We left for the airport at one in the morning. It was a white minivan, I think it belonged to a family friend. Or a friend of a friend. A small group of family and friends lingered till the end to help us load up the minivan and say their tearful goodbyes. I sat by the window, wide awake and scared. It was going to be a long ride, Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport was well outside the city limits.
The road lead through a forest. There were rumors of highway robbers in that forest: they knew that most of the cars on the road in the middle of the night were people emigrating. Flight was at 7 a.m. Check in was at three. We got lucky, no robbers for us.
The Sheremetyevo Airport was enormous and lit very brightly. With a border check inside – just for emigration processing. There was a gate and heavily-armed guards, you had to say your goodbyes outside the gate, once across – no touching. They went through our luggage, weighted our silver and gold (we were only allowed 750 grams of silver each and even less gold.) My father had to explain what was in the little glass jars of paint: paint. We were a family of artists, we had no diamonds or furs, nor were we smuggling platinum. They took our passports, we now had no country. We crossed the gate, and were officially no longer on Russian soil. My mom attempted one last hug with a relative and was ordered back.
We sat on hard plastic benches for hours. I ventured into the duty-free (all prices in US Dollars) to smell the perfumes and dreamed of a day when I would buy one of these beautiful fragrant bottles. Little did I know that it would be many long and hard years before I would be able to finally afford any of it. I watched another family cross the gate: this one was covered in Russian Siberian fox furs head to toe. They went through their search never taking off the furs. I wondered what exactly was in the lining. Once over the gate, the woman attempted a kiss with the man left behind, but they were quickly separated by the guards. Emigration was flowing steadily for years at this point, and Russian authorities figured out that the final goodbye kiss was nothing more than a clever attempt to smuggle diamonds out of the country.
There was a skinny girl my age wandering the brightly lit terminal. I thought that maybe I could have a friend for the long flight, so I mustered up the courage to say hello. I told her I was going to New York and asked what city she was going to. She stuck her bird-like nose up in the air, chirped “Brooklyn!” before turning on her heel and walking away from me. I was confused – to my knowledge Brooklyn was part of New York.
We flew Aeroflot. It was a direct flight: Moscow to New York. 12 hours. 12 hours stuck in a large steel box filled with cigarette smoke so thick you could see it moving around. Aeroflot allowed smoking on the plane. The entire plane. I still don’t know how my father survived that – he can’t stand the smoke. When we finally entered the American airspace, it was dusk. The sun was setting over New York City and the sky was deep orange with purple clouds. “Even the sky is different here,” I thought. The plane made a pass over Statue of Liberty, a symbolic “Welcome to America” gesture from the pilots of a plane full of emigrants.
We landed at JFK to complete chaos. We were met by INS, who grabbed our papers and started shoving us into different lines based on our final destinations. No one could understand what anyone was saying. Someone tried to give a carton of Russian cigarettes to a Customs official, only to be quickly told that bribes are not legal in this country (a remark that was met with a shrug and a laugh). There were bright lights and confusion and yelling, and none of it felt welcoming.
There was a mad dash across JFK to a domestic flight to Chicago. We barely made the flight and boarded at the last minute. Compared to the giant 747 that we disembarked mere 45 minutes ago, the plane to Chicago felt tiny and cramped. And old. I started to worry that we might not make all the way.
It was night when we landed in Chicago. The air was hot and humid, something we were not used to since it was already Fall in Moscow. We were shoved into a teal Corolla, and taken to my uncle’s apartment. He was our immigration sponsor, we were to stay with him until all our processing was finalized. We were tired, starving, filthy, and felt manhandled by everyone. My mother was in shock and my father had a disappointed look on his face. At this point all I wanted was to wash the cigarette smoke out of my hair and to be left alone. I was a tiny fish in new waters, but I wasn’t sure if I liked the bowl.
23 years passed. Yet, I still vividly remember that flight and the color of the sky over New York. It took a couple of years for me to finally fall in love with my new fish bowl, and eight before I officially – and proudly – belonged to a country again. I have lived here longer than I lived there, and yet there are moments when I still feel like fish out of water.