Amidst the crowded hall on the seventh floor of Hunter College West, I sat down with a distant acquaintance of mine. Clad in plaid with a beige wrist watch decorating his arm, Mark told me his story of immigrating from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Queens, New York when he was eight and a half years old.
Mark, born on April 3rd, 1999, moved here with only his mother, Elena, a dog, and a cat. Though he comes from a mixed background, (his mother is of Russian descent, while is father is of Korean descent), when he first moved to Woodhaven, Queens on September 21st, he only spoke Russian. He could read some English as a result of classes he took despite not understanding it. He is now eighteen and receiving his undergraduate degree.
Mark explained that his mom primarily moved to America to give him a “better future.” The region where he came from was not as stable economically, and Mark felt that America provided better educational opportunities. His parents were divorced prior to moving.
“I get financial aid. [This] provides me with the resources that could guide me towards the field I want to go into, [which is the] medical field.”
Generally, the level of diversity in City Universities of New York far surpasses that of the national average. The system is one of the best in the nation for hosting programs for immigrants and undocumented immigrants in programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Hunter College recently raised money specifically for Dreamers.
Mark always knew he would end up in the medical field as his father was an anesthesiologist and his mother was a nurse, though she now works as a pet groomer. However, he explained working in the medical field in Uzbekistan “is like working for scraps.” Here, it is “a highly valued position.”
Doctors in Tashkent, Uzbekistan make about $13,818 in a year according to teleport.org. An average doctor in New York City makes about $145,000 per year. Many immigrants tend to migrate to become doctors in America because of this difference in income.
Mark faced few problems on his journey to America. He recalled only one issue he encountered in the airport. “Because we had a dog we brought with us, we had special papers for the dog. When the guy asked us for the papers, we didn’t understand them, so we were just standing there and nothing was really going on. Eventually, we just kind of kept showing paper [after paper] like, ‘[Is it] this one?’ ‘No.’ ‘This one?’ ‘No.’ Eventually, we got the right one.”
It is recommended to bring a paper with English in case a staff member is not there who speaks your language. There is no guarantee that a translator will be present to assist you when you first arrive. There are many forums and threads on sites like Quora and Reddit with people voicing their concerns over the process, though no systematic procedure exists in U.S. airports. At times, there is an I-94 form one fills out on the airplane with basic biographical information on it. The form comes in different languages, but Mark and his mom were not asked to fill one out one they arrived.
After finishing airport procedures, distant friends picked up Mark and his mother and they moved into an apartment in Woodhaven, Queens, in which they still live today. Mark explained that he and his mother gained residency through marriage, like many immigrants. “My mother had a childhood friend who moved here [in New York]. He had [had] a wife and two kids, but they divorced, so my mom married her old childhood friend.” He does not live with Mark’s family.
In terms of population, Mark said that his neighborhood was mostly Hispanic. Current statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Woodhaven, Queens is predominantly made of Hispanic and Asian residents. The former makes up about 41.5% while the latter makes up 25.7%. African Americans make up 9.1% and whites make up 11.2%. In terms of region, Woodhaven and Richmond Hill near Park Lane South are more diverse than places like Myrtle Avenue, even if the areas are close in proximity.
Comparatively, current statistics about demographics in Uzbekistan state that the region is about 80% Uzbek, 5.5 Russian, 3% Tajik, 2.5% Karakalpak, 1.5% Tartar (1.5%), and 2.5% composed of other ethnicities. Particularly, the population of Tashkent itself is about 1, 978,000 million, while the population of Queens is 2.339 million.
After leaving his home, Mark initially blamed his mother for bringing him to New York without his consent. “I had to abandon everyone I knew—all my family, all my friends. I had to spend a lot of time adapting to American culture and there were a lot of negatives…like I don’t belong.”
The permanence of Mark’s trip was unapparent to him. “The school that I went to [in Tashkent] didn’t teach me about geography whatsoever, so I didn’t realize I was in a completely different continent. I [had] gone to vacations before in different places, so I thought it was kind of like that. I didn’t realize it was permanent. The whole situation was not explained to me because I guess my mother knew that I would be opposed to it.”
“The environment I moved to was very strange because I didn’t understand what was going on. I was new to the culture; I didn’t understand what people were saying. There were a lot of laws [in New York] that inhibited what I was used to in Uzbekistan. For example, I couldn’t be outside by myself or left alone in my house by myself, which was new to me. [Before,] I was able to go outside by myself and spend all day outside since I was 3 years old,” he said.
