The Waste that Dreams Realized Leave Behind

Some people are born in the wrong place.

I can't pinpoint the exact moment when my love affair with the United States started, but I know it was pretty early on. I still have notebooks from middle school where I wrote essays about wanting to go study in the US, see the Statue of Liberty in the city where the buildings scraped the sky, and other clichéd images for which I can only thank Hollywood's global propaganda machine.

My early obsession with the US was unapologetically materialistic. Growing up, I always had food on the table, but my family was far from being well off. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent currency devaluation wiped out my parents' savings, and things were tough for a while. But I was too little to remember, and things got better by the time my age hit two digits. We were a family of four squeezed into a tiny two-room apartment, we never had a car, and we ate out only about once or twice per year. But at least we had stability and peace, and my parents were wise enough to make sure that my brother and I did well in school.

My classmates and I all believed that leaving the country was the path to a better life, and everyone who had a chance to escape did so. I remember an old friend calling me from Italy, where his family had moved when we were in middle school, and casually mentioning a game console that he had, or some such object of lust that I envied with the kind of intensity that only a teenager can muster. I also remember watching Cartoon Network (the only TV channel that aired American ads without replacing them with local ones), and drooling over the RC racing cars that I thought every American kid had.

And then there were the PC magazines that my uncle (who ran a computer store in the city) brought from a trade show that he attended in the US. I spent hours pouring over the specs of the latest computers (400 MHz! OMG!), and I cultivated a multi-year obsession with Palm PDAs. Oh Sony CLIÉ PEG-SJ22, how you have haunted my dreams... I even built a cardboard enclosure to house the future you, and downloaded a Palm OS simulator on my dad's computer trying to get to know you. But you were not to be mine. There was no place in the country where I could procure you, and even if there had been, your $199 price tag was out of reach.

scrat longing

Anyway, I digress.

Some people are born in the wrong place. As a teenager, I resented being born in Moldova. I was convinced that happiness meant owning all those coveted electronic gadgets, and that I could have them if only I were in the US instead. I'm still not sure why I felt pulled to the US in particular, and not to other rich countries in Western or Northern Europe. The German Dream and the French Dream don't sound quite the same as the American Dream, do they? I suspect this had to do with learning English in school (which was a natural choice for a kid obsessed with computers), and with being exposed to more American culture. For example, I somehow got my hands on electronic versions of Tony Robbins's Personal Power and Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad when I was 15 or 16. (Thank you Internet!) Those seem silly now, but I found them hugely inspirational at the time. They were a promise of the personal triumph and financial success that were possible in America, even though there was little in them that I could apply as a high school student in a third-world backwater.

By the time we were in high school, my classmates and I purposefully plotted our way into US colleges. One path was to pay, and the other path was to get a scholarship. The former was a non-starter for many of us, so we buckled down for the latter. We did everything we could to get awards in Math, CS, or Physics. We studied for our standardized tests at the EAC, a local resource sponsored by the Soros Foundation. (Thank you billionaire class!) I even had to cross the border into Romania to take my SATs before the applications were due.

In the end, my applications were less than stellar. I did not have the kind of international olympiad medal that got some of my classmates into Harvard or MIT. Of the ten applications that I submitted, my final tally was rejected (5), waitlisted and ultimately rejected (4), and accepted (1: Tufts University). The latter was partly due to a special scholarship that they had for one or two Eastern Europeans, the Boryana Damyanova scholarship, which I didn't even know about when I was applying. (Thank you one-percenters, again.)

It's hard to overstate how lucky I got with my Tufts acceptance. It could have easily gone the other way, and then my life's trajectory would have been completely different. Of course, going to college is not the only way into the US, and I know people now who arrived later and are none the worse for it. And maybe I would've been just as happy, or happier, at a university somewhere in Europe. But back then, going to study in the US had been my dream for so long that I hadn't even considered other options, and it would've been an epic defeat if I hadn't gotten in.

So in August of 2008, I said goodbye to my parents and got on the plane to Boston. It felt surreal, like an out-of-body experience. Some of the first things I remember after landing: the smell of the ocean, the cries of seagulls, and the taxi driver who asked me: Какой родной язык у тебя? (My accent was apparently close enough to Russian, even though I speak Romanian at home.)

