July 22, 2013
I know there are people who move to the U.S and still refer to where they came from as “my country.” That wasn’t my parents and not just because they took our Soviet passports at the gate, called us traitors and told us to never return. They were here, in America, to be Americans and my brother and I were to be nothing but.
It didn’t go quite that smoothly, however. It might be news to some people but being Soviet-born and living in America in the 1980’s did not make me very popular with the other kids. Then Ivan Drago casually said “if he dies, he dies” while Apollo Creed lay dying and all hell broke loose. Assuring the other kids that I was totally, totally rooting for Rocky too only worked til they found out I hadn’t seen the movie (or, really, any movies. In fact the only movies I can remember seeing in theaters until that point were “Muppets Take Manhattan” and “Splash” so basically anytime anyone mentioned movies I’d talk about the love story between Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah or Kermit and Miss Piggie). Added to the fact that I never knew anything about any TV shows (we had no TV in the living room, just a small one in the kitchen which was turned on during hurricanes and wars) and my mom packed me weird lunches and dressed me funny and, in that hard-to-remember era when Russians were rare in Brooklyn, I didn’t have the easiest time.
When my father found out some kids were calling me “Commie” he tried to give me a comeback. “Just say ‘if I were a Commie I wouldn’t have left Russia.’”
The 8 year olds will definitely understand that.
There wasn’t even a long pause before they called me Commie again.
But here’s the thing about America, and yes I’ve noted this before, after awhile you’re just…American. I could keep a chip on my shoulder forever about being teased as a child, I could retreat into the culture I came from because some kids were jerks or I could move on with becoming who my parents brought me here to be.
Being an immigrant is part of my identity, I don’t deny that. Even 35 years later the fact that I learned another language before I learned English means that I frequently google words I know to be sure I’m using them correctly. I mispronounce words I learned in books. But more than that there’s an American trait that I wasn’t born with but work at developing. Other cultures think of it as American niceness, politeness. When I lived in Scotland they’d imitate the American accent and say “have a nice day!” But that’s not quite it. It’s a sense of fairness and a dogged (I just googled “dogged” to be sure it meant what I thought it meant) pursuit of right. When the Snowden/NSA story hit a few weeks ago the commentary I heard from other immigrants was of course the government is spying on us whenever they feel like it. And of course they’re not going to just do it to fight terrorists. And of course there’s nothing we can do about it. On the IRS scandal, of course the government is going to use it to get their political enemies.
But people born in a country where doing the right thing is celebrated and shopkeepers tell you what kind of day to have don’t just take things like that in stride. They weren’t born in a country where hundreds of years of backward government had led to this kind of cynicism that gets passed on from parents to children. They were born in a new country, a country that was formed to be better. Even the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial fits that. The protestors don’t like the decision of a fair trial so they take to the streets. At no point are any of the protestors concerned that they’ll go to jail for making the state look bad. In the place I was born sham trials exist to this day and those who protest those trials risk being next. The U.S has black marks in its history, sure, but when Jay-Z says “I thought this was America, people” it’s because even he knows what America means. “I thought this was Cuba, people” or “I thought this was Russia, people” doesn’t have quite the same connotation.
I’m two days late on my 35th Americaversary post because I’ve had an incredibly eventful year which leaves me with almost no free time to write (or sit, or sleep, or breathe) like I used to. In September I started a business and in February I had a son. I’ve only written three things since Jack was born and two of them were about how hard my life is right now (actually, the third kind of was too). I know talk of the “American Dream” can be cliche but despite how difficult things currently are for me I feel like I’m living in it. I had an idea for a business and (with an awesome business partner) went for it. I get to raise my children, Jack and Sadie, in freedom, I get to have more than one child (I know people all over the world have lots of babies but one of the most poignant stories of my youth were my parents telling me that if we had stayed in the Soviet Union I would have been an only child. They saw life there as hell and wouldn’t add another kid to that.), I get to marry the love of my life. I am so grateful for all I have and each July 20th I remember how easy it would have been to have none of it.
My family on Father’s Day:
Previous July 20th posts:
2003 (scroll down a little to July 18).