I mostly deem myself a New Yorker. While I never truly considered myself an American, being a New Yorker encompasses more. New York has a special tolerance for Russians.
My immigrant story began when I was five years old. I don’t recall a sense of fleeing from our home country or the idea that our life was difficult. As a child growing up in Kiev, I recall very little. I remember snapshots here and there, mostly stories retold that have tattooed themselves onto the childhood story log.
I remember getting my ears pierced when I was three years old. With gold studs in my ears, I descended sub ground to a quintessential ice cream parlor. I remember the dark wood paneling and the taste of vanilla. The memory of that vanilla has solidified itself as the definition of vanilla perfection to me.
My grandmother, who came to America three years before us, used to send me clothes. My mother would then go on to dress me up in the fashionable American garb and pose me in front of the navy plaid wool blanket on our couch. To this day, I have a portfolio of me as a mini Russian fashionista in bell-bottom jeans, short skirts, and sweaters of the itchiest caliber.
Yet sometimes there were style malfunctions. A roll of the film serves as proof of our afternoon strolling through an urban Russian park. Me, a three-year-old with long hair on the swings, wearing as a complete outfit American Popeye Underoos. My father developed all of my childhood photographs in our bathtub, and my mother would send them to my grandmother as proof of wear.
My grandmother arranged the visa that got our family out of Russia. I remember very little of the immigration process. My mother packed the only life she had known into a couple of suitcases and moved to a foreign country that made no promises beyond hope. She was twenty-five years old. I am now thirty-four years old with my own six-year-old and cannot imagine confronting a task half as challenging.
We came to America by way of Vienna first and then Rome. We were thrust together with other immigrants into a holding pattern of unglamorous proportions. I can’t recall one iota of our entire time in Europe. The family stories that circulate regarding the European purgatory are few and random. I got motion sick habitually so my mother carried a plastic bag with her everywhere she went. My mother was amazed that so many Italian men knew her name; she didn’t realize that her name, Bella, was synonymous with beautiful in Italian.
I remember my grandmother coming to visit us in Italy; she couldn’t wait the two more months for us to get to America. When we picked her up at the airport, I remember seeing a strange woman who I knew had to be someone important shoving a doll against the glass wall. I didn’t understand if I was supposed to be more excited about the doll or the woman. I don’t remember being thrilled by either.
Early life in America seems distant, a shadow of a childhood where I didn’t really fit in but wasn’t completely ostracized. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment across the street from my grandmother’s identical apartment in Queens. I would look out my first-floor window and up to my grandmother’s eighth-floor window; with binoculars, I could see her waving.
The whole neighborhood holds few memorable moments for me. I remember learning to ride my brown Huffy bike there. I remember playing on the monkey bars and a grown man came to hang upside down. He was wearing loose running shorts and no underwear.
An elementary school that in retrospect seems fruitless. My parents were always disappointed with American education. In Russia, they told me they were learning my sixth-grade math in second grade. My parents would quiz me on my multiplication tables, insisting that I should know them so well that I could recite them if they woke me up in the middle of the night.
I remember the first day of kindergarten. My grandmother took me and was my translator for the first and only time in my life. The class sat around in a circle, and I must have done something that caused the boy next to me to make a hand motion that I interpreted to be peeling a carrot. Later I learned it was “shame, shame.” I still don’t remember what I did, but I remember the shame.
That was the first of many American colloquialisms and childhood antics that I never learned. We didn’t eat macaroni and cheese or Chef Boyardee. For breakfast, I used to have tea with toast and cream cheese. When I was really little, I slurped the tea from a saucer so it wasn’t too hot. Instead of six packs in the refrigerator, my family had vodka in the freezer.
I don’t even have a real birth certificate. As authentication of my birth, I am the proud owner of a bronze coin with Lenin on it. My official Russian name and date of birth calligraphed on it with what looks like a white gel pen.
After five years in America, we got our citizenship. I remember thinking there would be some sort of a test, but I didn’t have to take one even though I was in fifth grade.
