For my family, expectations prior to their immigration from the Soviet Union to the light at the end of the tunnel that was America were that their arrival would be marked by a mix of excitement and fear. This land was supposed to be the answer to all of the problems of my parents, sister, and grandparents, but it was also a scary foreign land that was only spoken of as an unattainable myth of sorts. However, my family's entrance into the States ended up consisting largely of an emotion that they were not all too prepared for: utter cluelessness. Confusion followed by relief was the overarching theme of the welcome stories of my sister, mother, and grandmother.
They arrive in JFK airport and they're waiting for their flight to Boston. Mind you, this is after an entire two days of slow traveling from Italy to New York; they've barely eaten anything in that time, they have little to no American money, and are beyond exhausted. Oh, and that's not to mention that their English-speaking capabilities would struggle to match up to that of an infants.
As they sit and wait for the final leg of their long, long journey out of the land that has always been their home, an American woman sitting beside them asks who they are and what their deal is. So my mother manages to use her limited vocabulary to explain that they are fresh-off-the-boat immigrants; they are tired and extremely hungry. My sister Rita was particularly anguished with the temporary starvation, and my family's financial situation did not quite merit buying some overpriced airport snacks.
The woman, though, sees Rita's state of hunger and reaches into her backpack. Out she pulls some mysterious colorful bag and pours a few colorful circles into young Rita's hand. Rita looks at the spherical objects—clearly puzzled by them—and asks the woman what they are. The woman gasps in response and gives my sister a look of unprecedented pity. And then she says,
"Oh dear child! Oh no! I'm so so sorry—I didn't know you were even deprived of M&Ms back in Russia! You poor thing!"
Welcome to America, Rita—a land where small, round, colored chocolates are one of the food staples.
Eventually, they leave JFK for the roughly half-hour flight to their soon-to-be-home of Boston. As they are approaching Boston, my mother Galina realizes that the plane is falling right into the ocean. She looks out the window, sees the steep dive of the plane and the Atlantic below, and her heart stops. After everything; after two days of travel; after nearly three months of waiting in Italy; after having to hide Rita in the overhead compartment of the train leaving the Soviet Union because her passport was taken; after all that they have been through, this is how it will end. They are about to meet death head on in a matter of seconds.
But wait! What is going on, she thinks? Nothing seems to be wrong with the plane! Why in the world are they falling?! Before my mother could even truly register the flood of emotions taking place inside her mind, the plane evens out and out of nowhere Logan Airport appears to give them a landing ground and save the day. After all, their story will see a happy ending.
Welcome to America, Galina—a land where, sometimes, airports are constructed at the very edge of the ocean.
Two days of travel can take quite a toll on someone like my elderly grandmother, Mila. After hours of aches and pains during their journey, my grandmother arrives in Boston with pain in her right leg that refuses to let her even stand. During the trip, she took all the painkillers that my family could get—from the air hostesses, from fellow passengers, from anyone! Yet, the pain was still so great that she couldn't even sleep.
Immediately after arriving, my grandmother is taken to the Beth Israel emergency room. Out of some room, the nurse rolls up some large machine with a cord and a probe at the end of it—a machine never seen back in Russia. At this point, my already constantly-worrying grandmother is in a state of panic; she is already convinced that she must have some fatal illness or, if lucky, she will only loose the use of her leg.
Without waiting for her permission, the nurse starts sticking the probe into my grandmothers face. My grandmother is terrified and simply confused: what is this machine?! What is she sticking into my mouth?! After some reassurance, however, the nurse explained to my grandmother that the probe was a plain thermometer. That is all. And after a few pills, a bandage, and a couple of hours, all the pain had completely dissipated.
Welcome to America, Mila—a land where thermometers are often put into the patient's mouth, not their armpit.
My family doesn't quite have an incredible immigration story filled with blood, sweat and tears. Neither do we have some crazy tale of luck and hilarious happenings. But my family does have the one thing that most, if not all, immigration stories contain—not knowing what to expect. Whether it's a bag of M&Ms, an airport on the coast, or a modern medical thermometer, one just can't know what their own Welcome to America will hold.
The story was written by Dan Rozenblum, counselor at Camp Sunapee.