Friday, October 31, 2008

“It is a Sunny Day”, or How I Passed My Citizenship Test

Congratulate me, guys! I am only one oath away from becoming an official American citizen. I passed my citizenship test.

My naturalization interview (or exam, whatever you prefer to call it) was one of the most intimidating, silliest and easiest things I’ve ever done.

We (hubby, Aiden and I; Sasha stayed with grandma) arrived at the USCIS around 7.30 in the morning. My appointment was at 8.20 am. We live about an hour and 20 min. away, but I was so freaked out not to miss it that I insisted we leave at 5am. I was too excited and stressed to sleep the night before, so you can imagine how I looked and felt when we finally arrived. I was wearing a light gray suit, which was blending well with the color of my face and accentuated my red eyes.

On my way there I was so freaked out that I could not move my jaws. I knew the test questions by heart and I haven’t done anything illegal that would prevent me from getting my citizenship. But it didn’t matter. My sick imagination was more powerful than my true senses. I was imagining that somebody else with my name committed a crime and I wouldn’t be able to prove that it wasn’t me. I was imagining a scary looking immigration officer who would have a strong accent and I wouldn’t be able to understand him. I was also imagining embarrassing myself by forgetting all the answers for the History/government test. I thought the officer would not trust me if he/she sees my hands shaking (it happens when I am stressed out)….
I was trying to pray through all these terrors and I asked hubby to help me pray. I was still afraid, VERY afraid.

The officer, who ended up interviewing and testing me, did not look like the Hulk with Dracula teeth, waiting to eat me any moment (as I thought he would). What a relief! Skinny, middle-aged, white guy without a heavy accent was in front of me. I felt a little uncomfortable, because he didn’t smile (I am used to Americans that always smile), but he was still way better than I imagined.

-Do you swear to tell the truth?

- Yes, I do.
I felt like I was in a court hearing accused of some serious crime.

We sat down. He asked for my green card, passport and started looking at my papers. I started calming down as it didn’t look like he was going to eat me, or even arrest me.

- What county do you live in?
- Actually, I am not sure. I always mix it up between X and Z. I know it’s X Valley. My husband would know, he is the smarter one in the family (I hope hubby will read this).

There is nothing worse than telling a joke and people look at you with a stone face. This happened to me.

- That’s OK if you don’t know, it doesn’t mean you are not smart.


Then he asked me a few questions about my background, my current occupation, the number of kids, etc (by the way he already knew all of this because he had my file in front of him).

- Did the Soviet Union still exist when you were born?

- Yes (I wanted to say that it would be nice if I were born afterwards. Ahh, being 16 again…But apparently the guy didn’t have a sense of humor.)

- Have you ever been a member of a Communist party?

- Um, no.

- Have you ever been a part of a terrorist organization?

- No

By doing research online I knew that the next question would have been Have you ever been a prostitute? Either I looked innocent enough or didn’t look good enough to be one, he skipped this one.

Gradually, my fear transformed into almost absolute confidence and peace. Heck, I can do this. I am not a prostitute, or commy or a terrorist. I’ve been in college for 8 years, I passed hundreds of exams, I’ve published articles and my GPA is 3.98 (don’t mean to brag). I can pass a History test and of course I can pass the Reading and Writing part of the exam. I think.

-OK, - the guy said.- Time for the test.

In anticipation of showing of my deep knowledge of the American government and history and my English language skills, I smiled to myself.

-You are not going to get me, guy. I know my stuff.

I am not going to torture you will all the questions he asked me, but he asked me 6 questions (you need to answer 6 out of 10 to pass) and if I didn’t study at all, I would have passed the test anyway. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know where the White House is located and what it is. I also haven’t met a person yet who didn’t know the current American president.

After I answered six questions in a row, the officer gave me a piece of paper with these questions and asked me to read one.

“Who created laws in the United States?” I read and answered: “Congress”

- You don’t need to answer. I just want to see if you know how to read.

??? You know that I am a senior in college and a community college graduate. Of course I can read. But I guess the guy didn't trust American higher education system.

- You passed the Civics and the Reading tests! - the guy announced.

What do you mean I passed?! Aren’t you going to ask me to name the first 13 states, or the numbers of amendments that mention voting rights? Come on now, I studied all weekend!!!

But he just attached the sheet of paper with my test results to my file.

-Okay, Writing test.

Finally. Now he can see that I am one heck of a writer!
I was hoping he would give me a topic and I would have to write a short impromptu essay or something.
I love writing impromptu, so I was hoping to put all my wit, idiom knowledge into one short but touchy little essay.

I grabbed a pen and looked at him.

- Are you ready?

Heck, yes!

- Write for me, please: “It is a sunny day.”

