I Was a Refugee… And Here’s How It Felt
Last month marked 25 years since my family moved to America as political refugees. But instead celebrating the date, I let it pass silently.
Why? Because there’s more xenophobia in our country now than at any other point in my lifetime. Because the presumptive nominee of a major political party is a bigot and sexist—and his supporters love it. And because hate trumps love on the nightly news.
The America that rescued my family in 1991 still exists. But it stands quietly in the shadows while the other America makes noise.
We can all do our part to ensure the country we love remains true to the values that make us love it. Some may yell; others may Tweet; still others may write scathing takedowns.
I’m taking a quieter approach, which is why I’m sharing an excerpt from my book, telling the story of immigration from a child’s point of view. Feel free to share and recommend if you like the piece.
Confounded (An Excerpt)
When I am seven, my mother tells me I am an alien. It is the day we land in America.
As proof, she points to the card made for aliens. We had received it at the airport in a room filled with slow-moving lines and weary people. We had received it faster than other families since my baby brother had taken off his shoe and thrown it at a uniformed officer.
“This card is a gift,” my mother says, as she hands it over. “It’s the most important one I can give you.”
My brother starts to cry and I pick him up with one arm, making sure his tears and spit stay away from the paper in my other hand. I look at the card once more, unsure if my mother is making a joke.
My babushka’s cousin, whom I’ve never met before, picks us up and brings us to our new home. My mother says the “Jewish Family Service” found it for us. We walk into the two-bedroom apartment and see a dresser, kitchen table, chairs, and one bed. My parents go to the dumpster out back to “rescue” something my brother and I can sleep on.
There is one special thing in our simple apartment — a metal cabinet in the kitchen unlike any I’ve ever seen. It stands on the floor and opens downward like a strange closet door. Inside the cabinet are trays with slots — perfect for holding plates, bowls, mugs, and spoons. Four of each is all it fits. Four of each is all we have.
I spend much of my first days in America skipping back and forth. Besides the kitchen and the bathroom, the whole apartment has wall-to-wall carpet, something else I’ve never seen. This means I can jump up and down without making lots of noise. In between rounds of jumps, I stand on tiptoes and stare into the bathroom mirror.
I have to make sure I’m not turning green. That I don’t have protrusions coming out of my head. That my eyes are still evenly spaced above my nose. After the daily examination, I nod at my reflection. My bouncy curls nod with me. For the moment, everything seems to be where it was before we boarded the plane and my mother gave me that card.
When we first walked inside the terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, I was struck by noise. The mouths of people around me moved, but I could not understand what they said. Everything was a blur of shhh’s, whh’s, and thh’s. I swallowed and rubbed my ears like my mother told me, but the whirlwind of incomprehensible sound continued.
I hummed to calm myself down. Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si, Do, Do, Si, La, Sol, Fa, Mi, Re, Do. My mother did not like me singing, especially in public. In Russia, she used to put her hand over my mouth when I sang my favorite song from preschool, the one that went like this:
Kogda byl Lenin malenʹkiĭ
S kudryavoĭ golovoĭ,
On tozhe begal v valenkakh
Po gorke ledyanoĭ . . .
When Lenin was a little boy,
With a head full of curls,
He too ran around in valenoks,
On these same icy hills . . .
Some songs my mother didn’t mind. One was called Malishka. My father wrote it; it was about how much fathers loved their daughters, but really it was about how much my father loved me. That’s what I told myself. If my mother and I heard that song while doing errands, I sang the whole thing out loud. She never put her hand over my mouth then.
I helped my mother pack the lyrics to that song in a cardboard box. We put other lyrics in there, too, as well as tapes of music videos and pages of my father’s notes. We addressed the box to our new home in America.
We arrived there before it did. In fact, it never came.
What errands were we doing in St. Petersburg when we heard the song? First there was milk, sold in barrels at the dairy. It was my job to remind my mother to bring the metal container from home when we were almost out. Our container held three liters. My mother made sure the shopkeeper filled it all the way to the top. Once we got home, we poured the milk into a pot.
“We need to kill the bacteria,” my mother would say as the milk started to bubble. After the milk cooled, my mother tasted it to see if it was sour. If it wasn’t, we poured it into glass bottles. If it was, we started the whole process over again the next day.
I always wanted tomatoes and cucumbers, but those were only available in summer. In winter, we bought mostly beets, carrots, cabbage, and potatoes. Sometimes we had the mushrooms we pickled at the dacha. They were much better than the ones from the store. Other times, we had to find loose leaf tea for my tea strainer, which looked like a covered teaspoon. I carried this strainer with me to preschool. During snack time, my teacher made me tea. Everyone else had milk, but my mother made special arrangements.
After we bought all the necessities — milk, tea, chicken, pasta, potatoes — we walked around to different stores and saw what they had available that day. My mother always said, “Buy it when you find it, not when you need it.” This was because you could never be sure a store would have things the next time you went. Like the baker, for instance. He often ran out of bread on Saturdays, even though it was the only thing he sold.
A few weeks after our move to America, my mother finds a job at a tailor shop run by a Vietnamese woman.
“She can’t say her ‘s’s correctly,” my mother says to my father when she comes home from the interview. “She asked me to ‘show how I show.’ I had no idea what she wanted me to do. It was embarrassing.”
“Did the volunteer know?”
“No. We just stood there. Then the woman made the shape of a needle going through the air. I said, ‘Ahh,’ and sat down at the machine.”
“At least you got the job,” my father said.
“Yes. Seven dollars and twenty five cents an hour.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Good thing I get ten.”
“I’ve set our grocery budget at forty a week. I think we can make it work.”
The other thing my mother does with the volunteer is go to a local bank, where she opens a checking account. She brings home a small booklet and tells me the papers attached by invisible glue now hold all our money. I take the booklet and shake it, waiting for bills to fall. Nothing happens. I flip it like a flipbook, but all the pages are the same. No cartoon appears. Frustrated my mother would spend all our money on a wad of paper, I hand it back. Then I practice handstands with my dog. My eyes itch from being so close to the brown weave of the carpet. The dog barks to go outside.
My mother is learning to “balance a checkbook.” I tell her I can do it and put the booklet on my head. I walk around the apartment.
“That’s not what I mean,” she says. “Balancing is different in America.”
I get my first lesson in long subtraction and shorter addition.
Now that she has a booklet of money, my mother no longer has to read dusty electric meters or carry around piles of cash to clear our debts. Bills arrive in our mailbox and get paid, as if by magic, the same way. Markets have piles of crisp fruit, rows of fresh milk, and huge refrigerators of meat. My mother gets a headache each time we go, but is thrilled to pay using one piece of paper.
“It feels much safer,” she says.
(Thanks for reading! I‘m happy to provide access to the rest of this story for those who may be interested. ~Lina)