I look out the streaked window flanked by stained green curtains and see the dismal brown landscape slowly passing us by. I attempt to keep my eyes fixed on landmarks which is easier said than done and I find myself getting dizzy while my head moves from trees to bushes to abandoned warehouses. The metallic sound of the old Soviet train engine clanks rhythmically back and forth, as if it’s keeping time. My parents, on edge and sleep-deprived, whisper to each other in hushed tones as my sister strains her neck to overhear their words. I glance at my surroundings. A cramped train compartment with tiny grimy bunks. Yellowed pillows reeking of sweat and body odor. The metal door handle locked to passersby with a makeshift lock fashioned out of wire. My dad urgently made the lock just this morning after learning someone in the compartment next to us had been stabbed overnight. For good measure, he puts a hardwood floor plank brought specifically for this purpose in the gap next to the sliding door. Despite the shabby and precarious conditions, I find shelter in the oblivious naïveté of youth and view my current situation as an adventure as opposed to what it really is: a hushed and dangerous escape from a country on the brink of civil war.
After declaring independence from the Soviet Union in April 1991, Georgia held its first democratic elections and elected Zviad Gamsakhurdia as its president with an overwhelming majority of the vote. Mere months later, true to the bitter fate of many former Soviet republics, Georgia is rife with violence following a military coup d’état and ousting of Gamsakhurdia by Russian-backed opposition forces.
Periods without power and running water are increasingly frequent. When there is water, we scramble to gather it in the largest pails and buckets we have before it is shut off again. The containers of water sit in the bathtub and line the floor of the bathroom, filled to the brim, and we breathe a little easier. We hold out for baths as long as we can. Then when it’s time, we hold pots over each other’s heads as we sparingly dole out boiled warm water and wash our hair with hand-soap. Most of the time, this takes place by candlelight.
Once my oasis, the yard becomes unsafe and we are warned to stay away from the large windows and glass doors leading out to the balconies in the apartment we share with my grandfather. We hear explosions and weapons firing nearby which shatter some of the glass in our apartment. Frighteningly, this becomes normal.
Several weeks prior to the train ride, my parents tell me we are leaving Tbilisi and going away for a bit to Moscow to stay with my mom’s former landlady from her college days. My parents have miraculously found a way to leave and there is no time to waste. I am warned not to tell anyone, especially the kids in my third-grade class. I am unsettled but also feel as if I’m watching myself in a movie, seeing myself as a daring young character tied up in chaos and excitement, so I go with it. I rush away and begin sorting and setting aside clothes and treasured items to take with me on the journey. My mom finds me pressing wildflowers into books and tells me we have very limited room. I am allowed two outfits plus undergarments and several books as we have to pack all of our family’s possessions into one small duffel bag. This doesn’t weigh heavily on me; the brave character in my movie doesn’t ask too many questions. She’ll soon come back to her regular life.
In addition to the duffel bag of clothing, my dad is bringing the latest film in which he stars, The Rat. It is a movie about the doomed fate of an individual who dares to differ from the majority in a totalitarian regime. Dad packs his hopes into two round gray metal film reel canisters.
For extra cash, my parents sell their blue Zhiguli, a ubiquitous Soviet car that has been the backdrop to many a childhood memory. One of my favorite things to do was stand in the middle of this car, one foot on either side of the transmission tunnel, holding onto the front seats, taking in the view of the road zipping toward us as white lane markings disappeared under the hood. With the sale of the Zhiguli, we now have $400, the small gray duffel bag, and two film reel canisters.
It’s not until we are in Moscow, that my parents reveal our final destination: The United States. As luck would have it, my mom happened to meet a retired couple visiting from North Carolina who took an interest in her and our family. The Baptist women’s college at which the man is a professor emeritus offers my mom a three-month position as a visiting scholar and sponsors visas for our entire family. I try to process the shock. I’ll be flying on an airplane for the first time in my life. I’ll leave everyone in Georgia behind and I didn’t properly get to say goodbye. I didn’t even bring my pointe shoes or the tutu my late grandmother had sewn for me out of a material as close to tulle as she could procure.
I mentally scroll through images of America I have gleaned from movies, namely Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Visions of pizzas delivered to houses, women driving cars, shrunken kids trudging through gigantic blades of grass, and people cavorting with aliens. America is going to be amazing. We may even live near a movie star, like Richard Gere.
