I still vividly remember landing at JFK airport on December 29, 1989. My son, Arseni, was 6 years old and this was his first flight. His ears bothered him during the descent and he was extremely cranky. We were armed with two suitcases, my Russian-style fur coat, three English words and an attitude that we were the best.
Little did we know…
My ex-husband, Valery, who had arrived three months earlier on a cultural exchange program at Illinois State University met us at the airport in a newly purchased Chevy station wagon, which ate all our savings plus added a substantial debt. Welcome to America! AND, IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT! IT WAS BEAUTIFUL! While we drove from New York to Chicago I kept thinking I was in the middle of some fairytale with the beautiful Christmas lights everywhere, clean streets and nice people of all possible colors.
My first trip to Walmart was a life-changing experience. I thought I would faint from the richness of it. We ate hot dogs every day from Kroger’s and felt that we were a privileged class. The Polish airline lost one of our two suitcases and the kind people of Normal, Illinois donated a huge bag of clothes for Arseni. At that point, I had no idea that pajamas for boys were a little different from sweat suits and sent Arseni to school in pajamas on a regular basis. Nobody wanted to hurt my feelings and I did not know about it until a few years later when Arseni told me that those pajama bottoms really were not meant to wear in public…
America embraced and humanized us. I saw how kids crossed the streets on their way to school and it made me feel safe for my son. I saw how people opened their homes and their hearts to us, total strangers from the Soviet Union. I saw tremendous interest, kindness, and compassion. My first American friend was Wanda Hoover, president of the Bloomington-Normal Sister City organization, a totally volunteer organization that helped us tremendously during that first year in Illinois. It was the first time in my life I saw people who wanted to help, but wanted nothing in return.
Fast-forward 20 years…my son, the one who went to school for his English as a Second Language program with Mrs. Apple in pajamas is now a lawyer at Tesoro and dresses appropriately. And look at me… I, who came to this country with three words of English, am writing a blog! I learn more and more about this country and its people and political system every day. Regardless of how not perfect it is, this is the best I know. I am a student for life and never take for granted the fact that everyone here openly talks about anything they want. Mother Russia gave me birth, education and my cultural background. America gave me life.
This Thursday I am having my family over for the Thanksgiving holiday that we take very personally. We are the first generation of pilgrims and we have a lot of thanking to do. Robert likes the traditional American Thanksgiving menu, but we are still going to squeeze in a few Russian dishes along with the turkey and gravy that I am still trying to master after 22 years. After all, this is Thanksgiving – Russian Style!