Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What It Feels Like For a Girl To Leave The USSR

My parents were in their early 30s when they applied for exit visas to immigrate from the Soviet Union to America. It was the mid 70s and Soviet Jews were enjoying an Exodus, sans Charlton Heston. My father was immediately fired, my mother was denounced by her colleagues as being a traitor to her country and an unfit mother for taking her daughter out of the Motherland and they were facing the prospect of leaving their parents and extended family behind forever.

I had my own problems, however. I knew that in America gum was plentiful and I wasn't sure how to maximize the bragging potential to my gum-deprived for the foreseeable future classmates.

It's hard for me to explain the allure that a single stick of gum had for us back then. I was eight years old and I'm pretty sure that I would have shipped both of my parents off to the Gulog for a pack of Doublemint. I have no idea why the Soviet Union didn't have gum. A Communist plot, perhaps.

My parents' friends who came from trips abroad would bring back gum and I knew no greater joy. One of my very clear memories is sectioning a single stick of gum and dividing it among my friends. Fortunately, I didn't have very many friends, so we each got a decent piece to chew. And by "decent" I mean tiny enough so that we could only chew it with our front teeth. If you've never chewed a piece of gum so small that you had to limit the chewing to your front teeth, you've had a charmed life and no reason to complain about anything ever.

One time I was at the Hermitage with my mother, bored out of my mind and indulging in my favorite fantasy that I was one of the lost Romanoffs (the resemblance is uncanny, especially if you add diamonds) when a foreigner approached me and handed me a pack of Doublemint. He didn't speak Russian and I didn't speak English, although I'm pretty sure he said "It is for you, because no one is more deserving." Children in Russia are not trained to scorn strangers with candy because they have better things to worry about, like famine or freezing to death, so I grabbed it and proceeded to thank him. He nodded. That memory ranks right up there with the birth of my children, except a lot less painful.

I treasured that pack of Doublemint for months. I let my friends, whose numbers started to grow exponentially, look at it, but it never left my hands. A single slice I could pass around, but never the whole pack.

So the idea that I was going to a land where I could walk down the street and buy some gum, and so could everyone else seemed like a fairy tale.

People often ask me what it was like to immigrate to the United States. I know what they want to hear. They want to hear a story of my flight from religious and political prosecution to a land of freedom and opportunity. And it was certainly that. But more than anything, it meant that I could have access to gum. And I would have wandered around the desert for years for that.

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46 Comments:

Blogger Vodka Mom said...

That was wonderful. I'm running out to buy you a SHITLOAD of gum. I'll bring it up when I start stalking you.

December 9, 2008 at 6:46 AM  
Blogger Belle said...

Oh I'm so with you on the gum thing. Being an immigrant in London. I have noticed that the Londoners aren't into gum as much as I am.

December 9, 2008 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger Kylie w Warszawie said...

This is a sweet post (ha! Look at me all punny!).

And I DO know about chewing pieces of gum so small you can only chew with your front teeth. Don't ask. I don't like to talk about my time in prison.

December 9, 2008 at 7:12 AM  
Blogger Ann's Rants said...

Now why oh why didn't you capitalize on this for the grown-up party game? Hello? Which Mother fled tyrannical persecution to birth her baby in the USofA?? Ok, to get her little mitts on some Wrigley.

December 9, 2008 at 7:42 AM  
Blogger OHmommy said...

sigh. i wish i could have written this.

brilliant. all of it. except for me it was wrigleys.

December 9, 2008 at 8:03 AM  
Blogger WA said...

You should move to the South. Some of the restaurants here have tables and chairs that are entirely made out of used chewing gum.
Great story.

December 9, 2008 at 8:06 AM  
Blogger Cindy said...

You are brilliant.
Tonsils and gum, I can hardly wait to see what follows :)

December 9, 2008 at 8:52 AM  
Blogger Melissa said...

I had a friend who come over from there at about the same time and her thing was M & M's. She was totally agog about them. She's still got a soft spot for them.

December 9, 2008 at 9:42 AM  
Blogger Comedy Goddess said...

Drinks are being served over at my place!
You can bring Russian Vodka. Prosit!

Don't mean to offend you with the Swedishy. Poor shivering gum-stick girl.

