Five months after I landed in New York City from the former Soviet Union, I had my first day at the public school across the streets from the projects in which we settled. It was an average school, (although I didn’t know the difference) and it was filled with kids just like me: fellow immigrants. We were Russian, Chinese, Korean, Indian; a quintessential New York City melting pot of culture. I wasn’t interested in the other cultures; I focused on the all-American kids: the Jennifers, Michelles, Matthews, and Davids; the ones I saw on Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss and Facts of Life. This was way before ABC saturated the market with a rainbow of sitcoms to accommodate many cultural demographic.
I was in awe of the “Amerikanskiye” kids, whereas my parents were often quick to point out all their flaws. I was jealous of their PTA-participating moms, their fashionable clothes, their modern lunchboxes, and their in vogue hairstyles. I was only in kindergarten and I already recognized my blatant differences. Aside from a name I would have to repeat a dozen times before they got it, I had toast with cream cheese and tea for breakfast rather than cereal with milk. I would drink my tea out of a “blyoodeechka” (saucer) so it would cool down faster.
Fast forward 35 years and my daughter is off to kindergarten and we live in a neighborhood which is also predominantly immigrants, only the difference is it is one-dimensional: 52% of our community is from Korea. We’ve enjoyed our emersion in their culture, eating Korean tofu soup, kimchi, spicy cucumbers weekly. 75% of my daughter’s class is Korean. She has Korean friends as well as Chinese, Indian, and Arabic friends but at one point, she confessed, “I wish there were more Jewish kids in my school.” While I felt a pang of guilt (not sure why), her comment actually validates my suspicion that most children will eventually go through the rite of passage of feeling like they don’t belong. Hopefully, it’s a transient learning experience.
This year she had a boy join the school who just came here from China. “He doesn’t speak any English,” she explained to me. “Not even one word. He doesn’t understand anything I say, especially ‘NO!’” I had to explain to her how hard and alienating it feels to be an outsider. Over time he’ll blend in and being an immigrant will just be one part of who he is – just like it is one part of who I am – and just another way in which humans connect, identify, and relate to one another. (Immigrant Club.)
I told my daughter about my first day of kindergarten. I didn’t speak any English and was terrified to be left alone without my parents. My grandmother, who at 87 still speaks broken English, was my translator for the day. I clenched the bottom of her dress for dear life, sobbing, begging her not to leave. My daughter laughed at the idea that “Baba Maya,” her great-grandmother, who needs a translator to communicate 98% of everything, would be MY translator. This notion that I was a scared, lonely child helped trigger an intense empathetic reaction.
I wonder how her experience will be different. I look at her and see her as the “cool and nice girl,” the one for whom reading and language and communicating is so easy, such an afterthought. Children have always been drawn to her; making friends comes easily and naturally to her. Her default is to love everybody and be inclusive. I was such a starkly different creature; born pragmatic realistic, full of doubt. My iron feet don’t lift from the ground while she floats on clouds gleefully.
Her exposure to the diverse cultures helps her understand differences and develop tolerance, which she will hopefully carry throughout her life in our global world. I imagine she is gaining an understanding of the idiosyncrasies in communicating with different cultures – with empathy and kindness rather than with ignorance and entitlement – and this will only serve her in life. I don’t want to raise a child who travels to France thinking they’ll speak to her in English.
Additionally, I have the parent perspective. Now I’m the “American” mom, which is baffling and makes me chuckle. At school pick up, I am the minority once again, a blonde in a sea of Koreans. They smile at my face of exclusion and giggle, but it feels polite and superficial and never quantified with anything beyond a smile and “hi.” In an ironic twist of fate, life has made me an outsider for the second generation, only, this time, I know better.