Coming to America
The following article is excerpted from a series of interviews done in San Diego, CA, and Vladivostok, Russia, between 1998-2000.
Growing up in Fabrichniy, a very small town in the Primorski Krai, in the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics, Alexey Gavrilov read extensively about other cultures, including America. But never in twenty-four years had he ever met a single foreigner in his hometown of Fabrichniy, during his studies at the Far Eastern Institute of Technical University in Vladivostok. He remembered hearing a teacher speak about traveling to America with his wife. He described it like going into a deep dark forest. “You feel that you have lost the path. You feel lost, but then you begin to understand that you are still the same person, still Russian and yet you can speak to Americans and they will understand you.”
As he left on an a flight from Vladivostok, headed to San Diego, CA in 1998 Alexei remembered his teacher’s description of traveling in America. He tried to understand the new world around him during his stopover in Seattle and finally in San Diego.
During the two days of travel from Vladivostok he felt as if he and his fellow students were all still part of Russia. Even in Seattle when they had time to do different things, to go in different directions, Alexey still felt that they were connected as Russian. Even in the San Diego airport just after their arrival he still felt that connection. But, as each of the students was introduced to their personal host and left for the weekend with these total strangers, he experienced his first moments in San Diego as a violent attack. A feeling he described as being like a knife was carving away pieces of him until just one small part of Russia remained to climb into the car of an American woman who drove and listened to modern music. It felt as if he were in a movie, the story of a stranger in a different town, different country, different culture.
Kathy Louv, the wife of a columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune, had been hesitant to host a Russian. She was unsure about how they would communicate and whether she could be a friend to someone from a country she knew so little about. Her only knowledge of Russia was through American headlines, the stuff of which nightmares were made.
When I spoke to her a year later Kathy was hesitant to tell me the story of her first meeting with Alexei Gavrilov. She was embarrassed to admit how prejudiced she had been. It was her husband, Richard Louv, who wrote a regular column for the San Diego Union Tribune, who convinced her that her story was just the type of story that would affect people and that she would not be revealing anything that Alexei didn’t already know.
Kathy only committed to hosting for the first weekend as a favor to the volunteer coordinator for the international project. When another family had to cancel suddenly there no one else available on short notice.
As she entered the airport baggage claim area she experienced a generalized tightness in the center of her body. She found the group of young Russian architects and immediately noticed the tallest and most sober of the students. Maybe because she was staring, or maybe just by accident, they happened to make eye contact. She smiled, but instead of having her smile returned it seemed to her that he was scowling. The feeling in her gut became tighter and she was beginning to worry. The only thought she had was, “Please don’t let this be my Russian.”
After a few moments she was introduced to the stern faced student. It was Alexey, the student she had agreed to host.
She smiled politely and Alexei understood that this was the time to smile in acknowledgement and appreciation. His smile was genuine, but his anxiety still clouded his face. His expression did nothing to allay her fears.
Kathy’s discomfort increased as Alexey put his hand over his bag when she reached over to help carry something.
“Not for woman” he said trying to be polite. Alexey had been taught from childhood that it was not proper behavior for a man to allow a woman to carry heavy bags.
Kathy stopped. She was put off by what she perceived as a hostile gesture when she was just trying to be a considerate hostess. Words stuck in her throat. Her head and her eyes were directed downwards, as if something were pressing from above. She made a silent pledge to herself that if she survived the weekend she would never have another like it.
She could not hide her anxiety as she told one of the organizers that there was no possibility for her family to keep Alexei during the remaining weekends of the project. Prospects for a pleasant weekend looked impossible to everyone who observed the initial interactions.
Kathy and Alexey walked through the parking lot to Kathy’s car. She looked at Alexei with all his packages and felt uncomfortable letting him carry everything while her hands were free. She looked at him and asked again, “Can I help with… Please let me carry something for you.” He looked at her and became aware that she was uncomfortable, that she wanted to help, to do something to for him. He had a small package shoved under his arm, something that he could not get into his bags. She reached for it and he lifted his arm slightly to release it.
