Coming to America
Feb 27, 2017 11:22AM ● Published by Neighbors Magazines
19 year old Olyeg Marlow is a Batavia firefighter in training, but for the first six years of his life he called Russia home. Marlow was born in Novokuznetsk, a city in south-western Siberia. Until the age of three, he lived with his grandmother in her dacha, or cottage, on the top of a steep hill in a small village. Marlow’s memories of the time with his grandmother are few.
“I remember going down the hill behind her house on a piece of cardboard. I remember a train track. And I remember my grandma had a lot of cats.”
The events of Marlow’s early life are unclear, but he recalls leaving his grandmother’s home at a young age for an orphanage.
“When I left her house I went straight to a hospital for half a year. I’m assuming the orphanage wanted to get me checked out,” he explains.
At the orphanage, Marlow’s days were fairly regimented. He would wake up, eat breakfast and then spend some time playing in the park on the grounds of the gated facility. Then, Marlow and the other children would go to the stage on the first floor where they would sing or act.
“The arts were a big part of Russian culture,” Marlow says. “Everyone had to do that.”
For many people today, the word immigration brings to mind contentious, contemporary politics, but for Marlow at the age of six, immigration was neither a concept nor a choice. One day in 2002, William and Amanda, a married couple from Batavia, arrived to adopt Marlow and Emma, another young girl at the orphanage. The couple already had two adopted children and they were only planning on adopting one more.
“The orphanage said, ‘No, you want two more. We have the perfect children for you!’” says Marlow. “My younger sister just got there and they wanted to put us together, so when they came and they met us they decided they wanted both of us.”
Marlow describes the day of his adoption as a somewhat confusing but happy experience.
“I met these two people, my parents, and they gave me food and a toy dog to play with. I knew what was happening but I didn’t know how to react. But I was happy because I was getting all these goodies and treats.”
Marlow’s adoptive parents also went out and bought toys for the rest of the children in the orphanage, a tradition in Russia. He says there were also traditions specific to Russian culture involved in the adoption process.
“My mom and dad would tell us these stories of how in the Russian court you would have to bring gifts like fish and apples to the judge. Whatever the court told you, you would nod your head and agree. It’s a lot different there.”
Luckily, everything went smoothly and Marlow soon found himself in an American home playing with Legos® and Star Wars toys.
“I remember when I first got home there were two big chocolate labs. My sister came in and jumped on my dad’s head because she’d never seen large dogs,” Marlow laughs.
Though he had to leave most of his belongings at the orphanage, Marlow was able to bring DVDs of Russian cartoons home. He watched the cartoons with his brother and for a time retained his native tongue. But around third or fourth grade, Marlow began to lose his Russian. And while his parents kept Russian traditions alive in the home, his formative years were typically American. He made friends in the Batavia school system, got involved with Strikers soccer and took an interest in fire science in high school. Today, Marlow says he would feel like an outsider if he went back to visit Russia.
“I definitely want to go back. I would feel like such a foreigner though,” he says.
That Marlow assimilated to American culture so quickly is not unusual. According to a research study done by Steven Heine, a professor of cultural psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, younger immigrants adjust to a new culture faster than older immigrants.
“The researchers surveyed 232 people who had emigrated from Hong Kong to Vancouver at various ages, from infancy to age 50… For people who had immigrated to Canada before the age of 15, they identified more with Canadian culture with each successive year they lived there than did people who had immigrated when they were older.” (psychologicalscience.org)
For adults like Geneva resident Fatima Figueiredo, the process of acculturation did not happen as quickly. Figueiredo and her family emigrated from Rio de Janeiro to the United States in 1999 when her husband’s company relocated. Having grown up in Brazil, Figueiredo had some trouble initially adapting to American culture. She found herself missing the slower pace of life in Brazil, among other things.
“In Brazil life is more laid back. It’s not fast paced like it is here. In Brazil, everybody sits at the table for a meal, which is something I miss. I feel like here, one person eats at one time, another person at another time; one eats in front of the T.V. while another one is in front of the computer.”
She also says time is more malleable in Brazil than in the U.S.
“In Brazil if someone says ‘come to dinner at 6’ that means ‘don’t come at 6,’ so that was something I had to adjust to. I remember I was always late taking my boys to soccer practice and they were mad at me, so I had to adjust to be on time.”
More generally, an article on rapidimmigration.com describes the four stages of adaptation immigrants go through as they get used to American customs, values and belief systems. In the first stage, the “honeymoon phase,” immigrants often feel a sense of unlimited possibility related to the newness of experiencing a foreign culture for the first time. Following this stage, immigrants may enter a period of hostility based on language and communication difficulties and because of the contrast between their native culture and American traditions. Fortunately, this stage usually leads into understanding and acceptance as immigrants start to feel as if they belong and accept America as their home.
In short time, Figueiredo warmed up to life in America and has since reconciled the differences between American and Brazilian lifestyles.
“Now when I go back to Brazil there are things I miss from here too,” she says. “Sometimes I see people come and they keep complaining that their home country was better in one way or another, but you never find a place that has everything you like. I believe if you come to a place with an open heart everything will go well.”
Though he didn’t have to adapt in the same way as Figueiredo, everything is going just fine for Olyeg Marlow. In a way, it was Marlow’s adoptive parents who bridged the cultural gap for him when he was young, easing the transition by providing a loving home and answering questions Marlow had about his Russian heritage as he grew up.
Today, 19 year old Marlow is in the explorer program at the Batavia Fire Department on a path towards becoming a firefighter.
“I’m crew right now,” he says. “I just have to take the state test and then I’ll be able to go on calls. There are five of us who came from Batavia High School together where we each took two years of fire science through Fox Valley Career Center.”
Marlow speaks enthusiastically about his training and his future in the field. He says he enjoys that there’s something different to do every day. And while he sometimes daydreams about what he might be doing if he hadn’t left Novokuznetsk, most of the time he’s looking ahead to his career with the fire department, happy with his life in America and the opportunities that have been afforded to him.
“I definitely think my life is a lot better here than it would have been in Russia just because of where I was at,” he says. “I practically have everything I could want.”
Ben Scott is the community editor of Neighbors magazines