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It Means A Great Deal

E Astrakan's story posted on August 22, 2011 at 4:13 pm. E emigrated from Leningrad, Soviet Union (USSR) to New York, United States in 1991

Immigration at age 4 is a curious thing. It means nothing at the time and means nothing for many years until it finally means a great deal. At least that’s my story. 

I have no memory of my earliest days in St. Petersburg, the city then known as Leningrad. Yet even if I did, I’d bet that the memories would be of things crucial to a 4 year old – a coloring book, a cartoon. Indeed, when I wade through the foggy waters of my first reminiscences formed around age 5-6, those are precisely the things that have stuck. For me, the coloring book was Highlights Kids and the cartoon was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It just so happens that these are American relics of my American childhood. Had my family’s immigration been delayed by a couple of years, the memories would be Russian products of a Russian childhood. And I think that is pretty much the point – as a child, my world was about the simple things. Immigration was certainly not one of them.

Since I was so young when we arrived in America, specifically JFK Airport in the June of 1991, I picked up the language with the ease of a native. My sister, five years older and herself only 9 when we arrived, was not as fortunate. A slight Russian accent (and its subtle betrayal of an immigrant past) is with her forever. I, however, cruised through adolescence as a bona fide American boy. Once I stepped out of the house there was nothing foreign about me. I didn’t think about where I came from. Likewise I didn’t think about where my friends (from immigrant Chinese, Russian, Korean and Puerto Rican families) came from. It just did not matter. Kids at that age think about where they are and where they’re going. Where I went happened to be New Jersey when my family moved to the suburbs when I was 11. I was physically removed from the streets of the Brooklyn melting pot and was psychologically entrenched in the dire social dynamics of a small suburban middle school. The “Russia” stamped on my passport’s country of birth was the farthest thing from my mind.

It remained that way until the later years of high school when some perspective on life and where I came from crept into my consciousness. The process was gradual as I entered young adulthood but there were also some punctuating moments. One particularly jarring moment was at a random dinner table conversation when my mom recalled her first American job as a babysitter for a wealthy family on the Upper West Side. It’s not that I hadn’t known about this job, I guess I just never thought about it. Anyhow, the reality of this not-so-ancient past was shocking. My mom – a top of her class student and exceptional civil engineer – worked as a babysitter in her late 30s for spare cash? Unbelievable. Another revelatory moment was when I thumbed through an old family photo album and saw a picture of my parents in front of the 25th Avenue B-line subway stop near our old home in Brooklyn. They were both dressed in work attire, clearly coming home at the end of another anonymous workday. The photo was taken in the early 90s, probably not long after they secured their first real jobs in the city. It dawned on me that life for my parents must have been awfully daunting at that time. 

They were starting from scratch in middle age, no resources or connections at their side, speaking a foreign tongue on foreign streets, all the while responsible for the futures of two young children. Yet I looked at the photo and saw something profoundly optimistic in the expressions on their faces. While I was busy at home with my Ninja Turtles and my Highlights Kids, my parents carried the immigrant’s burden on that workday, as they would for the next twenty years, and they seemed at peace with it. 

Now as an adult I can wrap my head around the significance of what happened when I was 4 – how immigration to America shaped my childhood, how it altered the course of my life, but most of all what its realities meant for my parents. I can sympathize with their immigrant experience but I cannot empathize with it. And that is exactly the triumph of their story. 


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