Settling In - Part V
My parents had found an apartment for us in Cleveland. When I walked into the apartment, I was blown away by the sheer enormity of it. It was a two-bedroom apartment that also had a large living room, a kitchen and a breakfast area. It was on the second floor, right above the lobby, so the kids could run around all they wanted and nobody would complain, because there were no neighbors downstairs.
The apartment we had in Russia was tiny. There was one room, ten feet by twenty feet, filled to the brim with furniture – wardrobe, bed, crib, chairs, a desk, an old TV set that we had bought from someone that didn’t need it anymore. We were able to save some space by hanging the bookshelves on the walls. We also had a very small foyer, a bathroom, a kitchen 8x8 feet in size. Ever since LilProgrammer was born, Mr. Goldie had been sleeping on the floor in the kitchen. He said that the sound of babies fussing and crying was constantly waking him up and he couldn’t concentrate on his work the next day, so to the kitchen he went. Now we had two bedrooms, so he wouldn’t have to sleep in the kitchen anymore. I could cook anytime I wanted. I was beside myself with joy.
In my excitement, I overlooked the fact that the apartment was facing a major street. I would notice it later. Almost every night, a fire truck would come roaring past our windows, followed by a blaring ambulance, waking the whole family. We learned our lesson. Now we live in a house that faces a cemetery. Except for Memorial Day, it is very peaceful and quiet.
In the evening, an energetic, Russian-speaking woman came to see us.
“Hello, I’m your apartment manager. Welcome to America. You will eat a lot of shit in your first years here, but that’s normal. Everybody goes through that.”
We never did. I used to tell people that we’d probably already met our shit-eating quota when we lived in Russia. Any adversity we had to deal with in America, was very minor compared to what we had already been through.
I woke up at 4 AM to find both kids playing happily in the living room. That was my first experience with jet lag.
Next morning, I got my first job offer in America. The bearer of the good news was the apartment manager.
“Hi, I have a great opportunity for you. You don’t know it yet, but your neighbor next door has one-year-old twins and she needs a babysitter. She will pay you three dollars an hour. Should I tell her that you agree?”
“Um, who’s going to watch my children while I watch her children?”
“Just watch all four of them together, it’s easy,” helpfully offered the apartment manager, who herself had one child.
I thought about it for a minute. I had already heard that Americans liked to sue. What if something happened to this neighbor’s kids on my watch? And it definitely would, if I tried to keep an eye on four small kids at once. She’d sue us for everything we had, and probably a lot more, since we didn’t really have anything. Besides, I was still planning on going back to school. How would I study while watching four kids?
“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass. I plan to go back to school, you know.”
“It’s your call. I wouldn’t turn it down if I were you. It is a great offer.”
I felt slightly guilty for turning down an awesome, three-bucks-per-hour job, but there was just no way I could pull that off.
From The Ground Up
I think we refugees are lucky compared to born Americans or other groups of immigrants (but not for the reasons they think we are!) I think that we are lucky in that we get exposed to a wide variety of social groups in this country; not everyone who was born here, or came here to work as a professional, has this opportunity. When we come here, we start from the bottom. We live in bad neighborhoods, because we cannot afford to live anywhere else. We shop at the cheapest grocery stores; we buy our clothes at Goodwill, and our household items at Dollar Tree. We use public transportation, because we don’t have cars and we don’t know how to drive. And each of us gets to visit the Welfare office at least once. I know for myself that this past experience helps me appreciate what I have now; it also helps me better understand people who still are in this situation, and help them to the extent that I can.
Unfortunately, during this time, we also encounter a lot of people that live at the bottom, are content with it, and make no effort to be anywhere else. Ironically, this is same kind of people that are afraid of immigrants, will look down on you like you’re the scum of the earth, and will treat you like you’re mentally retarded, just because you speak English with an accent. I speak from experience. When you’re stuck in these circles for too long, it’s easy to assume that all Americans are like that. Tales of ignorant, fat, hamburger-chewing and soda-chugging Americans are all too common among new immigrants.
In truth, I didn’t even notice that we lived at poverty level during our first year in the country. We had our own apartment with separate rooms. We could buy all the food we wanted at Marc’s, and on occasion, we’d even go all the way out and shop at Tops (in those days known as Finast). We had a color TV. Heck, we were rich. I was happy.