A decade ago I embarked on a personal project that would keep me busy for about a year. I started interviewing immigrants from the former Soviet Union who had settled in or around New York City. (If you are a regular reader of this blog you probably remember that my family has a somewhat unusual Russian background.)
The people who told me their stories were quite different. They had moved to the United States in a variety of circumstances and at different times in their lives, from childhood to ripe age. Many, but not all, had come as families. That made for fascinating accounts and a broad spectrum of experiences. As I was interviewing each person for at least a couple of hours, listening intently, then transcribing what had been said, I often lost sight of myself in the process. It felt good and disorienting at the same time. I was immersing myself in someone else’s life in a way I had never experienced before, with an intensity that was comparable only to what I had felt with some unforgettable works of fiction.
My project also involved reflecting and writing about various dimensions of the life journey of Soviet and post-Soviet immigrants. How they had lived in their country of origin. Why and how they had decided to emigrate. Many, but not all, were Jewish and had left because of the discrimination they faced in the USSR. When the doors had opened for them towards the end of the Cold War, as a result of a highly political bargain between America and the Soviet Union, they had felt it was their – and even more importantly, their children’s – chance to seize.
I also explored their relation to the country they had left behind, a country that no longer existed as the Soviet Union they had grown up in and was hardly recognizable to many of them. But the Russian language and culture remained theirs to keep and treasure. The parents I interviewed spoke Russian at home, including to their children, and this was clearly anchoring their life, however wholeheartedly they embraced their American citizenship.
One of the things I asked them about was how they pictured their life if they had not emigrated, their life that could have been. Some had clearly given it a lot of thoughts, dwelling on what had happened to the friends they had left behind — often sad stories. There was something dizzying about the alternative life stories they were putting into words. Like watching your reflection in a mirror and realizing you are seeing a distinct person in a different surrounding.
Everyone, not only migrants, can play this game. We all have forks in our life: moments when we chose, consciously or sometimes not so consciously, to go one way and not the other. In the case of migrants, the turning point is simply more visible, the contrast between before and after more striking.
Last winter, as I was walking in my French hometown, I passed by a robust 1930s building with several professional plates at its entrance. One read Céline P**** Avocat (attorney in law). It was the name of a good middle school friend I had long lost track of. Céline had studied law, so it was most likely her. She had stayed and built her life in our hometown. Something I could have done too if I had made different choices. There it was, quietly rippling, my life that could have been…