“Thank you.” His voice surprised her. As he spoke those two words she realized that he probably spoke very little English. His mumbled responses inside the airport had only added to the anxiety at the time. Now she heard how deep and mellow and thickly accented his voice was. She slipped the package out of his control. Her anxiety began to drop.
In the car she passed him some tapes and asked what kind of music he would like to listen to. In his limited English he explained that he did not know American music. He would like to know what she liked.
By the time they reached the highway leaving downtown they were so intent on trying to understand each other that Kathy’s anxiety had completely melted away. She was able to see through Alexei’s anxiety enough to observe that his manner was gentle and quiet and that his nature was curious and accepting.
At the same time Alexei was watching Kathy and listening as she began to point out the skyline of San Diego. His eyes began to clear as he became aware of the real person sitting next to him. She was fascinating, definitely not Russian. She was driving and talking and deftly choosing audiotapes, all at the same time. His own mother had never even driven a car.
By the time they reached home and met the rest of the family, she understood that this was a genuinely kind, vulnerable person sitting next to her. Alexei understood the very real generosity of this woman who was accepting him into her family.
“What do you want?”
The questions started in the car and continued into the evening after their arrival at the Louv families home. Everyone kept asking that same question and he began to believe that they could fulfill any request. He didn’t know what to say until they finally told him to just say yes or no and they would try to do as he wished. He wondered if he had come to stay with a family of wizards, but settling into the house that evening he began to see them as a typical American family, like in the movies he had seen. His feelings were a jumble that he could not begin to sort, as if he had gone to the moon.
When the family was tired they they showed Alexei to his room, but he was too nervous to sleep. He could not find a way to turn off the lamp so he looked around for the light switch but never found it. American switches in the room were much lower on the wall than Russian switches. Having failed to find a switch he went back to the lamp and followed the cord from the lamp to the socket and pulled out the plug. But turning the light out didn’t help him relax.
For two hours he lay in bed watching leaves outside the window and their shadows on the wall, remembering a time not long ago when Russians still believed that Americans were the enemy. By the time Alexei was in eighth grade he knew he would never cross the border of Russia. Now he was trying to sleep in a strange bed, in a strange home, with a new family. It was difficult for him to believe that he was not in Russia, that he had crossed the border.
Alexei did finally go to sleep that night. In the morning Kathy showed him where the light switch was, well below his six foot four line of sight. She also demonstrated how to turn on the shower with its knobs that go the “wrong” way. The rest of the morning the family gave him some time alone to become comfortable with this new environment, physically and emotionally.
He began to feel that there were some similarities here to his family at home. Kathy and Richard were closer to his parents’ ages, with children to take care of. He also noticed the many differences in their way of dressing, their personalities, and their way of thinking.
Driving around on Saturday he observed, again, the behavior that had shocked him the night before. His family in Russia all lived in a small village and tended to be conservative. His mother has always thought that driving a car was only for men. Watching Kathy he began to believe that the American style is if you want to do something you can do it. “If you want to drive this car then drive it. If you want to listen to this music then listen to it.” Every aspect of this impression was created by the small details– how she sat so comfortably in the driver’s seat or how she put a cassette in the recorder without taking her eyes off the road. He would try to imagine what his mother might do in the same situation. He was noticing the nuances in behavior that made Russian and American women different.
Throughout the day on Saturday he felt completely disconnected from Russia. He thought he must have been feeling the way an immigrant feels, knowing that their life will never be the same; knowing that no one will behave the way you expect them to; no one will speak your language to you; no one will understand what it feels like when a part of you is missing.
Perhaps the sensation would not have been so strong if his young wife had been there seeing this new world with him.
