20 years in, and still not taking America for granted

20 years ago today, my parents and I moved to San Francisco from Moldova, a decision that has had more impact on my life than anything else thus far. It’s strange to be celebrating this milestone from Turkey, but also fitting. When I get lost in the supermarket, when I miss familiar foods, when I cannot explain basic requests, such as haircuts, I am comforted by the thought that this struggle is temporary. I will go back home, when I choose, and pick up my life again in a familiar language, on familiar streets. My parents, as immigrants, had no such comfort. They knew they were staying for good, no matter what.

I remember the first time my mother asked me if I would want to go to the United States. I was six years old. My uncle and his family had already moved a few years ahead of us, and based on the packages of candy and toys and photos they sent us, life there seemed glamorous and exotic. “Sure,” I said, “I’d love to visit!” My mother paused. “No, not to visit… to live there, forever.”

I don’t remember my response. With a child’s equanimity, I accepted the change easily. Even the trips to Moscow for our immigration interviews, my parents and paternal grandparents squeezed into one hotel room on cots, and, later, our tiny crowded apartment, as furniture moved out and was replaced by bags and suitcases – it all felt like an adventure, something out of books.

The stress of closing up shop on our old life remains in my memory as hazily frantic but without details, but I remember the tension of those first months and years in the US. My parents had studied English in university, years ago, and now they had to live the language daily, oversaturated with it. They had to find work, which took months, and included menial interludes such as stringing beads for a jewelry company. We ate a lot of Wonderbread, even as we passed Russian grocery stores daily in our neighborhood. The stress of the move reverberated and echoed in our roomy American apartment, which felt too small for 4 exhausted adults trying to readjust their entire lives, which they had comfortably settled already, elsewhere.

As a kid, I was content with the superficial upgrades post-immigration: the ability to eat fruit any day of the year, or getting a new toy. I was excited by school and the beach and by friendly American strangers, who said hi and smiled for no reason at all. It dawned on me only later, slowly, that it took my family serious guts to move to a new country, sight unseen, simply on the promise that it would be better. It’s been 20 years, and I still think about it almost daily. I take nothing for granted. So this post is dedicated to my parents, real Thanksgiving-celebrating, American-flag flying, borsch-with-soybeans-making, gutsy Americans with Russian accents.