December 9, 2008 at 9:55 AM  
Blogger Petra a.k.a The Wise (*Young*) Mommy said...

Beautiful story. I have always had all the gum I have ever wanted and know I feel a little bit guilty...

but just so you know, I would TOTALLY give you my last piece. That's BIG.

December 9, 2008 at 9:58 AM  
Anonymous AMomTwoBoys said...

You crack me up! I'm glad you got your gum.

Now I know what to get you for Christmas!

Oh CRAP. You're Jewish. Channukah. Or do you spell it Hannukah?

December 9, 2008 at 10:02 AM  
Anonymous Kristine said...

I had no idea that gum was such a big deal. But then I guess the lack of it would lessen the likelihood of stepping out of your car into a freshly spat wad, where it sticks to your shoe for the next 24 hours. Only a small pet peeve of mine.

December 9, 2008 at 10:30 AM  
Blogger Magpie said...

And? And are you a die-hard gum smacker now?

December 9, 2008 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Heinous said...

We should start a charitable organization to bring gum to the gumless. You are truly an inspiration.

Note to self: Must add gum to Marinka shrine. Put next to the bottle of vodka.

December 9, 2008 at 10:47 AM  
Blogger Janie said...

I love this! You're such a good writer.

So visions of JuicyFruit danced in your head, huh?

heh.

December 9, 2008 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

The one thing I went crazy on when I came to USA was tortilla chips and salsa. Mexican food in Britland is super expensive and I can't get enough of it over here. I would have it every night if I could.

December 9, 2008 at 11:13 AM  
Blogger Wendy said...

I will now think of you as The Poor Little Gum Girl, based on my favorite (and most sad) fairy tale.

(For me it was Juicy Fruit and I was caught chewing it in 5th grade. Don't ask about the punishment involved. But her name was Mrs. Bowles and I never chewed gum in school again.)

December 9, 2008 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Kirsten / Mama Ginger Tree said...

I think my kids might be having a similar childhood here in America. I refuse to allow them to have gum. All their friends chew gum and they think I am the meanest mom in the whole world. I'll just tell them I am trying to broaden their life experience by letting then experience what it's like to grow up in Soviet Russia.

This is a great post by the way.

December 9, 2008 at 11:32 AM  
Blogger Kimberly said...

Awe, this makes me want to buy a case of gum and mail each pack to random addresses in Russia.

But I think they have gum now.

December 9, 2008 at 11:58 AM  
Blogger Kimberly said...

also, they don't give little girls gum because they just get it stuck in their hair. And they don't have peanut butter, so actually they were looking out for your best interests.

:)

That's what they told me in Catholic School anyway.

December 9, 2008 at 12:03 PM  
Blogger La Belette Rouge said...

What a beautiful story. The stick of gum being so loaded with association is really so very lovely. You are a great writer.

December 9, 2008 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger anymommy said...

Fabulous. I'm a spoiled American brat that hates gum. Funny also, when my mom went to Russia in the eighties, she took pantyhose with her (new, I swear) as gifts. Someone told her that Russian women were pantyhose deprived?! Guess her tour guide didn't get the gum memo. Sorry.

December 9, 2008 at 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Sophie, Inzaburbs said...

I wasn't allowed gum as a child. I remember hiding under a blanket on the front lawn, away from my mother's beady eyes, so that my friend could give me her gum - after she had chewed it.

I still don't encourage gum at home, but recently my husband gave some to my daughter and found the sight of her so cute! ("look! she looks like a real little American!") that he can't resist giving her a stick every time she asks.
And yes, this morning I found gum in the carpet :-(

December 9, 2008 at 1:40 PM  
Blogger Z said...

I'm afraid I don't hear you on this... Gum? Not my thing. Now, if it were some Reece's Peanut Butter Cups... Mmmmmm!

December 9, 2008 at 1:49 PM  
Blogger mo.stoneskin said...

Well it makes sense. Gum is IT.

December 9, 2008 at 2:49 PM  
Blogger Carolyn...Online said...

That's the greatest peek through an 8 year old's eyes.

December 9, 2008 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger *Akilah Sakai* said...

Great read! Absolutely had my attention from point A to point B. You will probably get a shitload of gum within a couple weeks from your readers. Ha!