That afternoon he told his American family about his wife, Oksana, about how, during four years of dating and four years of marriage, they had never been more than a few miles away from each other. Now there was an ocean between them. He had very little English to describe his relationship but his love was visible in his face. His eyes glistened as he talked about her and the color rose again in his face, as it had in the airport. This time Kathy understood the emotion behind the Alexei’s expression. She saw the gentleness that the rest of the group would all come to recognize.
Stories of his life in Russia
If you leave Vladivostok by bus and travel for 12 hours you will come to the city of Kavalerovo, and a little farther along you will reach the village of Fabrichniy. Most of the inhabitants there mined the rare metals of the region or worked as administrators, like in other towns in the area. Alexei remembers it as a warm and friendly place to grow up. During the summers he would visit his grandparents in Kavalerovo, by a lake. His life was simple and pleasant by his report. He knew he would probably never leave this area and that was fine with Alexey.
At sixteen his life began to take on a more adult direction. That summer he met a girl in Kavalerovo. In her eyes it was a casual acquaintance, a young man being friendly on the shore of a lake in the summer. The following summer he returned to Kavalerovo, but this time he didn’t wait to meet her at the beach. He inquired in the neighborhood, located her house and came to find her. It wasn’t long before they both knew that they wanted to be together. He was intelligent, had a close family, and now he knew he had found his life partner. At nineteen he entered college to study geology, knowing that he would support the mining industry of the region.
From the start he was at the head of his class and at twenty-one he married Oksana and his future was settled – he thought.
With the changing economic climate during Perestroika the Russian economy began to falter and many of the academic programs that supported the mining industry were closed as the industry itself faced difficulties. For Alexei this was an unexpected but fortunate turn of events. Being top in his class he was given the option of entering whatever program he chose. The only requirement was that the decision be made in ten days.
His options were broad. Here was a chance to make a dramatic change of focus if he wished. During those ten days he read the exams for several different departments. Based on this short bit of research he made a radical change, from the earth bound science studies to creative subjects related to architecture.
He and Oksana left for Vladivostok where he began studying architecture. With the economic and political changes in the country he began to read more about the world outside Russia, never dreaming he would someday see any of that world until a few weeks before he arrived in San Diego and came to stay with the Louvs.
This weekend in San Diego was the first time that he and Oksana had been separated by such a distance and for such a period of time since their marriage, but he was excited and she was excited for him.
The Beach Party
On Sunday afternoon all of the international participants in the Pacific Rim Park project, Russian, Mexican, and American , plus their host families, met at the beach at Torrey Pines. When Alexey and Kathy arrived everyone else was already there. To Alexei the experience of meeting everyone again at the beach had a surreal quality, as if the last 36 hours had been months or even years. It was the feeling he imagined an immigrant might have upon meeting another Russian somewhere in America.
After everyone had eaten, Alexei joined the circle of students that had been formed on the hard sand just beyond the reach of the surf. He watched James Hubbell, the artist who was to be mentor and teacher for the next six weeks, draw a crude map outlining the Pacific Rim, placing a mark on the locations of each of the cities involved in the project.
When the students were asked to say their name and write it in the sand, Alexei was the first student to sign in. His gentle voice was difficult to hear over the roar of the surf. He had to repeat his name and city. As the hosts watched from a distance it seemed as if a mist was rising from the center of the group, shrouding them from everyone else on the beach.
As Alexey walked back to his place in the circle he looked around at the students and became aware that the hosts were standing separate from the circle. He was happy and proud to stand with all his Russian friends again, but he considered his new family to be part of the project too. It seemed strange to him that they were not included in these introduction. But eventually everyone came close to observe and then, finally, to introduce themselves.
Then, like the mist that rose from the center, the circle dissolved.
The remainder of the weekends
During the week that followed the beach party the host committee received a call from Kathy Louv asking if they could “adopt” Alexey. Of course this was not a serious question. It was spoken with a slight laugh. But then she made a serious request that they be given the opportunity to host Alexei whenever there was an opportunity.
She also asked if it would be OK for her husband to devote one or two of his columns to their experiences with Alexei.