The Imponderabilia of Immigrant Life: An Immigrant Story

by Veronica Davidov


Veronica Davidov is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Monmouth University and co-editor of Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research

I belong to a cusp generation – born at the tail end of zesty (stagnation, as the Brezhnev era was commonly called), I had a vintage Soviet childhood, with all the bingo components checked off – piano lessons, ice-skating, mushroom-hunting during summers spent at the dacha, the Young Pioneer induction ceremony, didactic ideological school plays about the evils of imperialist America.  At the same time, the later part of my childhood also included all the tropes of early Perestroika years.  American schoolchildren coming as exchange students, bearing gifts of bubble gum and translucent pencils, kiosks with neon shoelaces, street preachers peddling DIY-printed booklets about Nostradamus, extrasenses – psychics – charging jars of water with magical energy through the television sets of millions of viewers across the country, stands in the subway stations where the flood of haphazard translations of foreign fantasy and pulp literature was sold, the first Moscow McDonalds, the exponential increase in ice-cream flavors.

I came to the United States in 1991, the summer the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist.  In fact, mere weeks after my parents and I moved into our first apartment in Des Plaines, IL (home of the first McDonalds!  And the McDonalds Museum!), the Chicago suburb where I spent my adolescence, we watched the news of the August Coup slowly trickle into the international news arena past the media blackout orchestrated by The Gang of Eight vying for power in a classic Soviet fashion: namely, by replacing all regularly scheduled television programming with a broadcast of Swan Lake on a loop.

Immigration always had a metaphysical existence, in addition to its practical incarnation in Soviet consciousness: it existed as a space of both fantasy and trauma across generations, and when I zoom out and look at my own immigrant trajectory, I see its place in a network of life histories and family arrangements.

 

Immigration Ethnographies

Neither of my parents are ethnically Russian.  My father’s side of the family is Jewish; my mother’s – Tatar. My own origin story has to be traced, from the beginning, through movements across borders. My Soviet citizen parents, children of Soviet citizen parents of their own, were both born abroad. My father was born in Berlin. My mother was born in Ürümqi. Those were the places where my grandfathers were serving the Soviet regime – in the Soviet army stationed in GDR after the war; as a Soviet Representative in the Ministry of Foreign Trade in China.

My parents were both gumanitarii, intelligentisya – the Russian words for a certain socioeconomic strata in possession of a specific type of cultural capital that led to careers in mental labor grounded in humanities and social sciences.  My father studied linguistics at Moscow State University and became a poet; my mother completed her studies at the Institute for Oriental Languages, specializing in Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit.  The social and emotional ecology of their university cohort was “progressive” – many in their circle were somewhere on the dissident spectrum.  Immigration was an obsessive collective dream, available to a select few, laden with caveats and conditions, and with a price tag that was insurmountable.

Its potential availability was contingent on one’s Jewish “nationality” status as inscribed in one’s passport.  As the famous joke went, “A Jew is not a nationality, a Jew is a mode of transportation.”  Jews and their families were essentially the only group that was eligible for an exit visa.  The exit visa then put families on the path of the so-called Vienna-Rome pipeline.  Most of my peers who came to the US as kids came that way, leaving the USSR on an exit visa for Israel, but applying for refugee status in the United States at the transit points.  They would then spend months in refugee settlements in  Italy, and eventually most would be approved for resettling in the United States (though not all – and though it was not widely publicized, some who were refused committed suicide).  My aunt and uncle, who immigrated in the 1970s, years before we did, went that route.  They were assigned to be resettled in Chicago, and my aunt, as she recounted, cried, because she knew little about Chicago except for gangster movies, and it seemed terrifying.

My mother classifies her peers of that era into three categories: true patriots, who felt no compunction to leave, aspirational immigrants, who would nevertheless not leave because that would torpedo the lives and careers of their families, and aspirational immigrants who would do whatever it takes to make it out of the USSR.  My parents belong to the second category.  My mother always said that she knew that if she were to immigrate, my aunt, who held a prestigious job in an international trading firm, which included many work trips abroad (from which she brought for me gifts that other children didn’t have – Kinder Eggs, Toblerone, Barbie dolls), would be fired.  My father’s father, a high-ranking, highly respected communications scientist with a security clearance, would lose his job and status.

The second category were people willing to leave their families, and accept the practical costs to their relatives, and the emotional costs to both sides – namely, the expectation that the separation was forever.  No one knew that the Soviet Union would dissolve in a matter of years, and in the 1970s and early 1980s, immigration meant that left-behind parents would no longer be privy to their children’s lives; would never meet their future grandchildren. Émigré children would not be able to bury their parents when the time came. The people who left were made up of the third category who were also able to secure letters of consent from their own parents – those were required for an exit visa.

