Chapter OneThe last thing I want to write is another "For Dummies" piece filled with strategies. I will write about my honest feelings and observations of an evolving relationship. What follows are highlights incorporating this most remarkable experience of the birth of an American family.
We stop being children when we realize telling our troubles does not necessarily make things better. This lesson is learned early for anyone whose family is oppressed, especially those who have been denied basic services such as housing, medical services, schooling, or the ability to worship without fear of being persecuted. After ten years of being moved around by local and state authorities in Russia, the two families I was about to meet were granted full legal refugee status to begin a new life in Florida. This meant they had gone through a thorough FBI background questioning, and had filled out the labyrinth of paperwork for each family member before arriving in Orlando. I met the families the second week after their arrival, giving them time to rest and to slowly adjust to the time zone difference and jet lag from the long flight.
I was jittery like a high school kid going on his first date. Arriving early, I waited in the parking lot for the translator to arrive. After sweating it out in the summer heat for fifteen minutes past our arrival time, I called and discovered two streets had apartments that were numbered identically, and I was waiting on the wrong street. Slightly embarrassed at my gaffe, I went to meet the families. Catholic Charities, the organization authorized by the government to handle the relocation of families, had furnished the apartment. I began to grasp how many basic necessities are required to properly host a family. I now realize how easy it is to take for granted what is required, from big items like a bed to the very small such as soap. The needs were great because they came to the States with just the clothes on their backs. What is required is not just physical, but also emotional. Going back to their former lives is not an option.
Upon meeting the two Russian families, we all sat down on the three couches in their upstairs apartment. The two mothers, Anna and Lydia, promptly brought out tea, homemade bread, chocolates, and soup. The soup and the tea were both so hot they were boiling. This was something I have never seen. It was not until later I realized the significance of all of the food being extremely hot. In Russia, this has been a necessity as the only safe drinking water available was bottled or boiled. I take for granted clean, disease-free drinking water straight from the kitchen faucet. Since it was close to noon, I figured the meal was being served because it was lunch time. I later learned after several non-standard eating times it does not matter when a guest arrives, a meal will be served because that is the Eastern custom of being a good host. I feel uncomfortable eating their food when I know they have so little income. Yet there is a more important need for the Russian family to feel they are giving something in return for the relationship to be whole.
When getting to know someone from a culture different from one's own, I find it is most important to climb over the cultural wall. With the help of the translator, I shared what I knew of my family's experience of coming to America five generations ago. I then asked if they had any questions for me. The two fathers, being reserved in manner, said each visit would bring new experiences and that would be the natural flow of getting to know each other. As for Anna and Lydia, it was important for them to know about my wife and children. How old were my children? Did my wife cook all the meals? How did the children like having their father as the parent at home? These were the questions they would ask me.
Another key topic was discrimination. Anna and Lydia shared that in Russia those who are considered "white" are allowed access to schooling, medical care, and jobs, while everyone else is considered "black." Not looking white in Russia makes life extremely difficult. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, getting basic services was similar to playing a sleight-of-hand shell game while trying to guess where the service was now located. The result was denied medical care, employment, and schooling.
By the time this discussion was completed, I sensed it was uncomfortable for the men, Peter and Leon, to experience past injustices. They wanted to put those haunting images to rest. I shared with my new companions that I choose friends based on their kindness towards others.
I found out our translator was taking a job up north. My director asked me if I wanted to continue seeing the families on my own. I realized this would make my role of teaching English much more challenging, but it can be nothing compared to the unspoken hardships the Russian families have had to endure. If anything, the family would need me now more than ever. Vast discrepancies exist between ideal circumstances and reality. I did not want this to become yet another documented example where promises have been made, but the reality leaves the family with minimal support. I was not going to let that happen.
I arrived with my computer and a lesson plan for my first visit without the translator. The translator had provided a buffer-someone I could ask questions about customs and mannerisms in English so as not to offend. Now it was up to me to set the agenda. As I walked into their apartment, both families were eagerly waiting. I knew the adults were having a difficult time with their English class at the community college. Peter and Leon told me the teacher was going too fast and would only answer their questions in English, which they found frustrating since their current comprehension was at the novice level. The Russian adults felt the school experience was confusing and nothing was making any sense to them. I remembered the first time I took Spanish in sixth grade, and how I felt inadequate sitting next to other students who were easily able to roll their R's and freely converse. I could relate to their feeling of dread. I wanted the Russian family's time with me to be different.
