America: Land of the Free and Home of the KFC

Photo by Alex Proimos/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.
Photo by Alex Proimos/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

The day I left wasn’t any different from the year-round Israeli climate, but something felt off to me, which was strange considering we were about to be vacationing in America.

At the young age of 12, I couldn’t help but be excited. People told me how rich Americans were, how they all drove nice cars and looked like actors I’d see the movies. I couldn’t wait to board my first flight and for the plane to take off. Once it did, exhausted from the excitement, I fell into a sleep stronger than anything I’d ever experienced.

Hours later, when I finally opened my eyes to my beautiful mother’s smile, I came to and saw that the other passengers were frantically leaving their seats to exit the plane. The cabin reeked of body odor and vomit but with each step I took, I remembered I was that much closer to “The Big Apple” and my excitement returned.

The first person we met was a stern looking man at a podium who asked my mother many questions and glared at me a few times. He rolled his eyes while talking and seemed very disinterested. When I asked my mom what his job was she said, “They’re the bastards who try to keep the good people out.”

When we cleared immigration and customs, we found a taxi and headed into New York City. My mother asked the driver to take us to the most Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. He took us to Midwood, a neighborhood where a significant part of the Orthodox Jewish community lived. Confused, I kept asking my mother, “כאשר אנו הולכים אל מנהטן?” [When are we getting to Manhattan?] She was silent, with an anxious look on her face. After a few minutes, even my sister joined the questioning until my mother yelled at us both us, telling us we were being disrespectful.

The driver dropped us off at the nicest building I had ever seen – my first hotel. I remember my mother paid $87 for a single night, which seemed absurd considering we only had $570 with us, but I was the child, and my mother the adult in charge of our finances. I certainly didn’t complain, though, as I had never seen anything so beautiful. After going for a swim, I could only think of how Americans were so wealthy they could afford to build their pools inside.

Soon after arriving at the hotel, my mom kissed my sister and I and told us she’d be back shortly, warning us not go too far. I ignored my mother’s warning and went roaming the streets with my sister. I had a crisp five-dollar bill in my pocket, and was ready to explore this once in a lifetime vacation.

Our first quest was to find some of the delicious fast food all my Israeli friends had ranted about. I asked the first large man we saw because I thought his massive stomach meant he must be rich and well versed in good food He pointed us to an establishment called “KFC” and told me to get “extra crispy.”

As we entered, I was hit with the most enchanting smell; even better than my mom’s baklava, and that was my favorite smell on this planet.

With our large bucket of extra crispy in hand, my sister and I found seats in a booth for our first American meal. I had always found chicken to be bland and dry but this was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. I felt like a king and was not unhappy when my little sister was quickly full, it just meant more for me. By the time we left, not a crumb was left in the bucket and I could barely keep my pants buttoned. With our bellies full, we went back to the hotel and watched Star Trek for hours until our eyes felt strained.

When my mother finally returned I asked again, כאשר אנו הולכים אל מנהטן? [When are we heading to Manhattan?] Tears welled up in her eyes and she grabbed my sister and me tight and told us she was sorry. Baffled, I wiped my mom’s tears away and asked her what was wrong. She broke down and fell to her knees and sobbed, “בייבי, אני שקרן ענק” [Baby, I am a huge liar.] Through tears, she finally had the courage to say, “Where not vacationing here, we are moving here.”

My mind froze. I couldn’t process it. I felt a mixture of confusion, anger, betrayal and remorse.

“This is a joke right?” I begged. But my mom just shook her head. Once calmed, she began to explain that America had more opportunities, and that it would be a better place to grow up. I didn’t believe this, but still she was my mother and her word was law. I was in shock.

While my sister and I were feasting on KFC, my mother found a grocery store worker who gave her a job and even helped her find an apartment in a Russian neighborhood. It was perfect for us, considering my mother and I were both born in Moldova and were native Russian speakers.

