There are complexities of living a double life. The double life of a first generation American often leaves one feeling at odds with themselves over the perfect act they display for their family and the rebellious, up for anything act they display for their friends.
This is a story of a Brooklyn Russian Jew who engages in less than legal behavior to make himself money, but it should all be over by the time he graduates from high school. Once he is in college, he won’t deal drugs anymore, but he has to get into college first. And he has to make sure he can afford his dream university. He has a choice to make: either he can stay home and go to Brooklyn College, or he can do what he always wanted to do and leave Brooklyn.
If he stays home and goes to school in the city, he will most likely continue to deal drugs. If he goes away – what he always wanted since elementary school – he will get to start anew where no one will know him nor his family. He will be able to decide who he is and who he should be without his family clouding his ideas and purpose. His family is not bad, but there is this weight that he feels to succeed at everything he does with his life. He has to be someone important.
Maybe it’s the dream of moving to America, making a comfortable life, and encouraging your kids to strive for the best. What immigrant doesn’t have that dream? If the immigrant himself or herself cannot accomplish it, then the dream gets passed down to their kids. Their kids feel this pressure to succeed, to be someone important, someone worth something, and someone who their parents can be proud of and brag about. Become anyone you want with focus and determination because you are in America, and you are not in the country your parents came from.
Focus on what you want, and with determination you can get there. Hope comes after you become a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, a financial analyst, investment banker, or any other profession that will give you a salary to let you live a comfortable and luxurious life.
Who cares if you burn out and have to quit after you’ve made a name for yourself? Get the job first, make your money, and once you’ve built up your savings to live comfortably, you can quit to find your niche. Of course, if your niche is working, do not quit.
“You have to do something with your life, Dmitri. You cannot do nothing. You should not skip school. You need to be somebody useful in society. You have got to go to school and become someone important,” my father always told me. I never knew why I had to do something. I am not the oldest. Maybe it is because I am the only son, or maybe he did tell my sisters and I the same thing. I say this now because my older sister Anna is going into her third year of law school. I do not believe law school was ever her dream, but she went anyway. In my opinion, my sister is capable of completing anything she sets her mind to. She is going to be one hell of a lawyer if that is what she wants.
My father, Simeon Asher, did not just tell me to be someone useful in society. My father told all his children: me, my older sister Anna, and my younger sister Sofia. I don’t know if he created the pressure we feel to have to succeed in life, or if he just added to it the pressure we created for ourselves. We probably did create it for ourselves, if only to have it drive us to succeed in our monotonous life as the children of two immigrant parents who work morning till night. Our parents did the best they could to give us a life in which possibility and opportunity are readily available to us like water.
My father always asked, “Do you want to stay in South Brooklyn forever? Your mother and I moved here because it is safe. It is a haven for us immigrants, but you three are supposed to go to school, to a university, and find a career that takes you places.”
My father is a good man. He always supports his family no matter what we need. He always lets us know what we can and should do. He wants us to be successful in our lives. He always says that he didn’t move away from the Soviet Union for his children to become nobodies. My mother agrees with that. There’s a greater opportunity here, they always say. My mother, Alina Asher, is constantly striving to be better. My mother may only work at a personal injury law firm, but she works there as the office manager and public notary.
What there is here in America that there was not in the old country is hope, and I think that is what my parents mean when they say greater opportunity. My little sister memorized these lines when she read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Of course, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie’s maternal grandparents came from Germany, and her paternal grandparents came from Ireland. They did not come from the Union of Soviet Socialists’ Republic (U.S.S.R). However, all three of these countries can be considered the old country, and in the old country, “a man can be no more than his father, provided he works hard. In the old country, a man is given to the past.” Here in America “despite hard, unfamiliar things, there is hope. Man belongs to the future. He may be what he will be if he has the good heart and a way of working honestly at the right things.”
This is what happened when I let her in on my secret. She asked me what it is I do, and instead of lying to her, I told her the truth. I told her that I provide products. I sell marijuana to people my age or older. “I do not sell to anyone younger than me,” I told her, “only seniors in high school and older.”
She told me about a line from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is a book she did not think she would love, but she does. She was given a copy of the book in her high school English class. In the beginning, she said, the book was not exciting, but once she got past the first three chapters, she could not put it down. It took her a month to read it. It could have been sooner, but she kept having to put her book down to clean the house, do homework, or volunteer. When she finished, she bought her own copy of it. My little sister started her own library already. She’s only 14, but her room’s getting a bit crowded with the likes of Francie Nolan, Holden Caulfield, Go Ask Alice, Elie Wiesel, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, the Pevensie siblings, and more.