I devised a plan to help these two families embrace learning English as an enjoyable, pleasant experience. We began with light conversation, followed by a lesson focusing on one vowel or consonant sound. I printed the lesson both in English and Russian, making adjustments based on feedback from the adults. The greatest support for my teaching English to the family had actually occurred five years prior. For two years, I took my son twice a week to speech therapy to learn to speak. He was three years old at the time, and the process taught me how we learn to speak a language, and how there are different levels of complexity when learning various sounds in the English language. Week by week, for a total of five thousand hours, I worked every day with my son to get him back on track. Little did I know I would use this valuable knowledge of language to teach adults the same principles, or that I could help them grasp the freeform language we all take for granted.
The level of need for my help shifted up another notch in the third month, as I took on some tasks the translator had done for the family. With their limited mode of transportation being the city bus or walking, getting to the bank and grocery store presented serious challenges in the 98-degree summer weather. The first challenge was to figure out where they wanted me to take them. Unfortunately, our ability to communicate was, and is still, limited. I am able to translate English to Russian using my computer, but the reverse direction is not possible because the Western keyboard lacks any characters in the Russian alphabet. After repeated attempts of careful listening on my part and asking the family, "Do you mean this?" several times, I was able to piece together what they needed. With four adults squeezing into my compact car, we drove to the bank, because only one of the two families had received their food stamp card. The other family was relying on Catholic Charities to deliver a check out of special funds covering situations like this. Unfortunately, the bank was closed, but Peter was confident the grocery store would accept their check.
After some quick page flipping in his portable dictionary, Peter gave me simple directions, "turn left, turn right," to the grocery store. Since they had previously shopped at the store with the translator, they knew exactly what they needed. Anna and Lydia filled their grocery carts with lots of root vegetables. Everything I have seen them cook is completely from scratch. They put no canned goods or frozen items in their carts. The one thing they did ask me was about buying meat, as the store signs are in English and Spanish, which doesn't help them. My wife is in charge of our grocery shopping, so I quickly called her to find out what types of meat are used for specific dishes. The one type of meat I did know about was hot dogs. I knew which brand was considered Kosher and had no pork fillers, which are considered a no-no in Russian culture.
When we passed the bread aisle, Leon took great pride in telling me how his wife makes the family bread. The closest I had come to making bread was with a bread machine, scooping all of the ingredients, placing them into the machine and pressing "bake." Thus, I was able to convey the English words for the ingredients, to his delight.
Later, with two carts overflowing like it was the day before Thanksgiving; we carefully steered into the checkout lane. The first family, Anna and Peter, swiped their food stamp debit card and they were good to go. The second family, Lydia and Leon, presented the cashier with the check. The cashier looked at the check and said, "I don't know if we can accept this. Let me check with my manager." I immediately became the protective watchdog of my new family members, and I was ready to pounce if the manager or cashier would not comply. Even when the answer came back the check was "good," I watched the cashier's every move, to the last point of making change.
When we got back to their apartment, it was late, and I thought we would call it a day after unloading the groceries. Instead, the family strongly insisted I stay for dinner. As this is part of their custom, to be a good host and show appreciation for my assistance, I agreed to stay a bit longer. With many children and adults huddled around the couches, we smiled at each other while the mothers prepared the meal. There was no background noise of a TV since they did not own one. All we had was each other to keep company. A multi-course feast began as I saw one dish after another brought out piping hot. With great delight from Anna, she served the hotdogs I had recommended earlier with a side of scrambled eggs. I smiled, knowing this was yet another way the family said "thank you."
From the time the two Russian families arrived in the States, the clock was ticking. There is a limited amount of time the government gives for helping families become situated before Catholic Charities is expected to move on to a new set of families. For these two families, four months have passed with no real prospects for work. Peter and Leon are anxious. Waiting is not in their nature. What they need is someone to look beyond the language barrier and give them a chance to prove themselves so they can provide for their families. Peter and Leon have taken the time to get their Florida drivers licenses, social security cards and all the proper documentation to be hired. They still have to deal with the lack of transportation. The vehicle donated to the family is a high mileage car with multiple problems. While the vehicle is free, the repairs needed are not, and there is no money available for the restoration needed to make the vehicle roadworthy. So it sits in front of their apartment building, unusable.