So, we stayed.  The ethos of my upbringing was squarely anti-Soviet, although it was intuitively clear to me that things that were said “at home” should not be talked about “at school.”  My parents’ friends left family by family.  I remember a cluster of goodbye parties, with salad Olivier, caviar, Champagne, and toasts like “your turn next.”  In some instances, we went to see people off all the way to Sheremetyevo-2, the international airport on the northeastern outskirts of Moscow. Then in 1989, the iron curtain lifted, the Vienna-Rome route shut down, and everyone went to visit their long-lost relatives, including us.  My mother and I went for a month, to visit first her university friend who married a Canadian man and settled down in St. Catherine, Ontario, and then to Chicago, where I met for the first time my aunt and uncle and cousins, tried Popcorn, and was introduced to E.T. Then my father went, and brought with him intense hopes, though without a concrete plan, of figuring out a way to stay.

 

Stranger Than Fiction

While in Chicago, my father, in a turn of events that will surely sound like an urban legend to any academic, literally made an appointment with the Department Chair of the Fiction Writing program at Columbia College, went to see him, and pretty much said “I am a Jewish dissident poet from the Soviet Union – would you be interested in offering me a job?”  The Chair was interested, and offered my father an adjunct instructorship, to teach one course, to start with.  That course turned into a 22-year old gig, where my father taught four courses per year, and even founded a summer school in Prague for the Columbia College students, but at the time, in 1990, that one course was our way to gain a foothold in the States. Now that no one’s livelihood was in danger, my parents both had the pull factor – their long-standing dream of immigrating to the United States that, like many dissidents, they idealized as the land of free speech and a culture that was healthily individualistic, rather than collectivist, and leaving behind everything Sovok (a Russian word that literally means dustbin, but which through a play on words starting with Sov – Soviet/Sovok – is a derogatory umbrella term for inefficient, absurd, inhumane culture of Soviet institutions and bureaucracies) which they reasonably believed would not improve under the new regime.

But they also had the new push factor – the switch from covert to overt anti-Semitism that was unleashed with the denouement of the Soviet Union – a seemingly overnight transition that I was reminded of in the month after the election, where it seemed like the ugliest portions of American racism were suddenly desublimated.  While of course the Soviet Union was notoriously anti-Semitic in a deep, institutionalized way, with university admissions quotas and employment opportunities set up to discriminate against Jews, the “official” rhetoric of the Soviet state was “Friendship of the Peoples” where the USSR prided itself on its anti-racism, compared to the imperialist USA, and one of the most popular Soviet children’s books, “Mr. Twister,” featured an American racist oligarch, spurred on by the wish of his entitled daughter (in a set-up evocative of Donald and Ivanka, come to think about it), going to the USSR as a tourist, and being schooled for his racist prejudices.  The collapse of the Soviet Union, though, opened a space for a reactionary Russian nationalism (the seeds of which grew into the present-day Putinism), where all things ethnically and historically Russian were romanticized, from traditional old-Russian names, to Russian Orthodox faith, to the aesthetics and culture of the “White Army” officers from the days of the October Revolution and the Civil War.

Part of that new geist was ugly, and overt anti-Semitism that bloomed like the fragrant flowers of white acacia, from a classic Russian pre-Revolutionary song.  The song was later colonized by the Soviet artistic project and transformed into a song entitled “Listen, Peasant, the War is Starting” set to the same melody, and then re-vivified in its original incarnation by a slew of late-Perestroika vocalists and performers. The virulently anti-Semitic popular civil society organization “Memory,” which in the late 1980s, became known as the National-Patriotic Front, gained capital in the economy of public opinion with the promise of a “spiritual and national renaissance” based on the pillars of orthodoxy, national character, and spirituality.   Famously anti-Semitic, despite being half-Jewish himself, Vladimir “my mother is Russian and my father is a lawyer” Zhirinovsky was emerging as a charismatic (though God only knows how) leader. Anti-Semitic leaflets proliferated, taped to the food carts where I used to buy potato pastries after school, graffitied svastikas appeared in the stairways of our 16-story apartment building.  A boy in my class hissed “kike” at me.  He was immediately censured by my wonderful homeroom teacher (half-Jewish herself).  But I heard that when he did the same to another kid from our class at the gym, our P.E. teacher, former military, just laughed.