The next day, we packed up our hotel room and took another cab to our new apartment, which was nothing like the hotel we had just stayed in. The neighborhood was littered with trash and trains passed relentlessly, leaving my sister constantly on the verge of tears. I tried to keep a strong face for my mother and my sister, because if I didn’t, nobody else would.

We only found out the apartment was unfurnished when we first walked in, so we scoured the streets until we found two mattresses to sleep on. The picture-perfect Hollywood version of America engraved in my mind faded to a hellish reality as we dragged the mattresses inside..

After an uncomfortable night, I found a note my mother had left that read, “מתוך לעבודה, התקשר אביך!” [Out to work, call your father!] I despised my dad for leaving my mother alone in Israel and starting a new family. The thought of seeing him again after two bitter years made my stomach turn, but I knew better than to disobey my mother on something so important.

When I called him, he reacted with pure shock, as apparently my mother did not tell him we were in America. Nonetheless, he said he would take the day off and, at long last, we got a brief tour of Manhattan. I had a million questions for him, but since I knew I would be living close to him, I decided to save them for another time. The city was magnificent. The immensity of the skyscrapers captivated me. But my favorite part of New York City was the New York Public Library. I asked my dad to leave me there while he and my sister had lunch. Astounded by the collection, I found a cozy spot and read some science fiction. Prior to that day, the only time I’d access to books was in school. I took full advantage of my book browsing experience and was sad when my father returned. 

Two months later, my father got me a job as a mechanic’s assistant on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The other days I worked as a stock boy at a grocery store. Although I was miserable, I hatched an idea. With my earnings I would save a third, give a third to my mother, and spend the last third on my delicious KFC, my love of which could be seen in my newly formed gut..

In five months I saved enough to move back to Israel. Just in my early teens, I was already a determined young man and purchased a one-way ticket back to Tel-Aviv and arranged to stay with my aunt and uncle.I had not told anybody about the plan until I had all my affairs in order, and when I finally told my mother she begged and pleaded with me not to go. But my homesickness was unbearable, it was the first time in my life that I understood what depression felt like.

I remained in Israel until I was 17 years old and approaching the age of mandatory military service. My feelings towards the army were mixed, as I sometimes did believe that violence was a feasible answer. Maybe I was a chicken, and maybe I didn’t understand patriotism but I knew that I didn’t want to join the army. Fleeing mandatory duty was against the law, but I decided to return America and make a life for myself with my family once and for all. I knew I had to take control of my future and this time it was entirely of my own choosing.

During this second journey to New York, many questions went through my mind. Would I enjoy my new home this time around? Would my mother be happy to see me or mad that I left her? As with my first flight, I eventually fell into a deep slumber until we arrived at JFK. My father, who helped me arrange my return, met me at the airport and gave me a huge hug.

When he asked if I was hungry, I asked for KFC with no hesitation. After being reunited with those delicious, crispy chicken legs, I didn’t want to brush my teeth that night to keep the greasy, salty, delicious taste in my mouth.

I soon began working at my father’s moving company, and although I wasn’t the strongest at the time, after a few weeks, the couches became lighter and lighter. Once school began, I became a social butterfly and joined the swim team, made friends with the “Russian clique,” and was admired by most because I had a car. It was a cherry red Fiero, which I would proudly brag about, having purchased it myself. I had purchased myself.

Towards the end of high school, I was working two jobs, dating a gorgeous Russian girl named Tatiana – I called her Tanya – and my social circle was complete. Against her parents’ wishes, but deeply in love, Tanya and I married and soon had our first child on the way. I knew that things needed to change if I was going to start a family, so I enrolled in several community classes. I studied software design and eventually earned a degree in Computer Science. Today I am an executive director at a major brokerage firm where I have worked for sixteen years.

It’s funny how things turned out despite my difficult beginnings in this country – both when I was 12 and again at 17 – I now I consider myself a very successful American. I have a happy and healthy family, I earn a good salary, and things couldn’t be better, unless I win the lottery, that is. Making a life for myself here in the United States was tough, that’s for sure but my mother was right, there were more opportunities and it was the right choice. And yes, I still love KFC. Extra crispy.

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