Finding jobs proves to be more challenging than it should be. The two families are located in Waterford Lakes, an area full of restaurants, hotels, and fast food services. There are several jobs requiring minimal communication between the employer and employee. I found out several restaurants in their area were looking for cooks. There is no written language required on how to prepare the food, as pictures are shown on the wall so the food will be consistent for customers traveling. There was clearly a sign in the front window saying they were hiring, but when we asked about hiring the Russians, the company responded, "We will take your application, but don't need any cooks at this time."
Then there was the reverse problem of the company saying yes and the family saying no. There are three hotels within walking distance that will hire the Russians. The hotels will provide free meals, uniforms, and even send their shuttle over to pick them up. Despite all these incentives, the husbands are strongly against having their wives work at a hotel. As they have seen on Western TV, the hotel employees are forced to become the "French Maid," having sex with the manager and hotel customers if they want to get paid. How do we convince the husband that is not reality, and prove that their wife is an adult who can say "No" if someone ever does proposition them?
At the end of the month, the prospects for the two families finally changed for the better. Combining their money, Peter, Leon and Lydia rent a vehicle for 200 dollars a month. This enables them to no longer be dependent on others for transportation to the grocery store, bank, medical clinic, and their new jobs. Twenty miles to the north is the cheese cake factory. The owner a few years ago decided to take the chance on the first Russian refugees as employees when Catholic Charities came knocking. He was so impressed with their work ethic that now the majority of employees are Russian. For my two families, working at the cheesecake factory is a low stress opportunity to provide for their family and be surrounded by people of the same cultural background. By choosing to work in this particular place, the family has decided to remain in a Russian speaking community which means minimum wage instead of higher pay found at the Hotel. The family is happy with this resolution to their dilemma, even though it means more 'at home' work for Anna watching the two families' children while Peter, Leon, and Lydia go to work.
My role of teaching has shifted as well. When I first started, it was Peter and Leon who were being taught English. Now it is just Anna and the children while the two husbands and second wife work. I also get to help them fill out the occasional school form, which can be rather confusing with all the abbreviations and numbers required for these forms. I continue to see strong vocabulary skills developing each week with Anna as we progress onto more difficult English lessons. I am amazed that she remembers 95 percent of the pronunciation from one week to the next. The normal rate is around 40 percent with steady progress for a majority of people learning a second language. Anna told me that instead of watching TV at night she studies the lessons I have given her because she wants to be able to help her children speak clear English as well. I am honored to have her as my student, and make sure before I leave that any new words are clearly explained in Russian and that she has the phonetic spelling as well.
Today the Russians, my director, and I are supposed to meet with a representative from Washington D.C. who is scheduled to interview the family to chart their progress. I arrive early to help the family make last minute preparations, and then we wait, and wait, and wait some more. I start making calls to find out where the government representative is. Finally, after waiting several hours I learn from my director the meeting is unfortunately cancelled because the interviewer refuses to visit without a translator. Both my director and I are irritated because we have two 90 percent effective ways to communicate to the family in Russian besides the translator. I am also irritated because this is another example of the government failing to do its job properly.
I place a high priority on follow-through, especially when it involves using up other people's time and energy. Having the government representative not even make an effort to call and let us know they were not coming to the Russians' apartment, sends a message "you are not important enough for an apology." I doubt this person would treat their family with such lack of common courtesy. I am very flexible with understanding people being late, but today's behavior is just rude. I hope this is just an isolated event, and future encounters with the government will be more productive.
One of the questions I asked the Russians while we waited for the government representative to arrive is how often the family has to wait. The answer is unfortunately a majority of the time. I likewise understand from their perspective the longest line is the best line, and waiting in Russia for government services is a way of life. But what if one waits in line, only never to be served? The family notices my sense of uneasiness with the situation of waiting without any information or update, so we drank some Turkish coffee to pass the time.