“Brooklyn’s not such a terrible place,” Sofia said, “or maybe this book just developed in me a romantic idea of Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not so bad. A nation of immigrants makes it what it is.” Sofia then recited a quote she memorized from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: “Brooklyn… It’s a magic place and it’s not real.” Brooklyn is only a place. It is not a home, I gathered.
If my parents are ever on the same page, it is about the fact that my siblings and I need to do something with our lives. We need to go to school, get good grades, get near perfect SAT scores, apply to colleges, and climb the career ladder further than they did. Oh, and we need to get married and have a family because apparently if we don’t have a family of our own, then it’s a disgrace or something.
There are two traditional professions that are favorable and exceptional in our family. Those two professions are law and medicine. Our parents have high expectations of us. They believe we three can actually be doctors and lawyers. But what if we are not excited about either of these professions?
I don’t know if I want to go into law or medicine. These professions do not excite me. I get near-perfect grades in science, but it’s only because I am obligated to study for science, and I have to pay attention. Science is just not my favorite, and it is not fun for me, so I ruled out medicine for my future career path. All I need to know is that the only place alcohol is a solution is in chemistry! And of course, one should never mix their liquors. I learned that lesson when I mixed my liquors when a friend of mine threw a party last year during the January regents exam break. I drank a few beers, a few shots of vodka, tequila, and some more beer. The next morning, I did not wake up feeling so great.
I’ve ruled out law as well. I don’t want to read so much. I am not in the mood to ruin my eyesight. I’ve met the lawyers at the firm my mother works in, and all three of them wear glasses. Mr. Pavlov, Mrs. Tabachova, and Mr. Melad all said they had to start wearing their glasses when they were in law school. Call me selfish but I don’t feel like losing my eyesight in my 20’s. Also, I shudder to think of myself in a situation where I am forced to speak on behalf of someone on an issue they truly care about. It might help that my older sister Anna is in law school. I don’t need to be in law school as well. Telling my parents that I do not intend to go into medicine nor law — now that’s going to be a fun conversation.
I wonder how they would feel if I went for a Ph.D. in Mathematics. I wonder if they would be mad. The conversation with my parents about my future studies is a piece of cake compared to the conversation I will need to have with them about the recent business venture I have gotten into. My parents will probably have more of an issue with the business I have chosen than the future studies I will plan to take.
How would my parents react when I tell them that I sell herbal remedies? I cannot say, “I am a drug dealer,” or should I just come right out with it? I should try to put a positive spin on my business. I could say that I am in pharmaceutical sales. It is similar. My job title is illegitimate pharmaceutical sales representative. That ought to keep things official, sort of, because the word “illegitimate” in my job title throws people off, but what can I do? I can’t actually say, “I am a pharmaceutical sales representative” because I am not. Really though, what’s the difference between a drug dealer and a pharmaceutical sales rep? There is a difference in clientele, sure. Drug dealers work for themselves. Pharmaceutical sales reps are most likely independent contractors working with pharmaceutical companies.
Maybe I should tell my parents that I am thinking of becoming a pharmacist, or I could tell my parents that I plan on opening up my own store where I sell items like marijuana, edibles, CBD, and other drugs once such products are no longer considered contraband. There are so many career options to choose from. Hopefully, my parents will not be too angry with my future career choices because my sister is in law school, and they can count that as success. Hopefully, my parents will be satisfied with my choices about my future career because I don’t know what I want to do.
I think my father tells us “to make something of ourselves” because he has not done much for himself with his life. My father may only be a driver, but he is smart. He knows how to save, how to invest, and rarely ever spends money on himself. Any money my father makes goes straight into his savings. Savings he sets aside for a rainy day. I have never seen my father buy himself anything new like electronic devices, sneakers, or fancy clothes. I never know if that is just who he is, or if that is who he had to become when he married my mother, and they moved to America. My dad is the type who takes a backseat in his own life only to make sure that his family can be well taken care of.
Safety and security are two things that my father does not want his children to worry about, so he does most of the worrying about those things himself, and he does his best to keep the family’s finances secure. When I say family, I do not just mean my sisters, my mother and I. I mean his whole entire family, which includes his siblings and his parents. No matter what, my father is always there for everyone who needs him. Personally, I can be selfish. If there is anyone in my family I care about besides myself, it is only my two sisters. Otherwise, I do not care. If only I were like my father.
