Living the American Dream - a First-hand Account of a First Generation Expat
Since I am the American citizen on the team of Novinite.com, this is a story about me and my life in America. I purposely omitted names of people I am talking about for the sake of privacy, but everything below is true and it has happened. And because it is Thanksgiving – I am very grateful it did.
On the other hand-side – much is my perception, my image of America. I am sure, many will disagree with it, however, this is simply America through my own eyes.
To others, when I talk about my work and career, it might seem that I am bragging a little. No, this IS the American dream. This country rewards hard work, integrity, professional ethics, knowledge, skills and talent and any combination of them thereof.
In 1999, I was privileged enough to become American citizen, and have been proud of it ever since.
Coming to America
Actually, while many of my friends during the Communist regime were dreaming of living in America, I never did. I had read a lot about it, and wanted to see it, but the thought of emigrating had never crossed my mind.
But then the Berlin Wall fell and the so-called "Lukanov Winter" arrived with the horror of barren store shelves and the 4 am long lines in front of the empty supermarket for two small containers of yogurt and a liter of milk. My son was 5. I had to go.
With two suitcases and a small child, in September 1991, I boarded Bulgarian carier Jet Air bound for New York. (It was a funny airline, no longer in operation, with a stop in Malta for refueling since the craft was small, and the last 10 rows reserved for smokers.)
Many hours later we were flying above New York City, descending towards the JFK airport – the new Ellis Island. I watched the endless lights below with a mixture of excitement and fear.
The trip to Washington DC and the first several months there are a blur. I remember the feeling of loneliness and the deep sorrow from being uprooted from everything and everyone I knew and loved; the helplessness from not being able to understand spoken English. There is a vivid memory, however, of me sitting on a bench in a beautiful park, watching airplanes in the sky above and thinking which one of them could be going home.
It took about a month to realize self-pity only leads nowhere. It was time to take faith in my own hands. I had observed enough and knew what I need to survive – learn how to drive, take English classes and find a job.
By March 1992, I had done all three. In June, I traveled back to Bulgaria, out of sheer nostalgia. JFK airport again. There was some confusion with my luggage at the check-in counter; the woman behind it was talking fast to me and, much to my amazement, I was able to understand every single word and to reply. Like a curtain had been lifted. I was going home, but just for a short visit. Other than that – I have arrived!
Work and Career
Most Americans define themselves by their work, so let's start here.
I did live the American dream – my experience is just another proof it exists.
I found my first job through an ad in the Washington Post – a school in a suburb was looking for a substitute for a teacher going on maternity leave. It was a French Immersion school i.e. the entire curriculum was taught in French. I spoke French fluently, had worked as a teacher at the French Language High School in Sofia, so I applied. A few days later someone called me; we spoke French on the phone for a minute or two and I got invited for an interview. After changing three buses, and two metro lines – I was there.
The principal was waiting for me. We talked for a while; don't remember much of what I told her in my broken English, but at the end she offered me a full time job as a teacher's aide, instead of the substitute position. (This is when I also got my first very, very cheap car.)
This 50 or so African-American woman, who used to terrify some teachers at the school with her stern face, firm hand, and unwavering intolerance for the lazy and the ignorant, was the person who actually opened the door for me. All along she gave me her full support. To this day, I think of her with nothing but fondness and respect.
When the first opportunity arrived, she offered me a full time teaching position. I had my own classroom (first grade French Immersion) and a load of new responsibilities. This is the time to say – the neighborhood was predominantly African-American, of the most poor, urban type. The kids were unruly; the parents - often nasty. Somehow I managed. Being a teacher's aide and able to observe different teaching styles, and what worked and what didn't, helped a great deal. It took plenty of effort, thinking, and hard work, but I was able to establish a reputation of a good teacher, and to earn the respect of students, parents, coworkers and supervisors. Demonstration lessons for colleagues and mothers bringing me home-cooked lunch quickly became part of my daily live at the school.
Four years later, the public school system decided to open a French Immersion middle school, and posted an ad for program coordinator. I wanted to apply, but have heard through the grape-wine that someone else was already slated for the job. I called the person in charge of the Foreign Language education for the entire county. She insisted that I must apply as anyone else, after all the job posting was there for everyone. She was the second one to stand behind me all along ever since, and one of the many to follow.
After several rounds of interviews, I DID get the job. One thing that worked into my advantage – the school wanted to offer Russian as an elective to study along with French. I became the coordinator for the French Immersion program, and had to teach just one course – Introduction to Russian. We had so much fun – learned the Cyrillic alphabet; went to see the Nutcracker; watched Anastasia; talked about Lenin, the October Revolution, Communism and everything else. In the second year – I had 40 kids enrolled for this elective course and a long waiting list.
As far as the French language – despite budget shortages, we tried to provide the best books (from Canada) and teachers. With the latter's hard work, the firm support of the school administration and of parents giving up their free time to fundraise and assist, our students scored among the top in national contests; we took trips to Montreal and Louisiana, and in just two years since its launch, the program was recognized by the Institute for Applied Linguistics as a National Model Early Language Program. It was included, along with one of my lessons, in the book "Lessons Learned: Model Early Language Programs."
