I came to America on August 16, 1989, when I was a few days short of turning 19. I came on an Al'Italia.plane, that I boarded in Rome Italy. I landed in JFK.
Our journey to the US began in Baku, Azerbaijan. First we travelled to Moscow, the only place in the USSR where there was an international airport at the time. From Moscow we went to Vienna for 7 days, and then spent another month and a half in a suburb of Rome called Ladispoli. Officially, we were not allowed to immigrate to America, but to Israel. Jews were only allowed out for family unification purposes. Since at the time, there was no diplomatic relationships between Israel and the Soviet Union, we had to go through Vienna.
My aunt Nana left in the first immigration wave in 1979. My father and grandfather refused to immigrate with her. After the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the iron curtain fell hard and we weren't allowed out. We had very limited contact with Nana, only by letters and phone calls few times a year. Finally some American tourists came to Baku in 1985 and gave us news of my aunt. We were allowed to see them at our house without being persecuted for that. We invited them to dinner and ended up asking them all these questions about Nana. How did she look? Was she happy? I think that they made up a lot of their answers, trying to make us feel better. They probably only saw her for 30 seconds or so, when she asked them to go see her family in Baku, and to pass us a package. We gave them a tour of our city, and took them to my grandmother's apartment, which now, looking back, I cannot believe they didn't run away from. It was pretty scary looking place. The entrance particularly. It was a rusty disgusting gate which led to an almost cave-like passage where the garbage cans stood. Russian garbage cans were very different than American garbage cans. They were open tin vats without a lid, with rats that you had to throw something at, so that they would run away and you wouldn't step on a rat passing by. The Americans came upstairs and we served them a traditional dinner. That was the first encounter with the “west” that we had.
Soon after, the iron curtain began lifting more and more and now Soviet people were allowed to leave. First my grandparents visited Nana in1988. They came back in awe, and that was the first time the question was raised of whether or not my family should immigrate. My parents wanted to see the West for themselves, so in September of 1988, my mom and dad left me and my 3 year old sister and to visit America for 6 weeks. When they came back they said that we were leaving. They said that here in Baku we dwelled on the absolute bottom of the world and that this was no way for us to live or my sister and I to grow up. We needed to move in order to have a better life.
It was actually not up to me whether or not we immigrated. It was up to my parents. Even though I was 18, I was very much a homebody. I had hated sleep away camp before and that was the only time I had been away from my family. I never traveled on my own. I wasn't childish, I had a lot of grown up responsibilities, yet at the same time I was definitely not an independent adult. I was sure that whatever my parents decided I was going to abide by.
Before I immigrated I was always a student. I had never had a job. The schooling system in the Soviet Union was going to elementary, middle and high school with the same 40 people for 10 years until you graduated. You are really closely knit with your class, they become almost your second family. I was a straight A student, a really good student. It was encouraged in my family. From my childhood, I was reprimanded for bad grades. The few times I got a B, my parents were very upset with me. But that was in my earlier years. Later on I had developed very strict study habits, and myself ended up viewing a B as a disaster.
As I was growing up, I had a lot of short lived hobbies. My parents wanted me in sports but I was never particularly athletic. Their efforts to put me in any ballet or gymnastics classes were futile. I actually took aerobics with my mom at her factory and I was so embarrassed because I was the only 13 year old in a room of “really old” 30 year old women. I played some basketball for a while with my peers. At the age of 12 I also fell in love with making stuffed animals and dolls and I really stuck with that. The toy stores were always empty so it was such a great feeling to create something that looked like it came from such an expensive store.
My major extracurricular activity was English. I studied English like some kids now study piano. I had a tutor who would come to my house twice a week and he/she would give me reading, writing, and grammar assignments. I read English books, having to look up words I didn't understand. This went on probably from the time I was five until the time I was sixteen every week of my life. I absolutely despised it. I didn't like studying. I didn't like not playing with my friends. But how useful it proved to be when I came to America!
When I was in 8th grade, I joined a club called “Young Medic.” So once a week this group of 10 or so people met in the actual medical university of our city and we took classes. The same classes that were taken by the real medical students. We would take an exam at the end of the year and would graduate to the next class level.