Sixth grade was the year of the Challenger crash. Back in the days when public school let you go home for lunch, I went to my grandmother’s house and watched the Special Report on TV. A few months later, just shy of my elementary school graduation, my parents moved us to Staten Island. I went from Russian to American over night.
Sixth grade was junior high school, not an elementary school in Staten Island. I had to learn to put on red lipstick and black eyeliner in the cafeteria. Girls had boyfriends, kids smoked in the schoolyard, and the mall was the center of it all. Kids categorized one another as Guido, Preppy, or Jappy; I didn’t fit into any of them.
It was also at this point that I really hated being Russian. Russian was the anti-cool. The 80s Cold War had pitted Russia as the supreme enemy. In every James Bond movie, in every Tom Clancy book, we were the foe. My name brands me with my nationality, so it was hard to hide. When I hung out on the block, the annoying boy would call me Commie.
Living in Staten Island shielded me from Russians. They mostly settled in Brooklyn, particularly Brighton Beach. I didn’t have any Russian friends and didn’t want any. I didn’t want to associate with anything or anyone Russian, because Russians gave other Russians a bad name.
Russians came to this country expecting freedom and carried with them a sense of entitlement. They knew how to milk the system like professionals. They collected welfare, SSI, unemployment, Medicaid, food stamps. They learned to get fake divorces to collect two checks. Old ladies signed up for jobs as home health aides and then would “take care of” their non-sick friends, splitting the paychecks. No one paid taxes, but the government had plenty of payouts. The women of Brighton Beach would wear their Cartier watches and Gucci purses over their fur coats. They bought their food at the fancy Russian gourmet stores and used food stamps to buy caviar. There were plans to trick the system prepared for them before they even got here.
Why does this country owe these immigrants anything?
My family, in contrast, worked diligently from the time we arrived in America. My parents worked two jobs and took ESL classes. We never received a dime of public assistance. We had pride and work ethic. I resented these criminals that gave me a bad name—tarred the road I was struggling so hard to pave. They didn’t earn that right.
Life got easier after Perestroika. All of a sudden, Russia got cool. Gorbachev was a hero, Russian letters were fashionable. We went from enemies to friends.
In college, I embraced my inner Russian. While I originally taught myself the Russian alphabet from the Russian newspaper at my grandmother’s dining room table, I thought college was time to finally learn to write in script. So I placed myself in Russian 5 and sailed through, because I knew the answers based on what sounded right.
I don’t remember at what point I gained the appreciation and gratitude toward my parents for bringing me to this country. I don’t remember a defining moment when it sank in that they did it all for me; all so I could have a better life. A life of freedom and opportunity.
It’s a constant internal conflict; like a child of divorced parents, you’re not sure to which country to pledge allegiance. Watching the Olympics, we always rooted for both the Americans and the Russians. Why were we still rooting for a country we fled? Whenever anything tragic or abominable happened, it was “Americans!” or “Only in America!” I didn’t get it. I thought we were those Americans.
America promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. America honors birth with a paper certificate as opposed to a dictator-branded bronze coin. For that, I am thankful.`
When you immigrate as a child, you don’t question it. It just happens to you and you go along with it. But somehow plucking a leaf off a tree and replanting it in a new country doesn’t come without consequences.
I feel like I have a perpetual wanderlust; nothing holding me down anywhere. New York is as good as it gets; a multicultural Mecca with no judgment. But New York bears no roots, no collective history, no cemeteries bearing headstones with names of generations of my family.
I haven’t been back to Kiev, but I’d very much like to go. I hope that walking the streets, smelling the trees, hearing the language around me will somehow give me that inner resolve—some sort of conflict resolution of future meeting the past.
I speak Russian—fluently and rarely. It was my first language but will forever remain my second. But I still listen to Russian pop icon Alla Pugacheva, love caviar, and bring bread and salt into every new apartment I occupy.
But in English I read, I write, I dream.
[Photo credit to Galina Nemirovsky]
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