ladislav wrote:I am writing this in a restaurant in the Arcadia area of Odessa, Ukraine, not far from the Black Sea beaches. I feel that it is time to look back and sum things up. I see Winston in Taiwan "giving lectures", so I am going to join him. Kind of , sort of.
For the first time, I have tried to retrace my steps and come back to where I had started my life 49 years ago and where, 31 years ago, my emigration to the US took place. I took some time to just sit sit down somewhere and add it all up, and I have come to the same conclusion - America is a great country if another country ( or countries) are added to it, or are figured in some kind of equasion with it. This way, you can capitalize on all kinds of comparative advantages and live a great life.This is why so many immigrants love America ( they can always compare it to where they came from) and why so many refugees who cannot go back to where they had begun their lives are not as happy.- they cannot enjoy the comparative advantage. That is why Cubans are still protesting in Miami against Castro, while Salvadorans are not protesting in LA ( except to get legalized) .
Anyway, I was born in what used to be the USSR- and what is now an independent country of Ukraine. I started my life in a very old city of Lviv - the birthplace of Leopold Von Masoch- the founder of Masochism- no relation to me as I do not think I ever enjoyed having pain inflicted upon me although, the Baron must have thought I did, for he must have invited all kinds of misfortune upon me in the beginning of my life.
My mother was a starving art student, and my father also, a poor art student from the city of Odessa. His job at the time was making plastic ball pens while my mother had no job. They both had very little money and had to place me with one of my grandmother or another so that they would feed me and take care of me.
Also, I was born in a huge structure that used to be a synagogue from the Austrian times, which the Soviet authorities redeveloped into a maternity house. I appeared on Easter Sunday at 3:00 am. Maybe that made me somewhat fortunate because I narrowly escaped death immediately upon my birth- while in the ward, I developed a strange gengrene-like infection and the administration said they could not help me and asked my grandmother to sign me out by filling out all kinds of release forms. They said the infection was serious and I might not survive it. My grandmother, a laundry woman at a local college, took me home and miraculously cured me by applying herbs and oils, and other folk medicines, to the afflicted areas.
In those times, the Soviet authorities had a very strange system called 'propiska' to control the population. "Propiska" ( meaning "writing into") meant that every person had to secure a permit from local authorities to live where they wanted to live. Most people stayed in cities or villages where they had jobs and had been born, and where their parents had been born and thus had no problem. Those, however, who decided to move could often not get a residence permit to live in another place. They could only live there on temporary permits as students or visitors. They also could not register their kids permanently in any place where they studied or visited even if the kids were born in that place. Can you imagine? A perosn not having a lagela right to live where he/she was born! Thus, the contry literally did not have a birthplace 'city' zenship. My father made a very big mistake by canceling his residency in the city of Odessa and going to live with my mother in Lviv. He could not get neither a job nor 'residency' in that city when he arrived there and became city-lessand residence- less.A city-less alien in his own country. I am still not sure how he screwed it all up but the result was that I could not, as a kid stay in the city of my birth because of the strange internal "visa regime". Thus, my parents went to the Russian Republic and, there, got a job and residency while keeping me on "temporary permits" in Ukraine with my grandmothers.
The mom and dad settled in the city of Tula, 100 miles South of Moscow. I still lived, by turns, with my two grandmothers - one in Odessa and one in Lviv , until I finally joined my parents in Russia at age seven where they were now doing very well job-wise. My mother was making big mosaics for government buildings, and my father was buildig enormous sculptures of government leaders and WWII heroes. Tula, even though a big weapon manufacturer, is still considered by many people somewhat of a God-forsaken city that no one wants to live in ( kind of like Detroit in the US) so they welcome all kinds of 'settlers' and give them "propiskas". I did not like it because of the cold weather ( sometimes reaching 40 degrees below zero) and always wanted to go back to Ukraine where the climate was almost subtropical, and the cities were much prettier. Although I went there during summer vacations to stay with my grandparents, my boyhood and early teens mostly took place in Russia where, even though I did not enjoy the weather, I was very happy with so many friends I was able to make. Russian kids were different from Ukrainians in that they were communal, liked to be in large groups and stood up for each other, whereas in Ukraine, they were stuck up and individualistic. I was doing well in school, my parents started making good money and bought a summer house in Ukraine, on the shores of a large firth formed by the river Dniester flowing into the Black Sea in a Rivera like resort area. They bought a speed boat, and my summer life became very adventurous. Every years I went there, we traveled up the river with my parents and enjoyed all kinds of marine sports- water skiing, snorkeling and fishing. In the fall, I would go back to the Russian republic to attend elementary and junior high. At that time, I was growing into a handsome darkhead boy with an exotic Mediterranean look, and the Russian girls began paying attention to me. They would giggle when I went by and some sent me "I love you, Vladek" notes. In the neighborhood where I lived, girls would come up to me and say- "You know, Natasha is in love with you- head over heels, I mean it, she has told me". "Marina thinks you are very cute". "Elena loves you". Things like that. Every time I walked around I saw eyes of blond fairy like girls on me, smiling and whispering something to each other. It got to the point where girls would find out where I lived and run to the building under the pretext to borrow something for the household just to check me out. I was very shy and did not know how to respond. One very cute Tartar girl ( they are an ethnic minority in Russia and they look like Filipinas) also had a big crush on me, and her attraction for me was so intense that it created in me what they call in America an "Asian fetish" because since then I liked Asian girls because they always reminded me of that Tartar girl whose love I never responded to.
