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.

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Faux-border crossings.

My first disappointment in Transdnistria comes right at the border, when the border guard does not stamp my passport. In the currency of world traveling, a stamp from a non-quite-real country would offer top dollar bragging rights. But since it is a not-quite-real country, it seems they are not allowed to stamp passports willy nilly, so I meekly accept my returned passport and a flimsy paper visa and resist asking the fatigue-clad border patrol for a photo.

Transdnistria’s main appeal, for a tourist, is its gray zone status, essentially independent yet not recognized, a pseudo-Soviet enclave with its own government, police, flag, currency and stamps. It’s a short minibus ride from Kishinev, Moldova, where I am visiting family, and where no one is particularly excited about visiting this upstart republic, but my cousins decide to humor their Americanized sibling with this trip.

My passport-related disappointment evaporates as we get into central Tiraspol, Transdnistria’s capital. For one thing, in front of a staid government building, there is a high pedestal topped with Lenin in a cape. A cape! For another, I spot a Soviet tank. The tank is part of a war memorial and is covered with small children holding balloons while their mother snaps photos. I wait for the children to disembark and then I, too, take a photo next to the tank, gleefully, like the tourist I am.  Then we take a photo next to a billboard with the Transdnistrian coat of arms, for good measure. It’s been 10 years since the war of independence and the town is adorned with festive billboards featuring an emblem of wholesome-looking wheat, grapes and corn surrounding a hammer and sickle (Moldova’s old crest, in fact, with some editing – it no longer proclaims, “Workers of all countries, unite!” but is replaced with the succinct “PMR,” for “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”).

Tiraspol is tidy and not especially bustling, but every step feels loaded with meaning – we’re in Transdnistria, and it doesn’t even exist! I have an urge to send out postcards from the twilight zone, so we walk up the main drag to the post office. I write a few cards with great enthusiasm only to be deflated after I’m told that they need Moldovan stamps. Transdnistrian stamps apparently turn into pumpkins upon crossing the border. In typical post-Soviet fashion, I am also told that sticking decorative Transdnistrian stamps onto my cards might result in them  being returned to sender, even though technically I’d be adding postage. You win round 2, Transdnistria.

To console ourselves, we spend our monopoly-money bills on some local beers and sit across from the Parliament, Lenin’s bust serenely staring out at us, then meander over to the train station past buildings decorated with old Soviet reliefs and mosaics. Then, anonymous apartment blocks, leafy courtyards, overgrown sidewalks – Transdnistria is much like Moldova, but with more Lenins. What a difference a border makes, charming this city into something much more exotic than the sum of its buildings and streets.  Existent or not, I am still counting Transdnistria towards my visited-countries list – even if I’ll have to accept the photos, not the passport stamp, as proof.