Sometimes though, I feel like my father cares more about his job, his siblings, and his parents than his own kids, but I think I am beginning to understand him better. He had to be there for everyone because if he was not there, then who would be? He told me once on a morning car ride to school:
“Family may get annoying, and they take their toll on you, but you cannot ever turn your back on your family. If you can’t count on family, then who can you count on? Trust me, I understand the frustration. I have siblings, too. We all might get annoyed with each other, but in the end, we rely on each other in times of trouble. Whether it’s emotional or financial, be there for the family whenever you can because you will never know when you will need your family by your side.”
My father is a smart, kind, quiet, and observant man. These are four traits that my little sister Sofia seems to have inherited from him. Sofia just finished her first year of high school. We are about three years apart, and we are similar to each other. We both do well in school, but her grades are definitely better. Sofia is quieter, sneakier, and has more secrets. She’s the type of person who could leave for hours, and we would not know where she went. The only way we would know anything is if she decides to tell us. There’s really no other way to find out unless we invade her privacy and check her planner. But there’s no point in doing that. Sofia will not let us in on her life until after she completes her tasks and receives her results. Luckily, she posts a few things on Instagram, so we do get to keep tabs on her that way.
Sofia knows how to keep a secret, and she can definitely keep her mouth shut, but sometimes it seems as though she does not want to keep quiet. Maybe one day she will want to shout out every thought in her mind from the rooftops with a megaphone, but for now she’ll shut herself up. She keeps herself locked inside herself. I think that in a way our father and Sofia are very similar. There is not much we know about our father except that he is an Uber driver, and he is always there for his family. My sisters Sofia and Anna are the same. We would know nothing about them if they didn’t tell us. I have my own secrets too.
I think my mother may be the only one who doesn’t have any secrets. She might have a few things that she keeps to herself. She never talks about her work or her coworkers. She’s an office manager at a law firm that specializes in personal injury and workers’ compensation, and that’s all I know. Sofia has on occasion met with my mom at her office and so has Anna. I have never really cared to see Mom at work.
From what my sisters have said, Mom is kept pretty busy at work. She is kept so busy that the office would probably not run without her. My mother is a notary public as well. To become a notary public, she went online to find what she needed to do and studied the seventeen pages that explain the job. Then she took the exam, passed, and received her certification. She speaks four languages fluently: English, Russian, Azerbaijani, and Farsi. My mom learned English when she came to America, and she speaks it impeccably. She does have an accent, but it’s not so noticeable that people constantly ask her to repeat herself. However, her accent draws the attention of some people who might ask her where she is from. She used to hate being asked that question. Where are you from? Now, my mother does not care as much when she is asked that question because she realized that sharing her nationality with people helps her make sense of how she fits into American culture, and it helps her make new friends.
If there is anything she can do to boost herself in this world, she does it without question. Like my father, she works constantly, but at least she has normal hours. She works 9 am – 5 pm with weekends off. However, my mother sometimes works as late as 8 pm. As an Uber driver, my father works for himself, and he works at any time of the day or night seven days a week. My mom tries to do anything she can to do well in America. She went to community college in Sheepshead Bay and received her Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies. They both work so their children do not have to work, at least not while they are still in high school. My parents always say that while we are living with them and still in school, we do not have to worry about groceries, rent, utility bills, or anything else, but once we are on our own, we are on our own. However, Mom and Dad never said that we would not be able to come home. They once said, “we will always have a home with us and if you need to come back home you can.”
My family is just like any other family. We talk about frivolous things. When we are together, we would turn on a movie, a comforting sitcom, or anything to stamp out the silence. We have to fill the awkwardness in our house. We fill it not with our words, but with the television blaring in the background.
About the Author
Rebecca Blyakher is a writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. She enjoys reading biographies and memoirs like Veronica Buckley’s Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric, and John Guy’s Mary Stewart: My Heart is My Own. Rebecca’s favorite book is Hanna by Alena Mornstajnova, which tells the story of a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust and returned to her hometown in Czechoslovakia. She once ran the Families for Sensible Drug Policy’s Instagram page, @ourfsdp, and currently, Rebecca is a Marketing Coordinator for a non-profit organization, Believe New York.