* * *
I take in the sea of curious faces staring at me. A few kids look to each other and chuckle quietly. Heat prickles my face as my heartbeat speeds up. I quickly take inventory of everyone’s appearance. All the girls have fluffy bangs, headbands, bows, and bright, colorful clothing. Floral leggings with oversized shirts, acid-washed roll-over jeans and white Keds with glistening jewels hot glued to them. Shirts with stripes, color block patterns, and characters and sayings. Magical clothing I have only seen in magazines and those rare, beautiful American movies. I become painfully aware of my own outfit: the shapeless, too-long black jeans and red sweatshirt with a dog and cat hugging, the cooler of the several outfits I have. The heat trickles from my face to the rest of my body as I notice that the several students with glasses have frames that are thin, round, and brown, not exaggeratedly thick, blue, and square like mine. I realize the teacher is saying my name and introducing me as “the girl from Russia” which prompts even more looks and elbowing between the students. Why has no one heard of Georgia? I’m escorted to my desk which, thankfully, is in the back of the room. I sit and mentally summon every muscle fiber in my body to melt me into my chair, to shrink me like those kids in the movie so there’d be less of me to see.
I’m not sure how I expected all of this to go, but this isn’t it. The day is filled with people asking me questions in a language I do not understand. I stare blankly, attempting desperately to understand the pantomimed motions that follow each question. Most of the time I just shake my head yes or no, depending on which gesture I used last so I can at least switch the two up. Tears of helplessness well up in my eyes throughout the day but I blink them away quickly, willing myself not to lose it. I can’t cry, that would only draw more attention to me. The goal is to fade away, blend in, disappear. For years, I work diligently on honing the craft of being like everybody else.
One girl kindly offers to share her snack with me when she sees I didn’t bring one. (What is “snack-time?”) She hands me a round cupcake with chocolate icing all around and white swirled frosting down the middle of it in a line. I stare at it, marveling that food like this exists and kids can bring it to school. I debate saving it for later, but I’m famished. The inside is spongy and sweet, filled with white cream. The Little Debbie cupcake is seared into my memory.
Toward the end of that first school day, I escape to the hallway, somehow managing to communicate to the teacher that I need to use the restroom. I walk to where I think the restroom is based on the hazy memory of the school tour I got in the morning, but I don’t see it. I must have made a wrong turn and the school is now a labyrinth, every corridor the same. I stand in the empty hallway, surrounded by rows and rows of cheerful art projects hung up on the walls. The rooms are all neatly labeled but I can’t read a single word. My lips quiver, and the tears I fought off all day streak down my cheeks, staining my red sweatshirt. I look around desperately to see if someone can help guide me to the bathroom or back to my classroom. No one in sight. I am utterly alone, unmoored and drifting in a foreign sea. I cry harder. Through blurred eyes, I see footsteps approaching. I look up and see an older man in a blue uniform carrying a mop and a bucket. His kind face expresses concern as he asks me something. I shake my head and cry harder. The day has drained me, and I’ve run out of every ounce of energy and effort I have. Whatever façade I had curated for this day has cracked in half. It’s not supposed to happen this way in my movie, the strong girl isn’t supposed to break down. The man looks at me with large, sincere eyes that transcend all language barriers. The kind of eyes that exude warmth and empathy and a genuine desire to help. He opens his arms and gestures as if to ask whether I’d like a hug. Sobbing and hiccupping, I open my arms and lean in to hug this stranger. I don’t remember how long I stand there. Eventually, the man guides me to the front office.
* * *
There is no program for English language learners at this elementary school in Cary, North Carolina; there has never been a need for one. For weeks I sit in the back, understanding next to nothing. I learn basic phrases and greetings. The teacher’s assistant, tasked with helping me navigate my new world, helps me with directions, assignments, and acquiring school supplies. Every day, she reads to me at her desk in the back of the classroom. She reads Amelia Bedelia, Frog and Toad, Winnie The Pooh, and countless books by Dr. Seuss. The dread that accompanies each morning knowing I have to endure another painful school day slowly starts to wane as I begin to look forward to story-time with the assistant teacher. She is a drop of life-giving water in a scorching desert.
Georgian text is read exactly as it is written, the alphabet is unicase, and there are no two-letter sound combinations, tricky words, or exceptions to rules. English, I’m learning, is quite the opposite. The teacher’s assistant helps me learn to read words, then we move onto sentences, and soon I’m reading kindergarten-level books from the school library. I’ve never borrowed books from a library before, so with the assistant’s help, I gleefully check out as many as is allowed. Not having much of a social life, I immerse myself in learning English. A fire is lit under me; I figure if I learn to speak the language, I can never feel like the helpless anomaly again. While I read, I write down unfamiliar words whose definitions I copy from the dictionary. I memorize the lists of words and their definitions, my vocabulary grows, and soon I’m reading chapter books. I devour every book by Beverly Clearly and Roald Dahl and Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I read, a sense of comfort and normalcy is restored. Reliable Pa finds a solution no matter what danger befalls the Ingalls family on the prairie and as if through a leak in some parallel universe, for a brief period of time, my own worries are put to rest.
