Tanya Zieman, her husband, Yuri, and their daughter, Vera, came to this country two years ago from Moscow. The family, which is Jewish, had been seeking to leave the Soviet Union since 1977, but had been repeatedly denied permission to do so. In 1988, Vera, then age 12, wrote President Ronald Reagan seeking help. In response to this and other appeals on behalf of the family, the Reagans made plans to visit the Ziemans during the Moscow summit in the spring of 1988, but canceled the visit after warnings that it might harm the family's chances of ever leaving the country. A few months later, the Ziemans received permission to emigrate. This is an account of their early days in America.
Our three-day trip from Moscow to Boston -- interrupted by hectic passages through immigration offices on two continents, was a mixture of relief and sorrow, physical exhaustion and emotional exhilaration. Yuri, ghastly pale, was anticipation itself -- just a few more hours and he would hold his older daughter, Galina, his granddaughter and son-in-law in his arms at long last. (Galina and her family had been allowed to emigrate in 1985). Vera looked as if she were about to expire, having turned all shades of green from the airsickness that had plagued her for the entire trip.
I wondered, as we arrived at the Boston airport, what color I might have turned from being hot, fatigued, full of worry -- and then I saw the signs: "Yuri, Tanya, Vera, Welcome to the USA!" I saw them at a distance, being waved above a crowd of cheering people. We had arrived. But there was no strength left to cross the brightly lit hall to meet all the dear ones behind the rail. To dream about this moment all those years, to endure everything to make it happen and then at the end to not be able to handle it! I looked around for some corner to hide in, a place where I would have time to get myself together. But it was too late for that: we were quickly swept up in a wave of hands, kisses, hugs and smiles.
Any immigrant in such a situation would have to cherish fond memories of the first days. The care, attention and warmth of the people everywhere. Acquaintances and strangers bringing us clothes, food, little presents. The telephone ringing 20 hours a day, mostly with offers of help and invitations. There was even one from President and Mrs. Reagan in the White House (they did not forget). We slowly realized we were safe and among friends.
All immigrants must also remember their first predicaments: the utter helplessness one feels in trying to figure out how to operate a touch-tone phone or a bank machine (it took me hours), the frustration when you can't figure out how to manipulate the knobs in the shower to produce the desired effect. Yuri, who had outwitted so many and so much in the Soviet system, managed a couple of times to bloody himself quite ingloriously by attempting to walk through glass doors.
Then there were the mysteries of the American kitchen: enigmatic buttons and gadgets, with inscriptions and instructions that were indecipherable even to one who thought she had at least a reasonable command of English. The kitchen gadgets bring home the realization that you have come to live not only in another country but in another century, one in which the modernity, the civilization, the level of technology can be overwhelming. And, of course, it can be even more difficult for those who come from Russia thinking that all they need do to be understood in conversation is to speak Russian a little louder and more distinctly.
It is difficult to convey now how intimidating it was to write a re'sume', conduct a job interview, find a place to live, deal with schooling for children, learn to drive -- all at once. Driving, especially, proved to be one of the most complicated tasks I faced. But I knew I had to drive in this country, or I could not lead a full life. And Vera, of course, just like any American kid, had to have a mother who could take her places. So I would get behind the wheel and venture timidly up and down our quiet road, but always lose my nerve when I came to a busier street. The corners and intersections of our neighborhood are washed with my tears.
Of course, this made it all the sweeter when I overcame my fears, and made my joy and satisfaction all the more intense when I finally got my driver's license. At last, one of my inferiority complexes was gone. One of Vera's too. She would now be better able to make the difficult adjustments involved in trying to become an ordinary American teenager who could be accepted by her schoolmates as a member of the group.
Indeed, one of the most painful aspects of immigration is the fate of children. We immigrants start this venture to bring our children to freedom because we want them to have safety and a better life. But they are also the ones who suffer most. They are left to their own devices. Their parents have no time or strength to attend to their needs because they are engaged in their own struggle to find jobs, earn a living and organize their existence. Invariably children feel alienated and lonely in schools and in day care, where it may be some time before anybody understands them.
The children know they look different. They are like carrots pulled out of the soil. Some of the smaller ones revert to loud and teary baby talk that is neither Russian nor English and bite their nails. Many older children become either overly aggressive or retreat into passiveness and depression. Both parents and kids, after escaping the dull, rigorous Soviet system of education, expect the American schools to be perfect. They are disappointed by the lack of manners among their classmates, the stress that is placed on having a good time and the insufficient learning. The Russian community tries to find ways to help the children adjust, regarding it as a task of paramount importance.
It is no less important to new Americans to try to foresee the sometimes ridiculous or pathetic situations they can fall into because of their lack of experience. A friend of mine was arrested at a Woolworth's store for putting goods into her plastic bag before paying, which was, of course, the way everybody shopped in Moscow. The poor woman nearly had a heart attack. Or take Yuri, who was handcuffed and detained for trying to explain to the policeman at Logan Airport that it was not fair to give him a ticket for 30 seconds' parking in an illegal place.
Yuri was a little shattered by that experience, but nothing has shattered his belief that the United States is the best country in the world. Americans often joke about his ferocious new patriotism, but how could he be otherwise about a country that gave his family a chance to start life again, where people and children smile in the streets and go out of their way to help us, where the land is incredibly beautiful and full of sunshine and beautiful people?
For Yuri and me, the greater part of our lives has already been spent in another society. In America there are still ahead of us many unknown roads and undiscovered places, complicated tasks, unpredictable situations. The future is far from secure. But the fear that is the ingrown feature of Soviet life is gone. We do not always know where to turn for help or advice, but we have a feeling we have never known before -- that we are home.