 

Not Yet American in Paris

So, with anxieties about what to expect, and the fear that bad things were around the corner, we left, and, for complicated family and logistical reasons, our path lay through Paris, where we would stay for a liminal couple of months, with an émigré friend of my parents’ and her family. I was a bit uneasy when my mother told me we were going to stay with them because my memories of her visits to our house with her daughter were somewhat blurry but decidedly alarming.   On the occasions that they visited us, I witnessed her being abusive to her daughter — screaming at her, locking her in a dark bathroom until she was hysterical, beating her with jumping rope. But my worry was quelled by the zeitgeist excitement about leaving, which I had caught, even though we did not have the proper ritualized good-byes, since it was not clear whether we would be able to stay in the States, and my parents did not want to tip off our neighbors that we were making a go of it.  In fact, our last months in Moscow were organized around secret trips to the post office to ship boxes of our books, at times when the neighbors were least likely to notice.

My mother and I left Moscow on my thirteenth birthday, and took a train to Brest, and from there to Paris, with our many boxes tied together with rope. Once in Paris, my murky apprehensions about the family friend turned out to be justified. She screamed at and abused her daughter, now fourteen, seemingly out of habit, like a phatic function. Furthermore, during our stay in Paris, she kept uttering statements to my own mother like “Veronica does not speak politely to you.  I could beat it out of her.  Want me to hit her?” The atmosphere in her house was toxic. The husband was financially controlling – he allowed food purchases only once every two weeks, and even if it ran out, no more could be purchased until the 14-day mark. The daughter was poorly-adjusted, and the kind of mean bully that humiliated and beaten children often turn into. I had to share a room with her and she was forced to take me to hang out with her friends, and whatever abuse she experienced trickled down to me.  She called me names, pinched me, and once, when she was forced to take me to a public swimming pool, she and her group of friends pushed me into the water from a 10-meter diving board. I ended up with a massive bruise across my ribs, and a fear of diving boards that persists to this day.  Rounding out the residents of that household was a semi-feral giant black cat named Batu Khan, after the grandson of Genghis Khan, that, like a totemic animal representing the aggression and anxiety that permeated their flat, lounged on top of wardrobes and shelves, then lunged down at random, hissing at and scratching people.

 

Runs in the Family

Of course, other systemic factors are always at play – but it seems clear to me, looking at it now, how multigenerational traumas from the various strands of immigration in their family history activated and amplified the toxic alchemy that shaped their family life. This woman’s own life course had been mangled by layers of immigration trauma, some of which I reconstructed as an adult, while trying to process my time in Paris.  In her twenties, long before she settled in France, she fell in love with my father’s university friend when they were both working as translators for a foreign delegation of writers visiting her hometown, Samarkand.  My father’s friend had been born parents were re-patriots – a Russian father, and a French mother, who were lured back from France to the USSR by Kruschev, and who then, after experiencing the “pleasures” of Soviet life, made their life’s project to re-re-immigrate.  That was a difficult undertaking that happened in phases, over the years, with one family member after another managing to get out.  The woman in question fell pregnant right as my father’s friend was finally given permission to immigrate – in fact, she arrived from Samarkand in Moscow, to announce that she was expecting, on the evening when he was having his farewell shindig with university friends. In a system with humane immigration policies and free movement across borders, she would have gone with him, but that was not possible.  He left, she stayed, and became a single mother in a provincial backwater town in Kazakhstan, because she could not return to her own family unmarried and pregnant. It was, as I understand, a challenging existence, a sharp downward turn in social mobility, where she had to trade her elite job as an interpreter who worked with foreign visitors for being a schoolteacher in a rundown school where she had to teach every subject.

A few years later, through a combination of appeals and bribes, my father’s friend, now settled (and married) in France, seeking to be reunited with his daughter, whom he had never even seen, secured an exit permission for the little girl and her mother. It was during that period that the two of them visited Moscow several times, as their presence there was necessary to finalize all the paperwork.  They stayed at our apartment, and visiting us at the summer house we were renting a few times.  It was during that period that I had initially, as a child, observed her mistreating and abusing her daughter.  The woman’s hardships continued upon her arrival in France, where she was essentially a single mother, with very little support, and, unable to put her education to use, worked as a cleaning lady, and eventually, it seemed, married her husband out of exhaustion and in a bid for lower-middle-class security. Consequently — not by way of excuse but by way of explanation –her personal history as it was shaped by immigration disruptions, both other people’s and her own, and the structural violence she experienced, together predisposed, or at least did nothing to temper her predisposition to be an abusive parent.

