My own childhood memories are split between the time we lived in Russia and after our move to America, and I am undoubtedly a blend of both experiences. Yet, when I parse through my childhood memories, I am often struck by how much of what I have become has been formed by my early experiences in America.
I am reminded of those experiences each year around the Thanksgiving holiday, when we celebrate our arrival in America – the third week in November – over two decades ago. The same week all those years ago my family celebrated the birth of my third cousin and I participated in my first ever Thanksgiving dinner. Although this was just the beginning of my American experience, ever since then Thanksgiving, to me, has been synonymous with rebirth and renewal.
Like many of the immigrants before us, we came with the expectation of a better future, but without the rose-colored glasses. Although too young to fully understand the challenges that we would face, already as a teenager I was not impervious to life’s disappointments. What I couldn’t predict, however, was the dramatic impact this journey would have on me, how it would change me and make me into the person I am today.
Here we were, in a new country, in a new culture, speaking almost no English, with virtually no belongings. Sitting at our first Thanksgiving table, amongst Americans who brought us in – strangers just hours ago - I was filled with a mix of excitement and trepidation. The daughter of the family that hosted us was the same age as I. I nodded and smiled at attempted conversation, but felt quintessentially like a fish out of water.
How could I decode what was going on? What should I say and how could I deal with my discomfort? My thoughts were anxiously leaping around. What were those orange things on the table? Yams. They left the same strange taste in my mouth as the rest of the unusual evening.
As we got ready to leave, the girl led me upstairs to her room. Inside, on the floor by her bed sat bags of used clothes prepared for me to take home. Confused and surprised, I stared at the floor. Then, unsure of what to do, I ran out of the room. My mom, who was standing nearby, gave her thanks and took the clothes on my behalf.
In the coming months and years, I continued to be surprised by many things, as I adapted and learned about my new country.
But what surprised me the most was the generosity and kindness of the community that welcomed us. We received assistance in many forms, from direct donations to job training and referrals to college prep and scholarships. I became conscious of this only later, but those first few days, weeks and months, lay the groundwork for the values I would aspire to and later embrace as my core. The trajectory of my American experience continues, thanks to the countless friends, neighbors and strangers who helped us pave our way forward.
The idea of giving thanks is no longer foreign. It is as natural as eating yams, which I’ll be putting at the center of my Thanksgiving table later this week.
Happy Thanksgiving. Happy renewal.