I did and looked at him to wait for further instructions. He looked at me.

- Can I have the paper back?

I handed him the paper.

- Congratulations, you passed!


Still puzzled I was starring at him while he was explaining that I passed all the tests and that now I have to wait for a letter with the notice when my oath of allegiance ceremony would take place. Then he got up and walked me towards the door.
I still couldn’t believe it was over. Then he smiled (for the first time!) and I realized that it was really time to leave. He was not on duty anymore.

I didn’t have a choice but leave. Amazingly, I didn’t feel relieved. I felt like I had some unfinished business. And the not-even-a-complex sentence “It is a sunny day.” is stuck in my head to this day.

And if you think I am strange, that’s fine. I know I am.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What’s in a Bread?

Only in America... people order double cheese burgers, a large fry, and a diet coke...

“American food is horrible. It is greasy, overly sweet, and is packed with chemicals and preservatives. Fruits and veggies taste like plastic, they can last for a year in the refrigerator and chickens are boosted with steroids. You’ll get fat in no time,” – one of my dearest friends told me after spending a year in the US. (Just for the record, she gained about 15 pounds here and was never able to get rid of them.)

Before I stepped my foot on American ground, I made an oath to stay in shape. It is all about willpower. I am not going to eat junk and greasy foods. I’ll stick to fruits and veggies (even if they taste like plastic!) and will avoid overeating. I know I can do it.

God is my witness - I tried.
But… I physically worked for 10-12 hours a day (I was a housekeeper in a Catholic Summer camp in WI) and I was hungry. For the first week I didn’t eat any of the standard meals which usually included hotdogs, cookies, hamburgers, chips and soda. I ate tasteless fruits and veggies, that came with the meals, drank 2% milk (that I thought tasted like water) and water (juices were way too sweet), but I was still very hungry. We didn’t have a car and there were no buses in the area, so little by little I started eating what everybody else ate.

The result? You tell me…
This is me one week before coming to the US.

Me 6 months,50 hamburgers, 25 pounds and 2 hair colors later. USA:

There were many things in this country that shocked me (some in a good way, some bad). I got used to and accepted most of them, but food in America is something I still cannot understand.
When you buy bread in Russia, or Poland, or anywhere in Eastern Europe the listed ingredients are: flour, water, yeast and salt. Sometimes, there will be some spices added to it, but that’s about it.

It is a great mystery for me why to make bread in America you have to include half of the periodic table elements.
Here is the list of ingredients of supposedly healthy 100% whole grain Wonder Bread:

Whole wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup (why oh why?), soybean oil, salt, molasses, yeast, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide), datem, calcium sulfate, vinegar, yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate), extracts of malted barley and corn, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, calcium propionate.

Or even a better one - Home Pride Wheat Bread: Enriched Wheat Flour [Flour, Barley Malt, Ferrous Sulfate (Iron), B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid)], Water, Sweetener (High Fructose Corn Syrup or Sugar), Yeast, Wheat Bran, Whole Wheat Flour, Wheat Gluten, Molasses. Contains 2% or Less of: Soybean Oil, Salt, Butter, Salt, Sweet Dairy Whey, Butter (Cream, Salt, Enzymes), Maltodextrin, Honey, Corn Syrup, Calcium Sulfate, Soy Flour, Dough Conditioners (May Contain: Dicalcium Phosphate, Calcium Dioxide, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Ethoxylated Mono and Diglycerides, Mono and Diglycerides and/or Datem), Yeast Nutrients (May Contain: Ammonium Sulfate, Ammonium Chloride, Calcium Carbonate, Monocalcium Phosphate and/or Ammonium Phosphate), Cornstarch, Wheat Starch, Vinegar, Natural Flavor, Beta Carotene (Color), Enzymes, Calcium Propionate (to Retain Freshness), Soy Lecithin.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to put anything I cannot pronounce into my mouth.
For more than a year I didn’t touch American bread. MAYBE, if it tasted OK, I would have overcome my fears and ate it, but IMHO it tasted awful. Sweet, soft, smelly and mushy, it tasted more like Oxy Clean than bread.
I even tried baking my own (for those who know me well you know what a deed this was), but it didn’t go so well.
Later I discovered that there were alternatives to this life-time lasting bread in plastic bags. Some local bakeries and Panera Bread were an answer to my prayers. Pricey, but still cheaper than driving all the way to a Russian store which was 80 miles away. I was happy and relieved, but never stopped wondering about the mysterious ingredients in the Oxy Clean bread.

After being here for five years I found out that you can buy almost anything in America, you just need to know where to look. And make big bucks to be able to afford it.