Because taking money out of Russia was forbidden, we were completely broke, and thus were stuck in Paris for an indeterminate period, until my father earned enough money to buy us airplane tickets to continue onward to Chicago.  Although my mother, in her attempts to both maximize the bad situation and get us out of the house as much as possible, took me to every single museum and cultural landmark in the city, the atmosphere in the house and the uncertainty about how long I would have to be there had me to on edge.  I started sleeping poorly, was constantly nauseous, and one night even wet the bed, from stress – my mother hand-washed the sheets so that no one would find out.

Eventually, my mother’s friend loaned her the money for airplane tickets – in secret from her controlling husband – and we made our way over to Chicago, where we were met by my father, and my uncle and aunt at O’Hare, and settled into our new life.  My father was teaching one course at a time, that paid approximately $900/semester.  To supplement his income and make ends meet, to pay rent on our one-bedroom apartment in a run-down apartment complex populated by immigrants from Russia, Mexico, and India, he also delivered pizza and, for a time, drove a limousine for a funeral home. My mother enrolled in a two-year program to become an ultrasound technician, and in the meantime, she worked as a cashier in a Greek-immigrant-owned fruit and vegetable market, for minimum wage, where the air was so chilly that she wore winter layers and gloves despite being indoors.  Much of our food reflected these jobs – my mother made soups and stews with vegetables she got at a discount at work, while once a week my father’s boss set a pizza home for us – usually Deep Dish Chicago-style, sliced into generous squares.

 

The Kindness of Strangers

Once we were in the US, we applied for, and received refugee status, as Jews fearful of returning to Russia, which became a possibility after 1990, thanks to the Lautenberg Amendment, which expanded the definition of a “refugee” from someone who experienced personal persecution to being a member of a group demonstrably targeted for persecution, as was the case for Russian Jews.  But because we didn’t enter the US as refugee applicants, we did not receive any of the initial aid from HIAS that was standard for people who preceded us via the Vienna-Rome route.  There was an infrastructure in place to help them with apartments, and financial subsidies, that was not available to us.

We did get “adopted” by the synagogue that my uncle belonged to, located in an extremely well-off congregation on the North Shore of Lake Michigan, and although I was and am grateful for the help they provided, I also associate it with the humiliating aspects of being a “charity case,” the, quite literally, poor relatives, rather than people receiving help from a government system that was set up for it.  I remember their kindness in furnishing our apartment, including getting me an old piano. I also cringe when remembering how the synagogue, with the best intentions, paid the tuition fee that my parents could have never afforded, to send me to an elite private school, which did not have any ESL or integration programs set up, where I literally – linguistically — did not understand much of what was going on, and where my classmates, while not mean to me in any way, regarded me, and the one other “charity case” immigrant girl on board, as some curious other species.  I still get upset when I think about a synagogue member spotting my father looking for something he had forgotten in the room that housed donations, and making a comment that made it clear he had assumed my father was stealing.

When I think about the various connotations of “extreme vetting” what comes to mind is the myriad indignities that are built in, that are already part of any immigration process characterized by power disparities, that are classified, in memory and narrative, as “private” and “personal.” Like: the father of one of my high school friends, having problems with urination and constantly being in low-grade pain because of, as she confided in me, an improperly healed circumcision he had undergone as an adult in Italy, as that was a widely-anticipated litmus test for Jewish would-be refugees interviewed at the American embassy.

A girl from my dorm, from Kiev, with whom I occasionally traded Soviet childhood stories, recounted how the year that her family got green cards was the first time her mother finally sought help for her Bipolar II disorder – the reason why she never sought help for it before was because she was concerned that any record of taking psychotropic drugs, either in the USSR, or in the early years in the United States, would jeopardize her family’s chances of staying.  She postponed treatment for the love of her family – and, according to my friend, her mood fluctuations were the center of her family’s universe, around which everything else orbited.  My friend herself was now in counseling for that.

