IMMIGRATION

Story posted on September 24, 2009 at 2:46 PM

We arrived to JFK from Rome among a few dozens of Russian refugees, on May 8, 1980, around 5pm. By the time we got out of the airport with white Alien cards in hand – our first official US documents, it was dark, drizzling and spooky. Everything was foreign and unfamiliar, spiced by a sharp sense of not belonging. Luckily, to my big surprise, a very Jewish looking guy, whom I have never seen before, waved and smiled at us and took us to Brooklyn. For the next couple of weeks, we slept on a floor of his one bedroom apartment, which he shared with his wife and two sons of same age as our boys (12 and 8), before we found our own place. My husband met that family once before in Moscow, a few months earlier, by mere accident, at their farewell party as a friend of a friend of a friend.

Brighton Beach Avenue deafened me with its subway roar and stunned with its ugliness. Fire escapes outside of buildings looked so intimidating and grotesque that it hurt my eyes. The asphalt playground behind a tall chain link fence that looked like a zoo cage but without a shred of green, made my heart sink. “How could I bring my family, my kids to this disgusting rotten place?” The America of my dream looked very different, albeit, I did not know exactly how, yet different.

The next day happened to be my 36th Birthday. I was not particularly eager to go outside into that monstrosity, but my hostess, very energetic and determine woman, literally pushed me out into the direction of a local supermarket. My first impression was that it would take me a lifetime to learn all those numerous products on the shelves in their boxes, jars, bottles and packages. However, a familiar Russian “mat” (swear ward) coming from the next isle sobered me quickly and brought back to the fact of life, namely my first American grocery shopping experience. The day was warm and sunny and the view of the ocean, wide sandy beach and endless boardwalk somehow reconciled me to my new reality. That our first American summer we spent mostly on the beach, which proved to be very therapeutic. If not for swimming and sun bathing, our long and often humiliating appointments in such bleak places as Social Security Office, Immigration and Naturalization, Food Stamps and so on would be unbearable.

I remember our first trip to Manhattan as if it was yesterday. Provided with a subway map, we arrived to Nyana at Union Square for a family interview with no problem. In two seconds, it became obvious that we were in need of an interpreter. My school and collage English was dead and forgotten. Straining every nerve to listen closely I still heard nothing but an inarticulate noise. To be honest, it was somewhat expected and yet very disappointing discovery. When we finally got out, everything looked unrecognizably different and it took us a while to find the subway station in 100 yards distance. There was a big subway map on a wall. All those muddled multi color lines and numbers seemed so bizarre comparing to well-known radial-circle system of Moscow Metro that I froze in front of it unable to move. As soon as I utter the magical word, “Brooklyn,” a kind Samaritan came to our rescue. Instead of simply showing us where to go, he broke out into a lecture on the NYC subway system, which would have done us good if we could only understand. He spoke slowly and very loud as people usually do addressing foreigners. We just stood there like dummies feeling degraded. The level of our ignorance was beyond his comprehension. After at least five minutes of the futile eloquence, he finally pointed to the sign above our heads: “To Brooklyn” and we parted with a sigh of relief. 
Nevertheless, by the Labor Day my husband and I found jobs and the kids went to school. Since then, I mastered my knowledge of Manhattan by walking it from South to North, and from East to West and falling in love in a process. I have been through cultural and linguistic shocks, and professional and personal turmoil such as death of my parents back in Russia, new house, divorce, mortgage, commute, hardship, chronic and incurable illness, disability, retirement, college (in that order), marriage of one son that produced four wonderful grand-children and traveling abroad with the other. Now my sons and I live in the three different states: New York, California and Florida leading different lives and seeing each other once or twice a year. What unites us, besides the cell phone and the Internet, is the big love we feel for this great country, which welcomes and assists everyone who is not afraid of the difficulties and hard work.