That experience was different for my mother, who incorporated her religion into every aspect of her life. Fasting is a large part of the Orthodox Church, and it seemed to me that my mother was always engaged in some type of fast. As an adult, I realize that this was not merely the perception of a child; Orthodox Christians really do fast about half of the year, though the fasts are from any thing one can overindulge in for pleasure. My mother's fasts always involved food, probably because she was prone to putting on weight easily and was very concerned about that. However, when I was a child, I believed that the fasts had to involve some type of starvation.
In some ways, growing up in Moscow was similar to growing up in a big city in the United States. My parents were both very well educated and held jobs as teachers. Teachers in Russia are more highly respected, and relatively highly paid, especially in comparison to American teachers. Therefore, my family was financially stable. We had a three bedroom apartment with a living room, kitchen, and dinette area. Most of my extended family members lived in similar apartments, also in Moscow, so we were able to spend considerable time together as a family. There was not a lot of open or green space near our apartment buildings. There were parks, but my parents were concerned about crime and we did not frequently get to play in those parks. However, some members of my mother's family lived in the country on a farm, and we spent several vacations there, so I do not feel as if being raised in the city kept me from understanding nature. On the contrary, I learned skills that were very practical on the farm, such as how to tell a good egg from a bad egg in a henhouse, which I will probably never have an occasion to use again. I believe that my physical environment growing up influenced me in another way, as well. I am comfortable in large cities and in very rural environments, such as small towns and farms. However, I was very unfamiliar with a suburb-type environment before coming to the United States. I am very torn with how I feel about them. On the one hand, they seem very inefficient and wasteful to me, because people want the convenience of city life with the space and freedom of living in the country, and to provide both developers use up a lot of land for retail and parking space. On the other hand, I find them seductive for the very same reason.
Looking back at my childhood, there are many things that I learned that I doubt I will ever need to know. Because both of my parents were educators, they put a tremendous emphasis on learning. The vast majority of my childhood memories are associated with learning. My parents taught me how to read when I was very young; I do not remember a time when I was not reading, and I know that I was reading chapter books by the time I was five or six. Although we all read, my mother would read to us during family time. Given her religious inclinations, much of that reading was from the Bible, but she also had a great passion for any literature that she considered classic, and she was not hampered by age or genre in her selections. When I was about eight, she became fascinated with a mystery author, and she read them to all of the kids, though they were probably completely age-inappropriate. Now that we are in the United States, she has discovered the merits of Dr. Seuss when reading to one of my nieces, and went through the entire library that night after my niece went to sleep.
My father took a different approach to education. Rather than teaching us from books, he involved his children in a variety of activities. For example, to teach us about history, he would take us to museums and tell us about the items that we observed. He loved to play a game with us; we would be challenged to find something in the museum that we had never learned about before. We would find out as much about it as we could at the museum, and then research information about it for the next few weeks. Given Russia's rich political history, he used famous landmarks and occasions to teach us about Russian history. Although my father is Muslim, he is not anti-Jewish, and has always found Holocaust deniers to be among the most disturbing people in the world. He would take any opportunity that he could to teach us about Stalin's reign and its attendant impact on Russia's population, and then challenge us to come up with ways that we would, as individuals, challenge someone like that if they were to ever come in power. In this way, my father used real life examples to teach us facts and to encourage us to think about what we were learning.
While my parents played a tremendously influential role in my life, I have discovered that one of the more interesting aspects of immigrating when I was almost an adult is that I have had to develop an extensive network and community base within the United States. Therefore, I think that my friends here have played a very important part in my cultural development. After all, I may not be Americanized, but moving here has profoundly changed who I am, which has separated me from my native culture. I did not realize how profound that separation was until I had an occasion to visit Russia a few years after immigrating to the United States. I was no longer fully a Russian, but had come to embrace certain ideals, which are thoroughly American ideals. I find this even more remarkable in today's political environment, which does not necessarily encourage patriotism and, to an outsider, even sometimes seems anti-American. However, I have thoroughly embraced some of the loftier American ideals, perhaps even more so than many native-born Americans.
One of the first people I met when I came to the United States was my neighbor, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and I were unusually matched as friends. I was a seventeen-year-old recent immigrant from Russia. Elizabeth was a thirty-six-year-old housewife and mother-of-two. On the surface, we had nothing in common, and I initially found her somewhat offensive. The oldest of her children found my accent fascinating, but it seemed to me that he was making fun of me. As a result, I believed that Elizabeth was a racist, and tried to avoid her. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was known as the neighborhood social butterfly, and her feelings were hurt by the fact that I tried so hard to avoid her friendly overtures. However, one day, I watched as a speeding car ran over Elizabeth's dog, which had somehow gotten loose from her yard. I knew the dog was hers, because they always had a dog on the leash, and it led the type of pampered life that most people would like to have. I ran to her home and knocked on the door, explaining that her dog was bleeding in the street, and then helped her get the dog into the car, and sat in the back of her SUV, with the dog in my lap, cradling it as she drove to the vet. The emergency surgery took a few hours, and she offered to drive me home, but I found myself surprised to find that I was so invested in the welfare of this spoiled little dog. I did not like Bear the Chihuahua or at least I thought that I had not, but I had seen Elizabeth's children dote upon the dog and knew how much they valued him. Talking to Elizabeth, I came to understand a concept that, to me, is very American and Western European: being passionate about animal rights. In Russia, animals are animals. People have pets, and some people grow much attached to them, but I never experienced people treating their pets like human beings. In America, pets are treated like people. As a Russian, I found media portrayals of this type of treatment of animals to be absurd. However, Elizabeth spent much time explaining her opinion about animals, which is that respect for life starts by respecting the lives of small things. She is not vegan or even a vegetarian; she simply thinks that animals deserve to be treated with honor. Leaving a dog to die on the street, rather than looking at the tag on his collar and coming to her door so that he could get treatment was something that she viewed as dishonorable. I was intrigued…
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