December 9, 2008 at 4:35 PM  
Blogger Anna See said...

Beautifully put. Save this one for your next grown-up party game.

December 9, 2008 at 4:49 PM  
Anonymous kia (good enough mama) said...

I'm still trying to figure out if it was generosity or stupidity that made you SHARE the gum. Hmmmm...... Sharing IS over-rated, you know. If you'd come to Canada instead of the U.S., you might have learned this. ;)

December 9, 2008 at 6:57 PM  
Blogger rightonmom said...

You know, its the little things in life that count, right? Freedom, shelter, gum...
Love your writing. BTW, my daughter once blew her entire $25 allowance on gum.

December 9, 2008 at 7:04 PM  
Blogger Temple said...

I would have loved to see your 8 year old reaction to Chiclets! (which are each big enough to chew with only your front teeth but thankfully come in bulk in each packet!)

December 9, 2008 at 8:44 PM  
Blogger Deb said...

What a great story. I, too, was thinking I should send you gum, but I imagine you've had quite a lot by now.

Of course, if you would like me to, your wish is my command.

December 9, 2008 at 9:32 PM  
Blogger Tooj said...

I'm glad you have gum now, and I'm glad you like it. But I just realized why I need to move to Russia/USSR/Soviet Union or whatever it's called today. No gum would be heaven-sent for me. I can't stand listening to people chew/chomp/slurp/pop their gum...it's the most annoying things I have ever heard. LOL

December 9, 2008 at 10:07 PM  
Blogger Marinka said...

Thank you, everyone. Your support for my gumless youth means a lot to me.

I don't chew gum anymore, because when I got to the US, I pretty much chewed it exclusively for five years and then the novelty wore off. I was going to move back to the USSR, but then I got hooked on "General Hospital". Go figure!

December 9, 2008 at 10:10 PM  
Blogger nonsoccermom said...

Huh. You learn something new every day, it never would have occurred to me that the Soviet Union was a gumless society.

December 9, 2008 at 10:32 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Just wanted to let you know I am doubling (double insanies) the award given to you from Rachel at Reservation for Six on my blog.

December 9, 2008 at 11:29 PM  
Blogger Smart A$$ Mom said...

I can't think of anything witty.....so thanks for sharing your story.


Lame, I know.

December 10, 2008 at 8:59 AM  
Blogger Tracey said...

:) That is a fabulous story. It's things like gum accessibility that make our country great.

December 10, 2008 at 2:13 PM  
Blogger ShallowGal said...

Religious persecution and gum. Just like when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt.

xoxo, SG

December 10, 2008 at 2:50 PM  
Blogger the mama bird diaries said...

I don't chew gum. Really never have. Will you still read my blog?

December 10, 2008 at 4:04 PM  
Blogger Tracee said...

well written good read. Mazeltov

December 11, 2008 at 5:17 PM  
Blogger Annje said...

OMG. Your blog is hilarious! I remember miniscule pieces of gum that an old neighbor man gave us. I still love gum and single-handedly keep the gum companies in business.

December 12, 2008 at 9:05 PM  
Blogger Briana said...

My mom is from Ireland and whenever my sisters and I chewed gum, she told us that we looked a cow chewing its cud. It had the desired effect. None of us chew gum. A twist, though, is that my mom's cousin worked as a home nurse taking care of THE Wrigleys until they died. When she came to visit, she brought gum.:)

December 14, 2008 at 4:55 PM  
Blogger Briana said...

By the way Marinka, my sister, Charmaine, referred me to your blog. My major in college was Soviet Studies. I am currently trying to brush up on Russian. (It's not going well).

December 14, 2008 at 5:10 PM  
Blogger Adele said...

From a former gumless Russian child to another - do you remember the "cigarette" gum that was actually shaped like a cigarette and had faux cigarette wrapping? It was Bulgarian or something and "deficit"! American Big Tobacco doesn't even dream of such brilliant marketing ploys :)))

April 24, 2009 at 12:44 AM  
Blogger Olga and Sergey Shafran said...

Marinka,
I just found your blog today. I like it. :)
Did you and your friends soak your used gum in raspberry preserves to "re-flavor" or was that just Minsk in the early 90's?

July 30, 2009 at 10:46 AM  

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