However, I still wanted to go to Ukraine to study high school because I missed the romantic cities there, and the warm climate. Eventually, my parents were able to get me a temporary "propiska" there and I began attending school there. It was then that I became aware of the fact that geography does matter, and country, culture, society matters as far as one's social life goes. I was now in the city of Odessa, a gorgeous Paris-like place on the shores of the warm Black Sea, but when became a student there, my "social status" plummeted. In Tula, I was an exotic darkhead, here I was one of many, many darkheads. I was now an out of towner speaking with a funny accent, acting like a Russian hick ( which Ukraine people do no like) and once, even got beat up for not acting or speaking like a local. Girls were not looking at me here. There were lots of rich boys here, lots of handsome boys, and I became a lonely guy. While in the Russian Republic I was a" leader" of many boys, I became a nobody in Ukraine. It took me a long time to make some friends in the city as many people considered me weird and strange and all that. It seemed that most girls in my class had been taken and, on the street where I lived they were all stuck up and were just walking by without looking at me. Amazing realy! You move a few hundred miles and everything changes.
What saved me here was that my parents still had a summer house and at the resort outside the city where it was located, and where many teenagers would come and live during the summer. Many were from St Petersbug and Moscow and even from Odessa, too. They were staying at resorts, and every summer we had wild times. I learned how to sing and play the guitar, drink wine and thus, we all had all kinds of fun.My dad's speedboat was now full of teenage girls and guys, in the evening we would all get drunk and break into couples and spend crazy nights in tents on the beach doing all kinds of pleasant things. However, when in the city, I again became alone. No friends, no girlfriend. The girls and guys who had come from Moscow and St Pete, would go back home. The Odessa girls would go back to their ciyt boyfriends, and I would again become depressed. My studies began to slip. After I finished high school with a C+, I could not pass university entrance exams, my "visa" had expired and I had to go back to the Russian republic to enter the mandatory military service. This was one year before the Afghan war was to begin.
Me being the only son made my parents worried. They started getting ready to emigrate. Through some strange machinations, they were able to secure an exit visa, and right before the draft notices were about to be sent,we slipped out of the country. I arrived in the US in July 1978. A totally unexpected turn of events- I never ever thought I would end up in America in a million years.
Anyway, in the US the culture shock, both positive and negative was enormous. There was no residency system, no internal passports. You could live anywhere you could afford to live in and were not at the mercy of police authorities allowing or disallowing you to move in or move out. Political freedoms were incredible. Educational opportunities were so advanced and flexible that it simply amazed me to no end. My C + grades were just fine in the US, and I went to college, got student loans and Pell Grants and did quite well. I chose the subjects that I wanted to study, and I could, basically, write my own future. The living conditions were also excellent. Apartments were big, they had many amenities and my father bought a Cadillac within a few months of living in the country. They started having exhibitions and slowly, not without dificulties, though, built up a clientele of galleries and customers and started making a living off of their art. Because they were good at it, eventually, they got some regular contracts and things improved financially even more. We moved to Hollywood, they got a contract with a Bevery Hills art gallery and started making some serious bucks helping them to buying a house in Palm Springs where my mother still lives and runs her art business. That is what America can do for unexpected immigrants like us.
I finished my AA courses, learned Spanish, went for my BA and then an MA in teaching ESL. I was also able to get the Green Card, then a US passport which lead to my overseas,American-International jet-setter like career with the Japanese and the Arabs. I had every credit card in the book, had Cadillacs, a Jeep and Jag, a job at an airline school in Hollywood, a teaching position at the UCLA extension and the LA City Colege, a slick apartment on Hollywood Boulevard and other material things.
