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One-Way Ticket to America?
Shahlo Sharopova
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When I was 16, my family in Uzbekistan won the green card lottery. We had entered before and lost, now that we were chosen to receive green cards—the legal documentation to immigrate to America. We were so excited.

Two years before, one of my dad’s cousins had won a green card lottery and went to America with her family. Later, they sent us photos of the Statue of Liberty and high buildings, museums, parks, beaches, and big stores. Where I lived, a city of famous historical places and buildings, there were few big stores or skyscrapers, and there weren’t oceans anywhere close by. We had heard that life was amazingly good in America: People said that salaries were very high, and that education and career opportunities were great there.

I thought about America as a different planet. I imagined it full of famous people, like my favorite actors, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and singers Avril Lavigne and Rihanna. I imagined huge buildings, wide and clean streets full of beautiful cars, and gorgeous nature. I thought my every dream could come true in America.

My dad wasn’t so sure. As we started to prepare our papers to get visas, he changed his mind and said that we were not going. He had worked in South Korea and Russia before, so he knew how hard was it to start over in a new country. But the rest of us, including my mom, had never been outside of Uzbekistan, so we really wanted to come to America.

I loved my life in Uzbekistan and loved my school and friends, but it was my dream to get an education in a foreign country such as America or Great Britain. I wanted to learn foreign languages and travel the world. I also wanted to see how life was in different parts of the world, make friends from foreign countries, and learn their traditions and customs.

“Why shouldn’t we go? It’s our luck to win the lottery and we have to use it,” Mom said to my dad. “I’m not going to live my whole life in this town. I want to see the world,” she added. Dad still had his doubts, but he agreed to go.

The Last Day

We left four days after my 17th birthday. Our relatives and friends came to our house to say bye. Everyone—my grandpa, two grandmas, uncles, aunts, cousins, and family friends—sat around the table full of shish kebab, sweets, and different salads made of cabbage, tomatoes, fried vegetables, and meat.

I started to miss them already. I tried my best to hold my tears back. After the meal, as I helped Mom to seal the last of our suitcases with tape, my grandma and aunt approached us.

“Let’s go outside and be together, it’s the last day,” my aunt said as Grandma sat on my favorite sofa.

“I was just making sure everything is ready. It’s almost time to leave.” Mom looked down as she said it. She was barely holding her tears back.

image by Jamel Blass

“As you know, I don’t want you to go,” Grandma started. She and Grandpa were pretty old and they were afraid they wouldn’t see us again after we left. “But it’s too late, you are leaving today.” She paused. “Be careful, eat healthy food, and take care of yourselves when you get there,” she continued as tears ran down her cheeks. Mom started crying, too. “You, Shahlo, listen to your parents, don’t upset them.”

“Yes, Grandma,” I replied as I dried my eyes with my hands. I hugged her tightly. Mom joined us.

After dinner, I gave some of my things, including my favorite pink dress and old book bag to my cousins, since I figured that I wouldn’t need them in America. Then it was time to leave. I hugged my friends and family one by one.

Not What I Expected

After the sad goodbye and 16-hour flight, we lost some of our enthusiasm. When we got to JFK Airport we were all tired. There, when I saw people of different races, dressed in different ways, with weird hairstyles wandering around, I felt odd, and started wanting to go back.

When we got to Brooklyn, we realized that the city wasn’t as beautiful as we had expected it to be. The buildings were ordinary, not tall and sparkling like the New York you see in movies. (We realized later that was Manhattan.) Already, this wasn’t the America we had dreamed of.

Dad turned out to be right: The transition was very difficult. For four days, we stayed with my dad’s cousin and her family. Then, we found an apartment to rent and it was much more expensive that we had expected it to be. It rained a lot that first week, and we worried that it would always be gray and wet. My parents started to look for jobs but they didn’t know where to go or who to ask.

The language was also a big challenge for us. Just my sister and I knew a few words in English. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t clearly communicate. We didn’t really like the food, either. The fruits, vegetables, and even water tasted different. I felt like I was eating a piece of wood when I ate fruits and vegetables here.

Homesick

My dad, always a realist, had told us to expect challenges like this, but we had never seriously thought about his warnings. He hadn’t been in America before, so how would he know, we thought. We quickly became homesick and my parents began arguing a lot about who was to blame for us leaving our beautiful lives behind.

“I want to go back, I miss home,” Mom would start, almost crying.

image by Jamel Blass

“Now you want go back, huh? I warned you,” Dad reminded her. “But you still wanted to come and see this ‘perfect’ world.”

“If you knew that it was so hard to start a new life here, you should have stopped us. You should have made us change our minds. It’s not only my fault.”

My sister and I sometimes also felt like going back because we missed our schools, friends, and home, but we were not upset with our parents. We felt like it was our destiny to come to America, even if it wasn’t exactly how we expected it to be. The only one who completely liked it here was my 8-year-old brother; he’d already made a few friends when he went to the park, even though he didn’t speak English.

Two weeks after we arrived, my mom got a job at a health care office. But dad couldn’t find any work for a long time. Meanwhile, my sister and I had to stay at home without a computer, TV, or even a radio while our parents were outside working or looking for a job. I spent that summer reading books I had brought from Uzbekistan and wandering around the neighborhood with my sister and our cousin, just for fun.

In September I went to International High School at Lafayette with my sister. I liked the school because it was full of students from different countries. The classes we had in the beginning of the year were mostly focused on getting students to know each other. We played games during the classes that would help us to get to know each other’s names, backgrounds, and cultures.

It Got Better

My dreams of meeting people from all over the world and learning new customs came true. My sister and I became friends with a Brazilian girl named Yara and a girl named Jiewen from China. We learned what life was like in their hometowns. We also learned some Portuguese and Chinese words.

Suddenly, my life got busy with schoolwork. I made more friends and learned more and more English. The schoolwork in Uzbekistan was much harder than it is here. I got all A’s for the first semester. My sister’s grades were also good. Our science teacher called us the Smart Sisters. I felt myself improving a lot and wanting to learn more and more. I was more optimistic than before.

Could I Go Back?

During this time our family life got better, too. My dad got a job as a car service driver after spending a lot of time to get a New York driver’s license. My mom got a better job at a different health care office that paid her more. They started to furnish our apartment. Mom bought a computer for us. We even made some friends among the Uzbeks living in our neighborhood.

But even now, although my parents don’t argue anymore, they still miss Uzbekistan. Even though they seem happy and have gotten used to America, they now say they want the whole family to go back to Uzbekistan after our education is finished. They say that any other place in the world cannot be better than a person’s motherland.

Sometimes I wonder if they will want to come back to America after they return to Uzbekistan. We have all adjusted to the life here, and I think it will be difficult for us to go back to Uzbekistan and start everything all over again.

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(NYC-2012-01-07)

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