After I graduated from high school I graduated as the equivalent of the valedictorian. If you had straight A's you were the “gold medalist” and if you had only one B you were the “silver medalist”. So technically I was a silver medalist. But if you were a medalist it gave you a priority on University application. In order to get into a university, everyone would take 3 exams, one of them being the core subject exam. Your cumulative score on these three exams would determine if you were admitted. If you were a medalist and got an A on that core subject exam you didn't have to take the other two exams, and were automatically admitted. My entire last year of high school was spent studying for that exam. I was tutored for Biology and my mom helped me with Chemistry. I got admitted to Medical School in 1987. I had finished one year of it, and then when my parents left for America, I had just started my second year.
While visiting the US my parents were amazed at the different level of problems Americans faced on a day to day basis. When I was growing up, our problems were almost primitive. We had to get in line for dairy early enough or we wouldn't have any for the day. In America people strived for professional fulfillment. They wanted an education, a great job. My parents thought that was more fitting for the 20th century. Second, they were amazed at the freedom of movement. People easily moved from city to city, state to state, even country to country. You were truly free. The horizons literally expanded. We were looking at pictures of my aunts life and saw her travels. I understand now that she was living on a fairly modest income but to us she was living the life of luxury. She had two cars. Her husband Alex had just bought a boat for water skiing. It really felt like the American dream was so opulent. My parents wanted to give me all those opportunities to live my life without worrying about those “primitive problems” of the USSR.
So when my parents came back they told me that we were leaving. But, until we had an actual official permission to leave I continued school and finished one more semester. I don't think we really had a ton of trouble with applying for immigration. Russia had periods of “on and off” where people were allowed to immigrate. We were in an “on” period and it seemed like everyone was immigrating at the same time as us.
As soon as we got our exit Visas I dropped out of medical school. It made no sense for me to attend classes because we knew that June 22 was our “leave” date. In order to keep me from being sad about leaving, my parents had tons of immigration projects. I was in charge of moving my dads library. And I mailed 10-20 pounds of books in packages to America every week. Eventually, we arrived to the US before our books. But each time a package arrived it was like meeting an old friend. We weren't allowed to bring out any expensive items out of the country, like antique books, or gold or jewelry.
I was very unhappy that as a Jew I had to work harder than others to achieve the same goal back in the USSR. I eventually came to terms with it but I always felt angry that it was so unfair. I could see myself knowing more than some of the non-Jewish children, and getting the same grades. Anti-Semitism was fairly obvious in the USSR as a whole but in Azerbaijan, the Jews were respected by the locals. We were seen as “very smart and learned people”. In fact the Azerbaijanis would go out of their way to get a Jewish doctors, lawyers, or teachers. But at the same time they had no problem with the unequal treatment of the Jews and their unequal opportunities. I had a couple of anti-Semitic teachers. But overall, I did not experience the full degree of anti-Semitism as someone would in Russia proper.
Growing up I saw a lot of pictures of America. When I arrived here, and saw it in real life, it was very much like my imagination. I was even able to recognize some buildings or bridges. I imagined it as a land of plenty. When my parents had been in America in '87 they brought me back a free grocery store calendar. Each month was a photograph of a food section in the store. My friends and I at school would huddle around this prized possession and call dibs on which food we had “eaten”. Our favorite was the cold cuts page, which was October. Everyone would point screaming, “I call the Salami” or “I call the Roast Beef” and I would yell, “Guys, guys, no one touch the calendar. This is crazy”. I imagined America as this huge cornucopia with food coming out of it. I remember the day when we first landed in Vienna and I being depressed about leaving my friends and my life. We stopped by this tiny little convenience store in the airport and saw these packages of yogurt. They were each individually wrapped with this drawing of a fruit on it. I had never seen anything like it, knowing only the yogurt that was sold in the ugly 2 lb containers. My tears dried out and my parents told me how this was just a little convenience store in Vienna and how the real America was going to be so much better. They were definitely right.
I didn't find it hard to blend in in America because I was honestly so busy. I needed to learn to drive. I needed to figure out the American college system. I had a hard time understanding that I could choose my own classes. And I needed to figure out the graduation requirements in order to get into medical school because that was the only constant. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be a doctor. The day we arrived we bought a car because we had no way to get around. It was a two door Ford Thunderbird 1979, 10 years old. It was absolutely huge. The next day we went and applied for Social Security numbers. We also met with a lady named Judy Berg who helped me get into college in the first place. I have no idea how she did it, I think that the director of admissions was a close personal friend of hers. As I was applying for college I actually had to have Ms. Berg walk around with me explaining that, “this girl doesn't have a social security number, but she will soon.”.
