In 2013 I began working on a project I called ЭмMigration (Эм is from word Эмиграция, which means to emigrate, and the rest is from english word immigration. I wanted the name to reflect the journey, from leaving to arriving). The idea of a project came to me when I was talking to my peers who immigrated to US when they were kids. I was always struck by how visual and materialistic their dreams were of where they were going. A land of abundance of THINGS they always craved and never could have in Russia (USSR). So in a way, the kids, when they were changing countries, were looking forward to something. At the same time, their parents - and older generation, were looking back, reflecting on what they were leaving behind: friends, family history, pictures, favorite places in the city, memories, dreams- all very spiritual, non-material ideas. This juxtaposition was always interesting to me. This project, a series of portraits and interviews is a research on this subject, things lost, left behind and found.
We left in 1989 and by that point almost all of our relatives were in America. Well, my mom’s side of the family was in America and my dad’s moved five years later.
What I knew about the States was that it had bubble gum, bright clothing, and a lot of things with Mickey Mouse. I thought that it would be very warm, very hot. The funny thing is that it really was very hot. We came on March 13 and I think that was the hottest day in a hundred years. More than 80 degrees. So the first couple of days matched my expectations, but then it got much harder –much colder, and I also realized that I had to learn English. In school [in Ukraine] I had English in third grade, but no one there knew English. Even the teachers hardly knew English. I knew maybe five words. My father studied English with me. We would have to look every word up in the dictionary. It was very, very difficult and I didn’t know what to do in school.
"What I knew about the United States was that it had bubble gum, bright clothing, and a lot of things with Mickey Mouse". Allie and her newborn daughter, born in America.
I was very surprised by how out of place my parents felt, and my aunt and uncle, when we came and they didn’t have jobs. My parents who were scientists in Ukraine, worked as waiters at a restaurant; my aunt and uncle, too. I had always remembered my parents having money and everyone being...We had lived well...In Vinnitsa, in the Soviet Union, everything was very predictable; so I really felt – even while we were still in Italy and in Austria – I felt that we lost everything. It was a pretty big shock, which I remember to this day.
Allie and her mom a year before immigration to United States When we first came to New York I really missed Vinnitsa. I really didn’t like New York; there was absolutely no nature there. We moved to Ohio, 12 hours’ drive away from New York and we would visit New York a couple of times a year because all of our relatives and my grandmother lived there. Then I started to understand that New York wasn’t just Midwood, but something else. And I started to really like New York, and my parents and I would occasionally visit museums and go to Manhattan. By the end of school I realized that I wanted to live in Manhattan and really wanted to move back to New York.
Ohio was horrible. We lived in a relatively small city, Dayton. Back then they really weren’t used to immigrants – so much so that once my dad’s co-worker asked him why he had an accent. My dad explained that he was from Ukraine, that English was not his first language, and that he pronounced things differently. In response to which the man asked again, “Yeah, but why can’t you talk the normal way?”
At first, when we just got there, I couldn’t understand fashion. I wore these horrible jeans that my mom bought me – horrible – and I couldn’t understand why my classmates made fun of me for wearing them. It was so absurd that all jeans must be from Guess. I couldn’t understand why Guess jeans were better than my terrible jeans. It took me a long time to understand how to dress so that I didn’t get teased in school. I felt like everything I did was wrong – the way I dressed was wrong, the way I spoke was wrong, everything that was happening to me, everything I was doing was wrong. And that everything my parents were doing was wrong. And this lasted for quite a while – probably until I was sixteen.
Allie's family a year before immigration I had friends. Almost all of my friends were Russian, which is very strange, because I forgot Russian right away. By the time I turned twelve I could hardly read Russian, and I still can’t really write...And the same was true for all of my friends – we always spoke English to each other, but for some reason I always hung out with Russians, pretty much all my life.
My first job in the States: My parents and I moved to Connecticut and my mom – she was working as a computer programmer at a hospital – got me a job helping an OBGYN do circumcisions. This was a volunteer job, I was fifteen or sixteen, and I didn’t get paid. It was very scary, because the little boys would cry a lot and I had to hold them while the doctor performed the circumcision. But the boys were also very cute.
I think that my immigration experience strongly affected my choice – everyone’s choice – of profession. Because that feeling – the financial instability, the unpleasant feeling I had early on– it remained with me for life, I think.
Listen to the audio of the interview with Allie (in Russian) here.
This project was created as a Cojeco Blueprint Fellowship Alumni project and was presented at an exhibit "Inheritance of a story" in New York in 2013.