I no longer had to live like a 'foreigner' in the city of my birth, and could live like a full-blooded citizen in my adopted country of the US of A.
An American dream, for sure. A totaly unexpected, never dreamt-of dream. So what was the catch? Was everything OK in the US? No. My social life had suffered even more now. I thought Ukrainians were hard to get along with and that the Ukie girls were stuck up. In America the situation was far worse. At least Ukrainian girls were pretty, slim, well dressed and well mannered. They were smart and knowledgeable. Classy. They had the reason to be stuck up. But in the US , many women dressed like sewer workers, were fat and ugly, acted like men, were non intellectual, and thought they were God's gift to humanity. Beautiful and arrogant- I can understand; ugly and arrogant- spare me, please!
The guys were all in small cliques or alone looking like there was some kind of trouble all the time. Also, the voluntary racial/ethnic segregation would make Hendrik Verwoerd proud. Racial mixing and even ethnic mixing was very rare. In East Europe, there were big ethnic issues, but, socially peoplestill mingled one thousand times more. In the Eastern US, every ethnic group preferred to mingle within their own circle. Also, people just loved being alone, period, and did not want to be bothered. When I went to college in New Paltz, New York, I did make some friends, met some girls and enjoyed some good times but it was never even close to what I experienced as a teenager in the former USSR. Also, it seemed that young people were so full of it. There was very little friendship and/or camaraderie between guys and they had to join fraternities to make friends. People were also into this Freudian ( Austrian) psychology and somehow thought that it was normal for people to have Electra complex and Oedipus complex. It was funny that I was born in the western Ukraine (what used to be Austria) but I never heard of all those complexes.How come?
There were also lots of real a-holes around who were completely insensitive to other people's feelings and who would sue others, scream and shout at others and seemed to be so much into themselves. The US society was very organized in business and governing and in every practical sense, but it seemed psychotic and neurotic in the way people behaved socially.
I went to study in Vermont and found the place to be socially dead. Again, the girls were ugly, there seemed to be more guys than girls, and the girls would not make eye contact with me at all. They seemed full of it! Plus everybody just worked, worked, worked. And still Vermont was one of the poorest states in the Union. How come?
I moved to California, and it was a bit better. I started dating a bit more, strangely enough. I dated quite a few black girls there whom I found to be quite nice, but it was then that I started seeing all these Filipinas and Thais and Japanese and my old "Asian fetish" began to re-awaken. Some guys at work would tell me stories about how they had been to the Philppines while in the military, and how many girls they had been able to date. This perked up my interest. I then started working for an airline school and was able to secretly date some Filipinas that worked or studied there. But they were living in the US and would alternate me with other guys. I would watch wistfully how all these young guys would come in slick cars and pick those Filipinas uo and whisk them away leaving me holding the bag. I had a crush on this Filipina and een rented a limot to take her out on a date, but she still dumped me.
I then swore to myself- one day I would relive my teenage years of glory and at that time, yes! at that time, I will not be shy anymore!
The year was 1990, and I was hired by a Japanese university and went to work in Tokyo. This gave me two month holidays, some 3-4 hours of teaching a and the opportunity to see Asia. I was also hoping I would meet some Japanese girls, but did not score there that well. I would describe the Japanese as "frozen" people. On the train and just about anywhere else, there is no eye contact, everybody walks around in his bubble, very shy and unsociable. Japanese girls also did not like me much because of racial reasons- most do not like non Japanese guys, unless the Japanese woman is older or fat or unattractive or if the Western guy looks like Leonardo Di Caprio. I could have had sub-standard girlfriends- which is what most guys settled for, but I decided not to lower my standards and , on my first vacation, I went all around Asia to check things out. I had an absolute blast! I arrived in Bangkok and ended up in the go- go bars filled with Miss Universes- there, I went totally nuts. I got drunk, took girls out and had the (paid) fun of my life. Then, I went to Taiwan and Singapore and Malaysia. I did not score there and, on the following semester vacation, I arrived in the City of Love- Cebu, the Philippines.
This was as if I was the legendary Phoenix rising back from the ashes. It was as if a dead man came back from the grave. It was total resurrection, reawakening, regaining of the lost glory and the long forgotten happiness.
