Updated: Aug 16, 2020
It’s now 1992 and we are on a plane to the United States of America. We are now a family of seven, another sister and brother were born while we lived in Ukraine. The political situation in Ukraine had become worse, and our relatives were able to immigrate to the US and apply for a refugee visa on our behalf. My dad, 31 years old and with a single dollar to his name, made the decision to move his family of 5 kids to a new country half way around the world. My dad is kind of my hero in many regards, being brave enough to do this is one reason. Even before he was married, he used to smuggle Christian literature across the Soviet Union and was arrested twice for preaching at youth gatherings in different cities. He had many run-ins with the KGB. What a legacy to live up to!
The first few years of life were hard. We lived next door to another immigrant family who instead of helping us, constantly threatened to complain to the apartment complex management because of things we did. My dad was deathly afraid of getting in trouble because he didn’t know the language and had no idea where we would go if we got kicked out. So, I got whooped because those neighbors didn’t like me riding my bike on the street. I got whooped because they didn’t like me riding my bike on the sidewalk. My parents had a bunch of fights, probably because they had no idea about what to do. My dad’s response to stress was hot anger and yelling. Us three older kids had to go to school and were met with the American kids constantly yelling names at us, mostly mispronunciations of odd Russian words like “babushka.” It wasn’t terrible but we always felt like strangers and dreaded making the walk to and from the bus stop.
At school, I would constantly get in trouble from the teacher because another immigrant kid who’d already learned English thought it would be funny to tell lies on me. So I spent a lot of time by myself. Home didn’t feel welcome because I was probably doing something wrong, and because I was outside a lot, I was always “useless.” So, I would walk around or ride my bike fantasizing about adventures or girls, even at 9 years old.
One thing my brother and I would do is go dumpster diving looking for old hot wheels. One evening I found a pornographic magazine. I felt a rush, I knew deep in my heart I shouldn’t be looking at it, but I hid behind the dumpster and took it all in. I didn’t know what to do so I hid the magazine and showed an older neighborhood kid what I found. I left it in my hiding place, but the next day it was gone. But don’t worry, I would discover that the internet had plenty of porn a few years later when we would get a computer.
That first year in the US was agonizing for our family. We finally had an indoor toilet and a bath tub, but our bedroom window got a bullet through it once. I don’t remember a whole lot, but I know my parents went through some despair. I heard them arguing loudly a couple times. The apartment had barbed wire fence put in as well as armed guards at the entrances.
Our turn finally came to be accepted into a government-subsidized housing program and we moved without hesitation into a much more family-friendly neighborhood with other immigrant families. We lived there for a little over four years but there was plenty of good times like riding bikes with friends, playing in the park nearby, getting out of ESL, and going camping. The problem was my relationship with my dad was developing an unhealthy picture of who God was. We had family church. We sang together. We read the Bible together. But to me that was what we had to do to appease God and be good Christians.
My dad became a minister in the Ukrainian church we were members of. He started taking college classes and being a full time minister. We constantly had people over, or my dad would be gone all the time. I would still get that, “Wait till your dad gets home,” when I didn’t do enough chores. I admired my dad, but I was deathly afraid of his anger. Which was my primary motivation to do well in school. If I got a ‘B’, the response was, “Why isn’t it an A?” If it was an ‘A’, it should have been an ‘A+’? Lord forbid I brought a ‘C’ home. Then I would get a loud passionate speech about why we came to America and I was going to be a bum if I didn’t get good grades. I didn’t realize it then but that’s how I imagined God to be. If I didn’t perform at a certain level then God would be angry with me and I would have to work even harder to prove myself. I knew God loved me, but His love came with a lot of standards and requirements.
We used to get $20 for our birthdays. I really wanted a memory pack for our video game system. So, to appease my dad my strategy was I was going to spend $10 on the memory pack and donate $10 to the church. I told my plan to my mom and I had never felt like such a failure at life as, later that night at dinner, my dad cold stared at me. This would establish my relationship with God from then on. I made sure to pray each morning and read a chapter of the Bible each day to make sure I did my “chores” for God and then spent time pursuing my own desires; a lot of video games. I did my homework in the evenings while helping my dad learn English and helping him do his math homework. I remember him yelling about how stupid an equation is, or at me if I didn’t know something. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
I had another brush with death. We were camping with a bunch of relatives on the Olympic Peninsula and we went to the ocean shore. I was 10 years old. I was playing in the water and all of a sudden I was pulled under by the current. By chance, my uncle was coming out of the water after a swim and grabbed my arm and carried me to shore. It was so quick, I only realized what had happened when I learned what rip tide was when I got older.
After two years I finished elementary school and went on to junior high. Then after a year we ended up moving into a house in Tacoma. Now on to ninth grade in high school, my fifth school in five years. I had no friends again and all the “friends” I made before were not enough to stay in touch with. I was alone again, trying to learn how to get around. Feeling betrayed, I really wanted to go to the high school where our family friends were going, but instead, they took me to get enrolled in Mount Tahoma High School. I found out soon after that this was where all the expelled students from the other Tacoma high schools ended up.
