Maria Belotserkovsky

The Unofficial Me


As I look back on the years of my life that I can honestly call rational, one experience stands out as having had more impact on my life than any other: immigrating/emigrating/coming to America.

In 1989, my parents decided that Russia was neither a good home for their future, nor was it a good place to raise me. It was pointless to expect for their only daughter to receive fair opportunities in a land where anti-Semitism thrived on governmental consent; and so they uprooted themselves, leaving everything behind to begin their lives again/from scratch. As a seven year-old, I did not quite understand what was going on. I recall, once my grandmother called to ask what my mother was doing, and I innocently replied, "She’s learning some language because we’re going on vacation." As we sold our apartment, gave away our furniture and packed, I realized that this was no vacation. Honestly, I cannot say that I knew what exactly was happening, but whatever it was, it was serious.

Contrary to popular belief, our journey was not simply an airplane ride. Rather it was a five month European "tour" during which we endured the most brutally stereotypical poverty that one can imagine: from selling our belongings to get by, to spending the night on the streets of Italy because our apartment was given to someone else.

As challenging as this pilgrimage had been, the hardships truly began at the outset of our lives as "Americans." Not to mention the difficulties which my parents faced in building a new life, I had to adjust as well. On my first day of school, the language barrier was unbearable. As I stood there, in the middle of my second grade classroom, my teacher proceeded to speak to me in a slow and monotonous manner; but slow and monotonous was not the same as understandable. I did not speak English—fast or slow. For half of that year, I sat at my desk motionless, fearing that any movement would be misinterpreted as my willingness to volunteer. While the rest of my classmates enjoyed the leisurely "coloring-book life," I was spending my days wondering whether I would feel like an alien for the rest of my life. People spoke differently, dressed differently, and generally lived differently than I had. It was some sort of alternate/parallel universe; almost as bizarre as living in black and white, only it was everything other than the color scheme that was strange. As the second grade played hopscotch during recess, I was sitting in a room with my ESL teacher learning how to discern a cat from a dog.

As the year progressed, I began to feel more welcome, and somehow America began to make more sense. Now, I cannot even imagine exactly what took place, or even how it took place, but by the next year, I had become the pioneer graduate of my ESL program and achieved the position of the best reader in Mrs. Zeitsoff’s third grade class. Outside of school, everything was changing, as well. We moved into a house, bought two cars and began to grasp the random concepts of American life. Suddenly, I felt like the world had adjusted to me (for acknowledging self-transformation would have been harder than embracing the all-American aversion to borscht.) However, in all seriousness, I was no longer an alien. Of course, I still had much more adapting to do; but at least now, I could do some of that adapting in English.

As I look back on this momentous chapter of my life, I am overcome with ambivalent emotions. I feel compelled to laugh and to cry. Had I known any better, I would have most likely felt enormous pity towards myself, but since both my age and my situation restrained my knowledge, my sole sentiment at the time was disorientation—and that is what makes these little memories funny. Whatever my motivation was, I had finally adjusted. America was my home, and nobody questioned my belonging here. Now, as someone who has spent a bigger part of her life in America, I relate to my American friends just as though I grew up with them; yet I still have a strong connection to my Russian roots and culture. There is something engrained in me that will forever label me Russian—if not to "fellow Americans," then at least to myself. If I were to be somehow given a chance to reset my origin in the United States; to somehow escape the hardships, the obstacles and the misunderstandings, which I endured during my all too chaotic quest for freedom, I would not dare simplify a single experience. My life is what has made me what I am. It is the root of my perseverance and the source of my ambition and depth.

Sometime in, perhaps the year 2050, while parading a supermarket in their flying shopping carts, my grandchildren will casually say to their friends, "You’re Russian? My grandmother is from Russia too…but she came here back in the nineteen hundreds, when they still used electricity." It is quite possible that my imagination has gotten the better of me and my sanity altogether in this little excursion to the future, but the mere fact that the memories, which I possess firsthand, will be told and retold to my descendants is overpowering. If not for any reason other than the fact that my life will be viewed by my future kin as the origin of their lives in America, I must succeed. I am the reason for why my parents left their homeland, and for that I owe it to them, as well, to accomplish all that my potential will permit. Most of all, however, (past and future aside) I owe it to myself to push on without limits. If this experience has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that there is nothing I cannot do, and for that I am eternally grateful.