At first, life in America was like a vacation |

At first, life in America was like a vacation

Immigrant Stories
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Natasha Williams

Natasha Williams came to the United States from Russia with her American fiance in January of 1995. When the Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas Day of 1991, thousands of Russians like Natasha saw their first opportunity to leave Russia and see the world.

Williams: I was born in the big industrial city of Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine, which was a republic of the Soviet Union at that time. My younger brother and I and my parents lived in a three-room apartment in the city along with my grandmother. It was only three rooms but it was considered a big apartment.

My parents were electronics engineers who worked in a military plant that was producing radio electronic equipment for the army. They were not really allowed to talk about their job at home but sometimes they would talk to one another about work at the dinner table and I was always listening. I thought it was really interesting.

My mother worked her whole career at that plant. In America you would say that she was a career woman. But we didn’t have this definition in the Soviet Union. She had to do her job and take care of a family. Overall ordinary everyday life was hard in the Soviet Union. We didn’t have washing machines, dishwashers or microwaves. The laundry was all done by hand.

Going shopping was an everyday job. After work, my mother would have to go to the store and bring everything we needed home in her arms. So women in the Soviet Union had to spend a lot more time doing their household jobs. Between work and household chores, my mom didn’t have as much time as she wanted to spend with us. My grandmother took care of my brother and me while our parents worked.

Gallacher: Growing up in the Soviet Union, what stories did you hear about the United States?

Williams: It depends on the time. During the Cold War, the propaganda always portrayed the Russians as good guys. We were told that the Americans wanted to overtake the world. Now, I understand that Americans were being told just the opposite.

But even though our countries weren’t getting along, from the human side we were interested in the American people.

Gallacher: So you always had a curiosity about the United States?

Williams: Yes, but I had been misinformed about this country. That changed when I attended Moscow State University. It was there that I met students from other countries. There were students from South America and Asia and they were more open to the world than I was. They hadn’t lived behind the Iron Curtain so I began to hear different stories from them. They gave me a better perspective than the Soviet newspapers.

I remember I had a friend from Bangladesh who was telling me that he was going to Sweden for the summer to find a job and make some money. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “No, that is not possible. Everyone is unemployed there. How do you think you can find a job when there are so many people out of work?” He just laughed and explained to me that conditions in Sweden and Europe were not what I had been told. “People have plenty of jobs and make very good money,” he said.

Meeting people from other countries helped change my mind and made me curious about the world. But it wasn’t until after Perestroika that I started to get really interested in going abroad. It wasn’t the United States in particular, I just wanted to see the world.

So, years later, when I met my husband and fell in love I was very excited about moving to America. I was excited but also apprehensive about leaving my family and my job. I loved my job. I was working as a botanist in a botanical garden research center in Novosibirsk in Siberia. We were cataloging all of the plants of Siberia. It was hard to leave my work, my career.

When my husband came to pick me up it had already taken him half a year to get all of the documents ready. He had my “alien fiance” papers. He was bringing an alien to America. He came to pick me up on Christmas day and then it took us more than a month to get my visa and get out of the country.

After the Iron Curtain dropped it was mass exodus from the Soviet Union. People wanted to go abroad, to emigrate. Everybody was leaving. It was OK with the Russian government. They didn’t seem to mind at that time because it was the fall of the Soviet Union. But the United States didn’t want all of these Russian immigrants suddenly coming. They had to be sure that they were admitting decent people.

We spent three weeks in Moscow going everyday to the American embassy and standing in long lines with other people like me who wanted to come to America. Finally when we got the visa we flew out the next day.

When we arrived it was the end of January. We had left this cold dark place in Siberia where the temperature was minus 40 and come to New Jersey where the weather was beautiful. My husband took me to the ocean and we walked along the beach. I remember seeing what looked like exotic flowers. It turned out to be winter cabbage. It was so beautiful. It was the first time I saw little lights on trees. We spent time in New York going to museums. I began to think that life in America was going to be a lifelong vacation.

We drove from New Jersey to Carbondale in the middle of winter. I still felt like I was on vacation for a month or two and then the feeling disappeared and I began to feel like I was just unemployed. I became homesick. We had rented a house outside of Carbondale. I couldn’t drive. I had grown up in the city and we never had a car. I didn’t have friends or a job. I felt helpless. It was almost as if I was a baby again, learning how to walk and talk. I missed my independence.

Gallacher: What did you do to overcome that feeling?

Williams: One of the things I did was to start learning English. I planned this project that took me four and a half years to complete, longer than my dissertation. I took a Russian-English dictionary with 20,000 words and I made 20,000 flash cards. Everyday I had 100 cards with one side English and the other side Russian. I carried those cards everywhere and studied. Now I am as comfortable with English as I am with Russian.

Gallacher: If you had it to do over again would you still have come to the United States?

Williams: Yes, looking back I have no regrets. Here there are all kinds of opportunities. In Russia my future was predetermined. Sometimes I feel like my life in Russia still continues, because I know exactly what I would be doing there. I feel like I know how I would be living, what articles I would be writing at my job. I know exactly what life I would have there. It is almost as if my life there still continues.

This life in America is a mystery. I don’t know where I am going or how it will end. It is full of possibilities. It is almost as if I have two lives instead of one. I have a much broader experience here in this life than I would have had in Russia.

Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.

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