After all that – it was time for a new challenge. There was an opening for a Coordinator for the Creative and Performing Arts School. I wanted something new; decided to give it a try and got the job. Overseeing the Arts program, working with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC and the Maryland Artist Teacher Institute, the countless drama and dance rehearsals and performances, the symphonic concerts, the art exhibits, the State contests, the fundraising events, the school trips, often so difficult to organize, the late evenings and the sleepless nights, everything was worth just for the spark in the children's, teacher's and parents' eyes.
Meanwhile, through all this – I worked a number of part time jobs, especially in the beginning, to make ends meet, offer my child a decent life and support my parents in Bulgaria. I was also constantly attending college classes – first to get certified as a teacher, and then as a school administrator.
I never got to become a school principal, though, over the decision to return to Bulgaria.
Sure, there were many obstacles, in addition to the initial, but constant shortage of money – I encountered some plain mean people, (way beyond making fun of my Eastern European accent); others have been incompetent, lazy, envious or dishonest. People are people everywhere, but it is the majority that counts, isn't it?
In Bulgaria, a friend is everything – someone you talk to several times a day, meet several times a week, a sounding board, a drinking and entertainment buddy and a shrink.
Friendship is different in America. People do not get that close; they do not socialize or confess to each other as much and that often. There are things you never talk about even with very close friends. But Americans are always there for each other. Bulgarians tend to take care only of their own; Americans take care of everyone in times of need. I remember people collecting money, cooking, offering a hand to acquaintances and even strangers, because they were in some kind of trouble...
Don't get me wrong – I had many friends in America, and I still do. I love them dearly. No, we did not spend nights talking and drinking like we do here. We did not party every week in someone's house and did not stay for hours and hours in restaurants and clubs. But they are friends. They would do anything for me as I would do anything for them.
Years after my arrival in America, my brother won a green card through the lottery, moved there too, got married to a Bulgarian girl in Philadelphia with a number of relatives, so to my great pleasure, I ended with a wonderful, new-found family. But until then, my American friends were my family.
As, maybe, an exception, one of my American girlfriends was and is particularly special. We got very close. We even talked about family problems and men. We took frequent trips to New York to visit another friend, (a Bulgarian I was friendly with before I moved to America, and this funny thing called life brought us together once again) for a true "Sex and the City" experience. Priceless.
Maybe this is the time to say something about American food and dining. There is no such thing as American food – it is a conglomerate of food from all over the world; any type of cuisine is available, especially in large cities. To someone like me, coming from the Balkans – supermarket food seemed too processed, too bland (until Trader Joes came to town – a real food heaven for my taste). I also never got used to the cookie-cutter restaurant chains like TGI Friday or the Cheesecake Factory. The best restaurants I have visited are in New York, very different than those mentioned above, but oh well, most everything is different in New York... And the endless eating and drinking Bulgarians are used to when they go out, does not exists in America – drinks and even food in restaurants are pricy and time is precious.
September 11, 2001
September 11 is still an open wound – more on this can be found HERE.
Washington DC and New York
"Good morning Washington, the most powerful city in the world," the radio said without failing at daylight.
My life and work took me to Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Pittsburg, and Philadelphia, among others - Washington is an amazing city, unlike any other, not only because the United States Congress has supreme authority over it and may overturn local laws.
It is different because it lacks the typical American skyline – in 1899, Congress passed the Heights of Buildings Act limiting buildings to the height of the Capitol, but the original law was amended in 1910 to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, so a building facing a 90-foot-wide street could be only 110 feet tall. No skyscrapers in DC.
Washington DC is also unique because it is a planned city, the idea of some prominent Freemasons. Its design was largely the work of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French-born architect, engineer, and city planner. In 1791, President George Washington commissioned L'Enfant to plan the layout of the new capital city. Even though L'Enfant was later dismissed by the same Washington due to his insistence on micromanaging the city's planning and others finished the work - L'Enfant's vision of a capital with sprawling parks, grand national monuments and federal buildings, with avenues radiating out from rectangles, providing room for open space and landscaping, became a true trademark of the city. Despite the fact those traffic circles are quite a hussle today, one must admire all this beauty. And, for sure, appreciate the awesome museums free of charge.
Washington DC is top-of-the-line clean and orderly, but it is also very conservative – indeed a powerful place, a place of politicians, lobbyist and lawyers. Many Bulgarians are at awe with it, maybe because it is so different than our often so messy Sofia. I enjoyed it, but always found it somewhat sterile and boring. So, I used every opportunity to escape to the "city that never sleeps," to the "Big Apple" - New York.
There is no other city like it either, but in a very different way. (From what I have seen, only New Orleans and Philadelphia come close, but still, they are no match in my book...) My heart is in Central Park, the endless avenues, the small parks, the quaint little shops, the ethnic restaurants, the noisy live-music night clubs, and the endless coffee shops and diners.
I left America at a time when I had it all. I had the American dream. No, I never became millionaire, (can't do this working for a public school system), but made a very comfortable living, had the respect of my coworkers, a new family, dear friends and community ties. The decision was difficult; the reason too personal to share.
Do you regret it, I often get asked here. You bet there are times I do. Do you miss America? Sometimes I miss it so much it hurts – my friends, my family, the kindness of a perfect stranger, driving on those incredible American roads, and much, much more. I try to visit as often as I can. But when I was there I was missing Bulgaria. The curse of the emigrant.