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23 years in the U.S: Finding the joy in the ‘unspeakably difficult’ climb
Today marks 23 years since we set foot in America.
They say the greatest lottery in life is where you were born. For my family, that lottery was much more literal.
In 1999, my parents and I were living in Bulgaria. My dad had picked me up from school, and as we approached our building, a neighbor called out to him that some of our mail was delivered to their apartment instead. She handed him a thick envelope, and his eyes widened until he opened it and yelled, “Yes!” approximately one hundred times.
We had won a green card to come to the United States. The U.S. green card lottery has been called “the unwinnable lottery” because only one quarter of 1% of applicants actually end up with the golden ticket. Without that absurd stroke of luck, my life would’ve turned out quite differently.
Today marks 23 years since we set foot in America. For the first time, I reflected just how much my parents left behind to start over here. They both worked multiple jobs with crazy hours and horrendous commutes.
In Bulgaria, my dad had been a 33-year-old with a master’s degree in chemical engineering and more than a decade of work experience. But in the first few months in the U.S, he was working part-time at a hotel and a fast-food restaurant.
I recently asked him, “Were you upset that it felt like you were starting over?”
And his answer surprised me. He said, “Not at all.”
He told me that he pictured two mountains — one small and one big. The small one represented his potential in Bulgaria. He had obtained a degree from one of the most prestigious and rigorous universities, and he was working on something tangentially related to what he studied in school. But he was close to the peak of that small mountain, and then that was it. There was nowhere else to go from there. His potential was capped.
But when we moved to the U.S, he says, he pictured himself jumping from the small mountain to an equivalent place on the bigger mountain. Unlike the small mountain, that place meant that he was near the bottom rather than near the top. There was a lot more climbing left to do. Rather than seeing it as a burden, he saw it as an opportunity.
Though I had my own struggles with moving to the U.S, it’s my parents who deserve the credit for climbing this steep mountain with a heavy backpack filled with worries and responsibilities. They re-built their lives in a foreign country without support because it really was an endeavor with no safety net. But the good news is: We made it … not to the top, but definitely far from the bottom.
The apartment complex where we first lived has been bulldozed and re-built. So has the shopping center. So has the bus stop. So has our life.
In the acknowledgements section of my book Hidden Genius, I write: “To my parents, who sacrificed everything to move to a foreign country in pursuit of a better life. Those early years in the United States were unspeakably difficult, but I’ll never forget the moments of joy and laughter along the way.”
Because that’s the thing I’ve realized in the last 23 years: It’s true that the early days were difficult. Unspeakably difficult. But during those days of uncertainty and chaos, there was always the certainty of … us. My best memories were formed during that time because of a well-timed joke, a language mix-up, or the first time I encountered a breaded, deep-fried, sausage on a stick you Americans call “a corn dog.”
I hope this serves as a reminder that no matter what mountain you’re climbing right now, there’s always the opportunity for a moment of levity in an otherwise painful situation. As Mark Twain said, “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”