The other big food related wonders for me were: milk, fat-free stuff, high-fructose corn syrup, soybean oil and turkey-sized chickens.

But I’ll write down about them a little later...

Friday, October 17, 2008

First Day

The day I arrived in the United States I remember dimly. I hadn’t slept for more than 2 days (trip + rather long farewell party) and I could barely remember where in the world I was and why. I do recall long lines in the JFK airport; a border guard with a perfect set of teeth, his standard “What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?”, and my lower back ache from the 9 hour plane ride.

I remember the bustle and commotion: people rushing, talking, turning, shouting, eating. I remember getting dizzy from hearing different languages at the same time. “America is a country of immigrants”- I heard this before, it just never hit me what it really meant.

The other things that were extraordinary enough for me to notice (despite of my coma-like condition) were yellow cabs that for some reason kept beeping; tall glass buildings, billboards, humidity and some rather eccentric fashion choices.

My first night in the US I spent at Columbia University’s dorm. The dorm was the complete opposite of what I expected it to be. I thought I would see huge rooms with king-sized beds, leather furniture, soft carpet and TV/DVD sets. A nice mix of Marriott and Ritz hotel suits. Instead, I saw gray walls (which in their better times were white), a wooden military looking bed with a dark green mattress, one antediluvian chair and cabinets. My dream of a soaking bubble bath was brutally wrecked by the view of dirty shower stalls that were supposed to be shared by at least a dozen other tired and sweaty exchange students.

I thought everything in America was supposed to be cool (well, except food)…My dorm in Poland, where I spent 4 wild years, was much more sophisticated and cozy.

My culture shock began…


I was going through some old pictures and showing them to my almost 4-year-old girl.

Me: Sasha, look, this is Mama.
Sasha: Oh, is this when you were a little boy?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why Can’t I Withstand Societal Pressures?

Ta-da! I have a blog.

I am not sure why though, since I don’t seem to have time to even reply to my e-mails and since I absolutely hate typing (probably because I still type with three fingers staring at the keyboard). But “they” kept saying that it is almost illegal not to have a blog these days, especially if you like to write.

Now, I do love to write. My idea and process of writing were always a little different though. I would usually go to Barnes&Noble, purchase a Starbucks Grande Java Chip Frappuccino, then go to the Gifts for Readers isle and spend a good hour trying to decide between a breathtaking Italian leather journal and a classy squared Moleskin Legendary Notebook. I would end up taking both of them home, smelling them, touching pages (I never said I was normal) and spending another hour making up my mind on which one to start with.

There is nothing like writing on the first page of a stainless and pure journal. I don’t know why, but my handwriting gradually decreases with every page. On the first page it is beautiful, almost immaculate; by the middle of the journal it looks like the entries were written by a second-grader who had a broken hand. When it starts looking like this I know it is time to start another journal. Of course I do it with a great pleasure.

Technology takes all of these simple pleasures away from me. I type slowly and my unique and maybe genius thoughts are often lost due to my eyes’ and fingers’ lack of speed. Oh well. Since I cannot withstand societal pressures, here I am, blogging. Even if I completely suck at it, from now on if somebody asks me if I’ve ever had a blog, I can carelessly shake my hair and absently wave my hand: “oh yeah… Been there, done that.” And nobody will be able to call me “neanderthal” ever again.

Before I Came to America

When I heard about the opportunity to come visit the United States of America, I didn't think twice. I was a 20-year old frivolous student craving adventures and adrenaline. America seemed to be a perfect place to satisfy both.

My vision of America, thanks to the centralized gate-keeping media, was quite primitive. Tall glass buildings, junk food, Coca-Cola, dollars, peanut butter, fake smiles, white teeth and sneakers. Hey, this was way better than what the Soviets thought of America during the Cold War (see the picture: Anti-American poster, 1970s).

The original plan was to come to the US in Summer to work, earn some bucks, try peanut butter and travel (for 4 months total). I was expecting an adventure to spice up my life a little. If somebody told me back than that I was going to the U.S. to find God, get married to "one of those American guys", give births to two American children and stay there for good, I would have laughed hysterically.

This is me 3 months before leaving: naive and clueless that very shortly my life would turn upside down (in a good way).

PS. I am not sad. Russians don't smile much. And yes, the hair color was not the best choice for me.

Want to make God laugh? Tell Him about your plans.:-)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How Much Would You Pay?

I wonder what would happen if we had to pay actual money for our lives…? If for every hour of our life we would have to pay, let’s say, a hundred bucks…? Obviously, we would run out of money quickly (unless we are of a selected few such as Gates, Hiltons or Trumps, but I doubt any of those specimens are reading my blog)… but that’s not the point. My point is that if our lifetime was something we had to pay for, I bet we would appreciate it much more and our attitude towards time that keeps running away from us would change.