I've come a long way since that first day on US soil, and the adjustment has been rocky at times. It took me a year or two to become really comfortable with the language, another few years to learn how to make friends, and even longer to stop sucking at dating. Only in the last year or two did I gain some confidence that I can build for myself the kind of life that I want, and I'm not sure if that protracted process of growing up would've unfolded faster if I hadn't decided to switch continents in the middle.

scrat triumph

This story should end here, with a shot of me walking into the sunset, and an American flag waving somewhere in the background, right? But this post is not called "The Taste of Dreams Realized"; it's called "The Waste that Dreams Realized Leave Behind." (Both are lines from the song Decade and One by Vienna Teng.) Because my sense of rightness about being in the US, which I've been so convinced of since middle school, never fully materialized once I arrived. And even now, after spending almost a third of my life here, I'm still not sure whether I want to stay for the long term.

My utopian vision of the US as just, fair, and safe underwent a series of violent readjustments as I learned more about the country's history, politics, race relations, foreign and immigration policy, ubiquitous surveillance, etc. For most of my time here, first at Tufts and then at Berkeley, I've been sheltered in suburban campus bubbles. But for the last year or so, I've been going to work in downtown San Francisco, which is accurately described as an outdoor crack house and mental asylum, and represents the latest adjustment to my understanding of what life in US cities is really like. I try to take my own greener-grass thinking with a grain of salt, and I'm sure I'd find things to complain about wherever I go, but I have trouble imagining myself settling in the Bay Area. The things holding me here are my circle of friends and the good jobs in Silicon Valley, not any particular liking for the place itself.

Another reason for my perpetual doubts about staying in the US is that my ability to stay here is not fully within my control. I've been on a student visa this entire time, and the path to a work visa and then to permanent residency requires a bit of luck and a lot of waiting. There is no guarantee that it will work out, since the H-1B system is a lottery. I have to scratch my head when a country offers me two world-class degrees fully paid for, allows me to get a great job in Silicon Valley, but then makes it so difficult to stay here long term. It's hard to commit to a place when they can kick you out on a whim. (And yes, I recognize that Muslims and others have it much worse.)

But even if I learned to accept the US as the imperfect place that it is, and if I managed to secure a green card eventually, I'd still have to wrestle with the fragmented identity that is the curse and blessing of every immigrant. No amount of catching up on American pop culture will close the rift of understanding that exists between me and someone who grew up here reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Similarly, no amount of study abroad will allow an American to experience growing up in a third-world country. So there will always be this sense of otherness that prevents me from becoming fully American, even if that's more achievable than becoming, say, Swiss or German. Unsurprisingly, my closest friends are fellow immigrants and Americans who have spent significant time abroad and have a non-US-centric perspective.

On the other side, I can't count myself as fully Moldovan / Romanian, either. A big chunk of my growing up -- learning how to drive, how to file my taxes, how to interview for a job, how to ask someone on a date -- happened here in the US, in English. Going back "home" feels like being 18 again, and having to relearn all those things. It is the opposite of empowering. On top of that, living in a multicultural society and in the center of the tech world means that my values and interests have diverged quite a bit from the things that people back home care about. Religion and patriotism are examples of things that are important to people there, but that I think are mostly harmful. When interacting with ex-teachers, ex-classmates, etc. I feel the same chasm in perspective between us, the same sense of otherness, like I am a foreigner back "home," too. The only Moldovans I keep in touch with, apart from my family, are folks who have left the country as well.

scrat split

I have one foot in one world and one foot in another, and I can't decide if I want to commit both feet to either side, or jump for a third one. The glass-half-full way to put it is that I am a global citizen, equally capable of making a home for myself anywhere in the world. The glass-half-empty view is that I am not adaptable but rootless, and that my sense of belonging to a local community will always be tentative at best. But maybe rootlessness and anxiety are just the price we pay for social mobility in today's world.

When people call me brave for leaving everything behind and moving to the US, I think they misunderstand. To paraphrase Hanlon's razor, never attribute to courage that which is adequately explained by youthful recklessness. At 18, I had an obsession and I followed it, consequences be damned. It was an easy decision. I didn't think that opening certain doors would cause others to close, and I didn't think anything about putting 7 and later 10 time zones between myself and my family. In some sense I'm glad for that lack of forethought, because I'm pretty happy with the shape that my life has taken so far, and if I'd done a more careful cost-benefit analysis, I might have been too scared to jump.

But the tradeoffs of switching countries are real, and paralyzing, when considering whether to settle here or attempt a second jump. My only decision so far has been to postpone any decision, and enjoy the good things that I have here for now (friends, job, familiarity with the language and the culture). Of course, indecisiveness has its own risks, and I would love to reach the point where I consciously commit to a place, instead of remaining there by inertia. It hasn't happened yet. But that's a terrible reason to stay indoors and ruminate, when I could instead go for a bike ride and (to use one of my favorite English expressions that doesn't mean what you think it means) put the balls to the wall.

scrat riding

Credits for the images: Ice Age (fair use)