I was 30 years old and looked about 22. The girls there would not leave me alone. Everywhere I wen,t there were torrents of them, rivers of college girls in cute uniforms, all happy as larks, laughing and holding hands. They would see me, yell out "handsome!" blow kissed at me and try and catch my eye with theirs. Some girls formed a chain on the street and not let me go through. I went to a department store and the girls at the counter froze when they saw me- I asked what was wrong- "You are so handsome- they said."Me, why? " It is your tantalizing eyes!" was the response. They were all loking at me and showing very string interest in me. My life was back to normal.
Everywhere, there was flirting, whistling, kisses, furtive and not-so-furtive look,s and happiness and joie de vivre just overflowing.
I knew I was finally 'home'.
Girls would get my number, run back to college and tell about me to all the other girls there and then call me and say that " they all want to meet you".
I became sick with joy! Literally sick. I was shaking when coming back to my hotel room. A freaking star! That is what I was now. I looked in the mirror. There was no sadness anymore in my eyes.
Since then, the Philippines became my new 'home'. I was able to get girlfriends there and have a social life with resorts, boats and the sea, that I could never get anywhere else except in Ukraine in the 1970ies.
Then, I got a job in Thailand. I thought that since I was only two hours away from the Philippines, I could visit often but my salary wastoo low. I tied to invest in a business but was taken to the cleaners and ended up in a big debt, which lead my to my employment in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman and, after my debts had been paid, several long sojourns in Manila and Cebu. I have also been able to visit every continent, learn a few more languages and have great times in many parts of the world.
Now, after another stint in Saudi Arabia, which I terminated voluntarily, I decided to visit the independent Ukraine where I am now. The salary here now is some $200-400 a month. This is what those old collge graduates that got accepted to universities here are making now. I, until recently was making 10-13 times more. But that became possible, of course, when America and Saudi Arabia came into the equasion.
Here I am now, in a brand new, fresh, very free and democratic capitalist country without the restrictions that I experiences when I was young.Local people talk with me and give me envious looks. From their perspective, I am a winner and successful man with the kind of lifestyle that they could never afford.
They still have a semblance of a "propiska" system, but if you buy a house or an apartment here, they register you with no problem. Otherwise, I can get long visas to stay here, and they do not ask questions and do not bother 'foreigners' like myself. Too bad that the Ukrainian constitution does not allow dual citizenship. I would like to get a passport in this non EU, but a very European country, but they require a note from my US embassy that I showed up there and relinquished my US citizenship in front of the US council. Something I would never do.
Yesterday I was on a train going from Lviv to Odessa and shared my sleeping compartment with three blond women- one young, and two middle-aged. I spent the entire evening telling them stories about my travels and adventures.
At the end of my stories, one of them exclaimed- "You are a rich man!" The young one, though, was sulking in the corner, not looking at me, and when we arrived at the Odessa train station, a young man was waiting for her. Oh, well. Maybe I will go to the Tula next time.
Conclusion: Now, at 49, when I look back, I can proudly say that the last 31 years that I have spent outside of my birth place, although often bitter sweet, have been great. I have lived my life, mostly, the way I wanted to live it, doing the things that I wanted to do, and going where I wanted to go. I did not live the way society wanted me to live, often because society has not even allowed me to do so. But even when it did, I would still choose to do my own thing. This has angered some people but, I guess, you just can't please everybody, so, you've got to please yourlself, as the story goes.
I have been able to live the American dream by combining America with several more countries and it has worked.
Yes, these years have been this great because I have tried many places, chose the ones that have me most benefit, have been able to patch together those good places, and capitalize on the advantage of each place, combining them into a multi-sliced, complete pizza pie whose every morsel brings one its own taste. The only thing I regret is that I have often gone to bad places and wasted a lot of time in the process. Had I been able to get the right information from the right people about where the right places were, I would have been even more suceesful than now.
I hope this story can inspire all of you guys here to follow me and create your own version of a multinational, "quilted" life so that you, too, can enjoy it to the fullest and so that someone can listen to your stories one day, and say to you :" You are a rich man!", too.
Fascinating story. You didn't miss anything by not attending university in the USSR. I spent a few months in the FSU enrolled in the local university studying with the local students. Half the time I was afraid one of the professors would hit me, and the other half I was falling asleep.
Some of the classmates were OK, but most were not very friendly. Sure, there was a communal aspect like you mentioned about Tula...but it was very hierarchical with lots of bullying and cliques. People made sure you got to class and had the notes and books, but people weren't up for socializing. Perhaps geographical differences can mean a lot.