We can’t ignore the fact that we all will die someday. It means, that every minute of this life (not excluding this very minute of exploring the web), brings us closer to our death. We don’t like to think about it as if we won’t, we’ll always stay young, charming and attractive. We live as this life would never end. We spend hours on MySpace instead of using our talents; we watch hours of TV and spend months or years on jobs we don’t like instead of fighting for dreams and working our behinds off to achieve the goals. We keep finding excuses for not doing what God called us to do as well as blaming Heaven/circumstances/parents/spouses/presidents/pets (list can be long, depending on how creative you are) for not being in places we would rather be. We are so busy in this everyday rush, that we miss our lives. We concentrate on small problems, we do things that have absolutely no meaning and we fight over minor things and miss what’s important. I am not preaching to anyone but me right now, because I know myself well and can assure you, that I am very guilty of all of these things. For example, this morning I got excited for getting an Ives Rocher order, so I spent half an hour looking at the creams and tubes and browsing the new catalog which was generously put into the box without charge; then I got upset when I realized that my Victoria’s Secret order didn’t arrive yet, so I spent another half hour browsing trying to figure out if my order has left the stock yet. Then I logged into Myspace, then my gmail account, then my account and MSN account. When I was done with MSN I went back into Myspace to see if I got any more messages while I was checking all of my email accounts. Another half hour passed. Then Sasha woke up, so I didn’t need to find anymore excuses for not writing or doing something else more valuable and useful… Ninety minutes of my life… Ninety quiet minutes when my kids are asleep, the dinner is taken care of and schoolwork is mostly done. I blew it just as I do most of the time.

I don’t believe in reincarnation and think that we have only one earthly life. Why then do I keep wasting it and killing my time like it will never run out?…It will run out one day. I think that if I wake up with this thought tomorrow, my day would be much more productive than this one.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Life Gets Better Every Day

picture, soviet woman, kolhoznitsa

I Should Have Stuck to Starbucks

If you have ever been to a different country you know how much of a pain getting something as simple as a cup of coffee could be. If you have been in this country for more than five years and you are only four courses away from getting a bachelor's degree, you don't expect this to be an issue. Well, you are wrong.

Yesterday I decided to stop at the school cafeteria to reward myself with a cup of Starbucks coffee. I've done it a couple of times before and it was pretty straightforward. I give the cashier 5 bucks, she gives me my Starbucks iced coffee and some change. I put change in my purse and sip coffee. Simple.

Since the weather was particularly obnoxious and chilly yesterday, I though it would be a good idea to warm myself up with a cup of a hot coffee (Big Mistake#1).

- A cup of hot Starbucks coffee, please, - I said with my Russian accent and pointed at the ad featuring a signature plastic cup of iced and slightly overpriced coffee. ($2.30!)

- Oh, we don't do hot Starbucks. We have regular coffee though for a lower price.

- Great! I'll have the largest size then.

- It will be $1.80. Would you like to add a flavor shot for an extra 30 cents?

Heck, yes. Still cheaper than flavorless Starbucks: -Yes, please (Big mistake #2). What flavors do you have?

-Hazelnut, Caramel, Gingerbread...

_Mmm, gingerbread sounds good.

30 seconds later the cashier hands me a 24oz coffee cup and says:

-It (gingerbread) is very sweet. Try before you put any sugar in it.

While still at the register I take the cup to my mouth and take a sip (BIG BIG Mistake #3). I don't know whose eyes became bigger at the moment, mine, the cashiers or a female student's standing next to me in line.

-NOOO, DON'T!!!!- the cashier screamed and every single soul in the cafeteria was staring at me. - I meant you try it after you put coffee in the cup!

Puzzled and nauseous from the incredible sweetness in my mouth, I looked inside the cup and surely enough there was no coffee. Just the sticky orange substance called gingerbread shot, half of which was already gone.

-You pour coffee yourself - it is in the corner.

I forced a silly giggle (Big Mistake #4, because it probably sounded pathetic) and left the register forgetting about the change. Only God knows how hard it was to pour coffee when at least 20 pairs of eyes kept looking at me. Nobody laughed (God bless them), I think they were just curious if I am capable to finish the process of getting my coffee. It didn't go smoothly, because it took me awhile to figure out which way to turn the lid of the pot to pour it.

When the coffee was finally in my cup I slowly walked my way out of the cafeteria (although I badly wanted to run), pretending to be cool.

I am not going back there ever again.

Needless to say, the cashier was right. Gingerbread shot was very sweet. I will never be able to hear the word "gingerbread" without shivers. I will never order gingerbread flavor again.