I think of immigration in my subsequent, adult life, not as a determinant but something akin to the zodiac sign if one believes in astrology.  I live under the sign of immigration. It does not define me, but there are certain generalizations that apply. I have a hazy affinity with a generational cohort that grew up sharing in the same late-Soviet bingo as myself, but by and large, I have very little in common with them politically, and many of them have happily reproduced their parents’ racist and Republican values that their dissident ideals, when seasoned with the hardships of immigrant experience, resolved themselves into.  They inevitably try to hail me as one of their own in social situations, and I have to negotiate the uncomfortable dynamics of refusal. There is a subtle but present layer of negotiating “otherness” that has characterized me as a social being – from a string of American boyfriends who thought it was “so cool” that I have a slight accent I was never able to shed, to reflexively code-switching and amplifying my accent while arguing politics with relatives who accused me of becoming too “Americanized” with my liberal arts education.  Immigration directly shaped my professional path.  While I did not become an immigration rights lawyer (as I had wanted to in high school), I did become an anthropologist, because as I took my first anthropology course, I realized that there was a discipline that offered an intellectual framework and vocabulary for my experiences as a creature of one culture, immersed into another culture, emerging as a Michurin-esque hybrid, that I was struggling to process.

 

Living to Tell the Tale

Am I happy that my parents chose to bring me here?  Yes, unequivocally. I don’t know if the United States is the place I would choose to live if I had completely free choice and no logistical constraints (though I did choose to come back to NYC after working in the Netherlands for five years), I believe that I am much better off here than I would have been had we stayed in Moscow.  I had educational opportunities available to me that would have been scarce in Russia, because with a handful of exceptions, Russian universities dating back to the Soviet era, struggle with resources, and are marginal within international academic communities  — the journal I co-edit, Laboratorium, has as its explicit mission to try to combat that and promote integration, but I see first-hand in reviewing submissions the structural inequality between Russian and Euro-American academic spheres.

Education is not the only advantage that was available to me here. As an anthropologist, I can articulate all the critiques of neoliberal personhood, including understanding the institutions of psychology/therapy as “techniques of the neoliberal self.”  But, as I often joke, when it comes to my emotional well-being, I want the best techniques of the neoliberal self that money can buy.  I am grateful that I ended up in a country that has space for a culture that accepts and encourages self-examination through therapy widely, if not universally, and that I was able to process my experiences for long enough to become at peace with myself and become a mindful parent, in a way that I do not think I would have been able to do had we stayed in Russia.

I am grateful that I live in a country where, when a demagogue like Trump came to power, I can assume everyone I encounter in my “liberal bubble” is as horrified as I am, and where his approval ratings hover around 40%, unprecedentedly low for a President in office for such a short time, while Putin’s approval ratings top 80%. This fall and winter, I volunteered as an interpreter for Russian LGBTQ applicants for political asylum (many of them HIV-positive) during their intake interviews at Legal Services – hearing their horror stories of state-sanctioned and media-encouraged violence made me glad that I am in a country where they want to live, as they all said, because they feel like they can be themselves.

If I have to boil it down to didactic key points, why did I want to write this essay?  To say – immigration is never easy, and though people undertake it seeking a good life, it is all too often like a hazing process that strips people of dignity, in ways both big and small.  It is especially difficult when it happens across lines of national and political privilege and power.  Yet it is often feels, and is, compelling and necessary – whether as a golden dream of a better future for people from a country that may not be war-torn hell, but where they cannot fully self-actualize because of their ethnicity or religious persuasion, or sexual orientation – or as a life boat for people who have been disenfranchised in unimaginable ways.

In the spirit of attention to what an anthropologist, with an interest in the kaleidoscopic details of the lived experience, Bronislaw Malinoswki, who was himself an immigrant, called “the imponderobilia of everyday life,” I want to encourage everyone to try, at least occasionally, at least here and there, to think about the lives of those we are related to – and relate to – through the lens of immigration, if that is a part of their family history. The structural aspect of migration becomes transparent at certain moments of historical crisis, where, in a flash of lightning, to invoke Walter Benjamin, whose tragic Holocaust-era suicide stemmed from an immigration attempt gone awry – we can see how an accepted or rejected bribe, a visa application stamped or left unstamped, quite literally shapes generational history. But then that awareness inevitably recedes, supplanted by debates about extreme vetting, litmus tests for abject desperation, expectations of gratitude from the “ideal immigrant.” I suppose what I want to do is invoke that second-wave feminist dictum, still so relevant today – that the personal is political.

So many aspects of who we, as immigrants, become, and how we become, that are narrated as family histories, as personal preferences, as private memories of gratitude or resentment, are constituted by larger structures of power that chart the meridians of cross-border movement. These structures, on an interpersonal level, operate through an economy of dignity – which is all too often in short supply for immigrants – but it does not have to be a scarce resource.  Whether it is or not depends on all of us.

One response to “The Imponderabilia of Immigrant Life: An Immigrant Story”

  1. Mark Olsky says:

    Wonderful essay! Please send me a copy.

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