On the first day of class, a kind dude was introducing me to his friends, one of which told me to watch my back since some of the Cambodians had it out for some Russians. High school was the beginning of my double life. I was the perfect pastor’s kid in church, making sure my dad’s reputation was intact. Going to all the youth functions and bible studies as I could. While in school, however, I was my own man. I never drank, did drugs, or had sex. I was hanging out with gang bangers, cursing, spending countless hours playing computer games and looking at porn every other night. I got good grades and I graduated as valedictorian. I did all my chores and helped around the house.
My dad wasn’t home a lot, he was a bi-vocational pastor working a full time job and then doing church stuff. He watched TV when he had a free evening. So if I didn’t mess up, there wasn’t any reason for me to have any interaction with him. I just had to make sure I went to college and got a good job and started helping the family financially. Oh, and the sooner I got married the better. No pressure though. Never got any life advice beside the fact that now since I did the altar call and got baptized the next step in my Christian life was to get a job and get married and do something in the church of which the options were to sing in the choir (check) and preach every once in a while (check). I had Christianity in the bag, except the marriage thing.
I was betrayed by my church friends. I desperately tried to belong and be a part of the group. These were guys my age, same culture and same faith. But, I found out how they felt about me when the youth group was preparing to go camping to Lake Chelan. I asked one of the guys if he was driving and if I could catch a ride with him. They were going, but they didn’t have any room in their car. But he would give me a ride to the meeting location. He did, at the wrong location. And I later found out they did have room in their car, just not for the pastor’s kid. I had to figure out how to get back to Tacoma from Auburn without a car, cell phone or bus fare. Even after that betrayal, I got chewed out by my dad as if it were my fault somehow.
High school came and went, I didn’t bother making deep relationships. I also had my share of bullies and betrayals. I desperately wanted to belong and hung out with anyone who would tolerate me. I felt so cool when the star of varsity basketball team, CJ Johnson, sat behind me in Algebra and asked me to help him. That translated mostly into him copying my exams, but still, I felt like I belonged. He pretended like he didn’t know me when I ran into him outside of class, so I built my guard up. After a few relationships like that, I built up my walls because people only wanted me for what I could give them. I had plenty of buddies and pals, but no one invited me to hang out with them outside of school. I left high school without any one I could call a friend.
Trying to figure out my major in college, my dad wasn’t any help. I knew that college thing better than him apparently, just as long as I picked something with good pay. I knew if I picked something he didn’t like, I would hear about it. So I didn’t pick anything. I got accepted into UW, but we couldn’t afford the parental contribution even with scholarships. I went to a community college. That’s not the only thing I had to figure out. Whenever there was an issue with the family car, it was my job to call my mechanic uncle and work with him to fix it. I was also in charge of calling the phone company if something was wrong with the bill. Or if there was something not right with the tax return, guess who was on the phone with the IRS. Shouldn’t my dad be teaching me all this stuff?
So, was I really left to figure everything out on my own? Is that how God is? Do I have to figure everything out when I come to Him and present the best solution for how I was going to fix my life in order to be accepted into His family? I became constantly terrified that I wasn’t going to be ready with my solution before the rapture and that I would be left behind.
One of my Dad’s brothers worked at a machine shop and had me come in to interview for the night shift. I finally had a steady job, working three days a week from 4 to midnight. I finally saved up and was able to purchase my dream car, a 1992 Volkswagen Corrado. My mechanical skills were greatly improved after owning that car. I still didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I added street racing to my list of escapes. It wasn’t anything like “Fast and the Furious.” It was more like randomly finding another lost soul looking for meaning on the empty lanes of I-5 and seeing if he or she wanted to see who’s nerves would give out first.
I was soon betrayed again though. My boss did not consult with my uncle on my schedule and when I got a day or two off randomly, my uncle thought I was skipping work. So after a few “incidents” he had enough and, after one Friday night church service, berated me to my dad in front of other church members. Well, my dad’s reputation was hurt and I was the worst employee in the world, and the least trustworthy son in the world. What else was I lying about? I was again a useless stump.
I finally ended up choosing to major as a graphic designer to the unbound joy of my dad. As you might have guessed, he didn’t know what that meant. He was certain I wasn’t going to make enough money at it. I started to care about life less and less. I did enjoy school though and going to a private school enabled me to continue living my double life. One night I was driving home from our men’s singing group practice and I felt angry and I didn’t know why. I let my anger flow through me and out of my right foot. I ended up rolling my car. My car ended up sideways in a ditch with my rear hatch window smashed through by a pipe sticking out of the ground about 18 inches from where my head would have been. Crawling out of my car, I desperately tried to roll it over because I was worried about how my dad would react. I could have died and my car was totaled, but my biggest fear was how my dad would berate me.
I graduated art school in 2006, right as the economy was heading towards a crash. I was going to pursue a bachelor’s degree but my parents told me they need me to get a job and start supporting them. So I took the first job I could find, which was a customer service rep at FedEx Kinko’s. Not the most glamorous job, but I had some income and was able to buy another car.