When you ask me what was different, and what was the same in America, a lot was different, mainly the obvious. But one thing that was the same was that it really helped if “ you knew someone”. Even there were so many opportunities, your possibilities expanded depending on who you knew. It worked in my favor a lot, but also made me sad. But on the other hand, who you know is a function of who you are.
My first Thanksgiving in America was actually very funny. I had been contacted by my college international students’ office. They asked whether I wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving with an American family. I agreed. At the time I have never celebrated Thanksgiving, but my aunt Nana had a traditional dinner planned. In Russian tradition we always started our meals later, while Americans tended to eat a little earlier. So this family contacted me and said that they would have dinner at 1 o'clock and would bring me back to Nana's at 3. They expected some hungry Russian girl dressed in furs, they expected me to be almost caveman like. Then they brought me back to Nana's house, which was probably twice the size of their house, with art on every wall, and a huge table of caviar and Russian spreads in the center. Nana had even invited them to stay but they refused.
We also thought that American flea markets were the most amazing thing in the universe. We could buy an entire bag of clothes for $1. We could find the coolest things: picture frames, crystal glasses. We would spend $3 per person and come home with a trunk full of new things. That was probably what surprised me so much about America. That you could buy so much for so little.
It was very hard for me to find new friends in America. I couldn't relate to American people my age. They seemed harder to understand them than adults. They spoke unfamiliar slang, and I was mortified of being uncool and felt better not participating than becoming the butt of people's jokes. All these young people seemed so carefree and I felt like a complete nerd. I had a hard time learning to smile. People were more serious back in the USSR. They wouldn't smile as much, even for the pictures.
Finding work was not too hard. I held many jobs at a time. If I wasn't studying I was working. I was always very hardworking, very goal oriented. My time was always precious. I still loved having a good time which hasn't changed since my immigration. I grew up a lot and became significantly more independent in America. My parent's were so much more busy. I matured.
I finally felt like an American when I was giving my citizenship oath.
I had regular nightmares about somehow getting stuck in the USSR, and being unable to leave. I talked to many other immigrants and found out it was actually a pretty common nightmare.
I don't consciously try to remember of forget my life back in the Soviet Union. I think that our mind is like a digital camera, erasing the pictures that didn't come out to well or things that weren't making us happy. It saves the ones we think are good. I think we remember an edited version of our lives and I am fine with that.
I was taught to keep my Jewish identity a secret in Russia. The fact that Nana wrote to us, or the fact that we had a seder or ate Matzah were “not to be repeated at school” as my grandmother said. Being able to discuss these things openly was liberating. When I first came to America, although I could be a part of the Jewish community now, I sometimes felt myself an outsider. I lacked the education, I could not read. I felt very out of place in many congregations, like I was playing a game and constantly losing. But, I was happy to be part of the Jewish entity. To this day, I am still a little uneasy about celebrating my Jewish identity very openly. I'm afraid of being an open target for antisemitism. I would probably be more afraid of celebrating my Jewishness openly than actually feel proud of it, which is a sad realization.
In the Soviet Union it was pressed into me that I am not Russian. Your ethnicity was written on the first page of your passport, on the fifth line. Mine said that I was Jewish. People would ask, “Do you have a good fifth line?”. Mine, obviously was one of the worse fifth lines to have while living in USSR. When I came to America and people would say that I was Russian it was very tough for me to understand. No one in America considered me being Jewish, my background. In America that was not my ethnicity, it was my religion. In my heart I'm a mixture of Russian, Jewish, and American. When I came to America I though that I felt 80% Russian and 20% American Jewish. Over the years, I feel, these numbers have reversed. Now I would say that I am 80% American Jewish, and 20% Russian. I feel further and further away from the Russian culture. I am not caught up on the current events. I feel like my children are going to be completely American.
I would tell my children to cherish what you have around you and to understand that the freedoms and the riches that are given to you are not to be taken for granted. When you come to appreciate the fact that you can vote, study, learn, that when you open a faucet hot water can come out, that you don't have to wait in lines, and that you can worship whatever god you want, you don't take it for granted. People fought for that. People died for that. And people changed their lives and suffered hardships in order for you to have that. So enjoy ever single day of your life. Enjoy simple pleasures. And be grateful to this country because despite all it’s imperfections it is still the greatest country in the world. And I would not want to live anywhere else.”