Chapter One: Surreal
I try to remember how it all happened, how I felt when we got on the plane to leave our life in Estonia behind and come to US. But I can’t. Not really. It’s like remembering snippets from a movie but not the whole movie.
I remember feeling utterly surreal. I felt that I sort of checked in my emotions, locked them in the safe until the next step. Until I knew for sure how I should feel.
After all, this wasn’t the first close encounter. We tried to immigrate to US in 1988 or 87, before my sister was born. It was just mom and I. But we had different last names, because my mom got re-married and there was one typo in my last name, which got us denied the beginning of a new life. One wrong letter changed our lives forever.
So we stayed in Estonia, my mom reconciled with my stepfather and in 1989 my sister was born. But not long after the birth of my sister things took a turn for the worse when my stepfather fell off the wagon of sobriety and his alcoholism took over his life completely.
There were some dark times…darker than I care to remember…
But we were living it all behind. I wasn’t for sure that we were, in fact I just went through the motions, feeling nervous, scared, excited but at the same time somehow numb. Like I didn’t believe what was happening.
I didn’t look at Estonia with the thoughts that I would see it for the very last time. We fled Estonia leaving everything behind and flew into the unknown.
We had just 2 small bags, my sister was 4 and I was 15. This was my first time on a plane.
And even sitting in the passenger seat, I still didn’t believe that it was actually happening. I remember we had to make a stop in Helsinki. We sat in the airport where I was surprised to see that most people smoked, it all looked so foreign and I was captivated by everything going on around me.
I guess that’s what I remember most about Helsinki, sparkling clean bathrooms of the airport and clouds of cigarette smoke. I wondered if it would be the same in America.
We landed in New York airport on December 27, 1993.
There were so many different people, the colors, flow of people and not knowing where to go to pick up our bags terrified me.
It was scary and fascinating at the same time.
We finally got our bags and were walking down the hallway where our friends were supposed to meet us.
Scared and exhausted we were looking for our friends who were waiting to greet us. We looked at other expecting faces, so different from the faces I was used to, they terrified me, we weren’t exposed to many other races and nationalities growing up in Estonia.
I have seen an African American people in Moscow, but there were far and few in between. There was one African American boy in our school, who was everyone’s fascination. I so wanted to talk to him, to touch his hair and beautiful, dark skin…but he wasn’t in my class and so I didn’t get a chance to do that.
What I remember most about those first few hectic moments of panic in the airport, is a very tall African American (or maybe she was just African) lady, she had on a very bright national African dress, with a head wrap that matched it and around her neck was a necklace made up of large plastic fruits, mostly oranges. I had never seen anyone so colorful! Another African American person had dreadlocks which I have never seen.
It seemed absolutely surreal.
As we were walking I realized in that moment that I vaguely remembered my mom’s friend and that I didn’t remember what her husband looked like at all. I remember my little sister ran up to a woman for a hug, because for a moment we thought it was Luba, my mom’s friend. We quickly realized that it wasn’t.
For a second I had a chilling thought, what if there wasn’t anyone expecting us? Luckily my doubts quickly passed as we reunited with our friends.
We actually still have a photo of the 3 of us walking through the airport. My sister looked so tiny. Beside us in a photo is a large white orb, we always joked around and would say that we brought our ghost/spirit with us.
As we walked through the airport I already felt like an alien from another planet, it was so different, people, clothes, their hairstyles, it all seemed overwhelming and made me feel anxious, like an increasingly loud drum drawing closer and closer. I felt relieved to finally get in the backseat of the car and embrace the darkness as I closed my eyes.
From New York airport it was a long 12 hour ride to Charlotte, NC. We passed lit up gas stations which I have never seen and road tolls, I was exhausted, we all were, it was a long plane ride and I didn’t sleep during any of it. As we drove down the highways, I was looking outside the window, as we rushed through the darkness, I remember thinking to myself: “Is this real? Is this really happening? We really are in America. We made it.”
By the time we got to their house I was more tired than I have ever been in my life. Everything was a blur and I just wanted to sleep.
I have never seen a house like theirs. It was a 2 story house with a glass front door. I looked at it in disbelief and wondered how is it that they’re not getting robbed?
It seemed so beautiful to me, the house, furniture and when I got upstairs to Angelina’s room, I felt like I was in a fairytale. Angelina was about 10 I guess, she was Luba’s daughter, we played together when she was a bit younger in Estonia. Our moms would come visit each other once in a while.
Her bedroom was designed with pink and purple colors and her bed had a hanging canopy. I thought she was the luckiest girl in the world.
I don’t remember falling asleep or how long I slept, it was many, many hours, maybe even the whole day.
I remembered waking up and heading downstairs. The first food I tried was cereal Lucky Charms, I have never had cereal before and it tasted like a slightly sweetened cardboard that shouldn’t have been edible.
Actually nothing tasted good at first, everything tasted very different, butter, milk, bread, it was weird.
We sat on the plush, soft sofa in their specious living room and the first thing we watched was the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast. I wanted to cry. This was one of the best moments in my life. The big color TV and the movie, it all overwhelmed me with its beauty and colors.
It’s still my favorite one, because I remember just how I felt when I saw it. Luba translated, well, some of her translations were kind of funny, and years later we laughed about it. When she told us someone said: “I need a dozen eggs”, they were really saying “I need success!” ha ha or vice versa. Why do I remember that?
Mom knew some English; I studied English in school but couldn’t really say more than just a couple of words.
We would spend the next 3 months in their house, sharing one bed between the three of us and only getting out to walk outside. They lived in the newly developed area, so the only thing was there are the other houses and a road. There were little walkways and a lake, there was also a small square with a clock tower and a water fountain. Nearby was the only restaurant, more like a trailer actually, mom spend the only $20 she had to her name on a burger couple of times which the three of us shared. Food was scarce in Luba’s house, they hardly cooked, so we had made some plain noodles most of the time, we were never taken out anywhere for the 3 months we spend living with her.
One of the first places Russians usually go after immigrating to US is the grocery store. We heard stories about that and we were dreaming of going there.
I am not sure how to even express that unless you’re from another country or have seen how other, less fortunate live around the world. It’s kind of life changing.