Language was among the greatest barriers Mark overcame. American culture was another. He said, “A lot of things that were normal back where I came from were seen as abnormal or atypical. [For example,] to pass the time, everyone spent their time outside playing sports or climbing trees [in Uzbekistan]. Here, everyone was either glued to their TVs or their Nintendos. [Also,] I guess nobody paid any attention on how other people dressed; as long as you were covered you were good.”
With hesitation and a twiddling of his thumbs, Mark explained that in later years, he realized he carried “a great fear of being an outcast,” and that learning the language and adapting to what he considered American culture were among his top priorities.
He added, “Talking to people like my father and my friends, was very difficult at first because to me it seemed like I would never see them again.”
Mark eventually grew accustomed to these differences and now, the prospect of going back for Mark seems just as difficult as when he first moved to Queens. He elaborates, “I definitely do not want to go back…Going back would be very difficult for me, from an economic point of view. Despite the fact that I do still speak the language, I don’t remember how to write [or read].”
It took a while for Mark to adopt this current mindset and consider his house a home. There were times when he would dream he was back in his old country. “I would be back in my own room, and then I would wake up and look around and I would be confused as to where I [was]. It would take a second to kick in, like, ‘Why am I here?’”
But the “why” no longer plagues him. Eventually, there came a time when he was “very much appreciative” that he was in New York and he settled in about a month or two after moving.
Mark summarized, “New York, like many other places in the US provides economic opportunities. Improvements include economic stability, access to higher levels of education, and the potential for social mobility.”
Mark further acknowledges that he is not alone when it comes to having this immigrant experience in a place like New York. He stated, “I’ve come across people who came here when they were around the age of two and claim that they are better off for the aforesaid reasons when compared to the country they came from. Their statements [are] derive[d] from first hand observations of the environment and standards of their countries when they went to visit their family. So other people most definitely share some similar story [with me].”
Despite the many discrepancies between the culture in America and the home he left behind, Mark’s mother did retain some traditional cuisine, in addition to picking up a few classic American dishes.
“[My] mom cooks mostly Russian food, [like] plov, pelmeni, potatoes with eggs, mac and eggs, and Russian pancakes (they’re just really thin). [My mom] also [cooks] some American style [or non-Russian foods] that she learned from some recipes, like chowder, enchiladas, the basic breakfast food. [I eat] mostly American [food], which I buy.”
Though not the biggest fan of food in general, Mark’s favorite food comes from his Korean side; he described it as “Korean style rice submerged in water with a side of meat and a side of vegetables.” Mark is likely describing rice porridge and vegetables.
There are also other things Mark enjoys about New York City. One thing that stood out to him in New York were “the buildings, especially in Manhattan, like the ones [he] would see in movies. Seeing them in real life was completely different.”
When describing his favorite and least favorite places in the city, Mark said, “Well I suppose the one thing that everybody in New York hates is the MTA, right? Spending three hours on the MTA sucks. But asides from that I don’t really [have any favorite or least favorite locations]. I’m not one who really travels around. It’s really just home, school, and everything in between.”
New York City has not changed too drastically for Mark. “I wasn’t too observant of how things were going on [at first]. I would assume that in the past decade, a lot of like progressive things came about. Like a lot more acceptance and tolerance. It wasn’t something that ever really impacted me, because I am half Russian, so I never really faced any barriers with race or nationality.”
Delving deeper into his nationality, Mark said that he identifies more as an American, specifically a white American when it comes to forms or exams that ask you to highlight one option. Though his father was Korean, he lived in Tashkent where he met Mark’s mother Elena (Tashkent, being in central Asia, is known for having a mix of Asians and Russians). Mark explains that he has an imaginary middle name Igoreivitch since is father’s name was Igor, even if this is not formally listed on his papers.
I asked Mark to evaluate his place in the community compared to those around him and whether he feels his community represents New York or America as a whole. To Mark, his small community in Queens does not represent America, despite the fact that Queens is one of the most diverse places in the world. “America is so vast and diverse. [My neighborhood is] nothing really special. It’s kind of like a suburban area where, although, no one really knows each other, we are extremely friendly and we do very much trust each other.”
Overall, Mark felt that the pros of New York outweighed his own sense of complacency. “Whether I’m happy or not doesn’t matter as long as I hold the view that I am significantly better off here than Uzbekistan.”
Many immigrants like Mark may seem ambivalent about their experiences in America, but grow to appreciate the practical benefits of moving. Though their realities do not exactly ring true to tales of having streets paved with gold, they come to recognize the opportunities here as being worth certain sacrifices. Mark may miss some of the freedom he gave up, but looks forward to the economic freedom he will gain after finishing college and starting a career. It is this very sense of concrete economic stability that his mother wished for him.
At the end of our interview, I asked Mark to complete this sentence: “My New York is…” and wholeheartedly, he answered, “My home.”
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