* * *
North Carolinians are so friendly they almost arouse suspicion. Can they really be this nice? Every single stranger looks us in the eye, smiles, and greets us. Their kindness comes as even more of a shock after our recent stay in Moscow where folks aren’t exactly the warm and fuzzy types. Experientially, we learn the meaning of the phrase “Southern hospitality.” We stay with the older couple in Cary, North Carolina for several months before moving to our final destination of Raleigh. Their home is warm and inviting, and they graciously show my family and me around the beautiful state. We’re introduced to football, seatbelts, the word “y’all,” church potlucks, lawnmowers. Some savvy American has invented large metal rolling carts specifically because so much food is available for purchase at enormous grocery stores and this completely blows my mind. At meals, I use a fork to chase something incredible called a “potato chip” around my plate until I give in and realize it is okay, nay, encouraged, to use hands to stuff one’s face with these. Our hostess packs our lunches for school and I sample other American delicacies like bananas and peanut butter and fruit roll-ups for the first time.
On Christmas morning, their house is full of countless grandchildren. The kids actually believe in someone called Santa Claus (Santa seems to have skipped Georgia; we’re assigned someone called Snow Grandfather and he doesn’t look quite as eager about the sack slung on his back). Is eight too old to start believing in Santa? I receive new socks and a sweatshirt with Santa faces forming a Christmas tree. I am beside myself.
For three semesters, we stay at the guesthouse of the women’s college in Raleigh where my mom conducts research and teaches an introductory Russian language course. We are embraced by the college and local Baptist church community. They hear our story and offer our entire family free meals at the college dining hall while we stay in the guesthouse. This means countless potato chips and a bevy of cereals (some have colorful marshmallows in them!) are all there for our choosing. I start a ritual of capping off every meal with a frozen yogurt cone. Many times, we find bags upon bags of much-needed donated clothes on our porch.
There are many dark days. My parents feel dejected. They’ve both abandoned family, friends, successful careers, and they struggle to find permanent jobs in the States. My dad, at the height of his film acting career in Georgia, now faces the harsh reality of how inexplicably difficult it is to make it as an actor in the States, let alone an immigrant actor with a thick accent who does not have a full grasp on the English language, nor a work visa, nor any connections. Despite some initial interest after a screening of The Rat in Wilmington and Raleigh, he never acts again. He can’t afford to chase dreams when survival takes precedent.
My parents worry about money and the worsening political situation in Georgia, where there is now a full-blown civil war. Following a manhunt carried out by opposition forces, Zviad Gamsakhurdia is dead, his death shrouded in mystery. A former Communist leader and puppet for the Russians, Eduard Shevardnadze, along with his gang of criminals, is in charge of an interim government. There is no school, food is scarce. Conditions in the country are worse than when we left. We have to stay here. We have to make it.
My parents scrounge enough money together to buy a very used 1970s maroon Saab. Sure, it’s seen better days, but it gets us from point A to point B without us having to rely on someone else, and that is a true luxury. The trouble starts when it begins breaking down mid-transit and there is no money for repairs. I hold my breath when we’re near my school, praying the engine doesn’t choose this particular location at which to sputter and die down, leaving us stationary amidst a sea of honking cars and stares. I develop a habit of mentally picking out reliable-looking family cars for my future self (the minivans with wood around them are my top pick). I also do this with houses (stately brick colonials with shutters, like the gorgeous house in Home Alone). These cars and houses don’t seem like they’ll ever fail me. I won’t need to pull over and put a white rag in the window of this sturdy-looking minivan.
Given the civil war back home, colleagues and friends at the college rally behind us and the dean goes above and beyond to offer my mom three more semesters as a part-time visiting assistant professor. The Baptist church in Raleigh offers us the use of their missionary apartment in Cary rent-free. My mouth full of cavities gets fixed at the Wake County Public Health Services income-based clinic. The college sponsors our Green Card application and covers half of the lawyer’s fees. When the Saab needs a new transmission, a professor at the college, unbeknownst to us, goes to the shop where we’ve taken the car and pre-pays the cost. Because of this, the car lasts us two more precious years. Our friends feed us, they clothe us, they give us shelter. They point us in the right direction. They take us on vacation and invite us over to partake in their traditions on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They throw us life jackets when we feel certain we are near drowning.
Several years later, after acquiring our Green Cards, we prepare to make the move to northern Virginia where my mom has secured a full-time job at last. Little do we know that our North Carolina community has gone to great lengths to plan one final surprise for us: a large moving van full of donated furniture and household items with which we can furnish our apartment in McLean. We are moved beyond measure. With lumps in our throats and heaviness in our hearts, we say goodbye to the most giving, benevolent people we have ever known. With their help, our feet, once shaky and unsure like a newborn giraffe’s, are now steadier. With open hearts and minds, they don’t see us as outsiders. They don’t tell us to go back where we came from. They see us as humans simply searching for a better life. And twenty-eight years after that fateful train ride through Chechnya, it’s not lost on me that their empathy and goodwill changed the trajectory of our lives forever.
We no longer worry about the proximity of gunfire and bombs.
We no longer keep candles and matches in every room.
We no longer fill our tub with buckets of water.