Denys Novikov, a Ukrainian journalist, has lived in the USA for five years. He went there in 2014 as a sports journalist – to gain some experience of commenting basketball matches. Ukraine was to host the Basketball World Championship then, but the war stopped everything. To visit the country Denys made a business and tourist visa. He says that he didn’t intend to stay there in the very beginning. However, when he faced some routine law issues in the USA, he liked the system, people, atmosphere so he decided to settle down there. He asked for political asylum. In these five years, he has changed many jobs, opened new talents, started a new life, and is planning to launch his own business.
I came to New York at first, to Brooklyn. Before the trip, I asked a representative of one of the most popular bloggers to find me a room. She rented me a 600-dollar-room in a flat with a Ukrainian family. That’s how I got my first accommodation. It was wild for me – to live together with another family as I got used to comfy conditions in the Odesa suburbs Yuzhny, in my own flat. Although the family was very kind, I didn’t feel comfortable. But since I didn’t know what to expect from the US, I took everything normally, without disappointments.
How did you adapt to the fact that you are nobody in the new country and you have to start everything from the very beginning?
If you don’t possess some super important profession for this country, then you can get only simple jobs: waiter, mover – this what I began with. It is a very low-paid job. You work on your countrymen if you are a Ukrainian, Russian or Belarussian. At first, it is a mostly illegal job because you have no status yet. The wages are 8 dollars per hour, and you can say to the owner that actually, 12 dollars were offered, and he or she answers, “well, go complain” – and where will you go? And you keep on working. At first, I was a mover, also worked as a waiter for two days, washed furniture and sofas from blood, vomit, etc. I worked in rich people’s houses, sometimes I got 100 dollars tips. It is very hard physically, but it teaches you many things, you learn to respect yourself, respect what you do. You realize that if you don’t want to do a shitty job, you have to develop: finish some classes, move forward, look for solutions. However, I have such friends who have lived so for 3-5 years, they get a minimal salary and don’t want more. But most go further, and here the most difficult part begins: you have documents, different experience, knowledge, you get a new challenge – where should I move further on a new level, who needs me, what should I do?
You spend your time on realizing what field you want to be occupied with. For example, I am a journalist, I may have wanted to do this job, my English level is quite good now. However, it is not perfect to be on equal with Americans. Forum Daily (Russian-speaking magazine for Americans) wanted me to take on some political topics. But at that moment, I had already “broken” myself, I decided to start a new job: new me – a new profession.
I got into photography but in the beginning, it was very hard because you don’t have stable orders. That’s why I needed the main job. And just by chance due to friends of mine, I was offered a position of an ophthalmologist’s assistant. I had a one-week-training, more wasn’t needed, and I agreed. It is the third year I work in this company. I check people’s sight on special equipment. I have my own office, I work in the Downtown, near the Brooklyn Bridge. I have a good job and salary. The fact I speak three languages: Russian, Ukrainian, English, helped me very much because we have many Russian-speaking patients, Poles – for them Ukrainian is like their native language. I can meet any patient, I don’t need an interpreter.
How did you choose your social circle?
I am very strict about that. I recommend everybody to act like me! The first thing I realized when I came to Brighton Beach is not to look for Russian speakers and not to communicate with them (a usual language community is meant). As a result, I watch only American news, only American TV shows. Of course, I have Russian-speaking friends and Ukrainians as well, but most of my friends are Americans. I get on well with my colleagues, their families know me – even grandparents. The more such communication you have, the faster you learn the language and become a part of the community. If you don’t settle yourself up to the rhythm of Americans, there is no point in moving here. Why do you come here, live in the Russian community on Brighton Beach, eat Russian food, listen to Russian music, speak Russian – what for? I always say that the best way to learn any language is to communicate with native speakers. You have to listen to the language, try to explain yourself, try to speak.
Laws – are they difficult for our people?
It is a huge universe, I study it all the time. This phrase is common in New York especially, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
There are many police officers here but they don’t bother anybody without a reason. But you can ask them for help at any time. For example, neighbours are noisy, fire, you are being killed – services such as the police, the fire department come in a few seconds. The longest time of waiting I’ve seen was 2 minutes. For example, a common situation: a taxi car clipped some bicyclist, in less than a minute – there are an ambulance, two police cars and one fire-engine there. Any 911 call and all services come because it is unknown what exactly has happened.
The police are called when 12-14-year-old children are left alone in the house. Neighbours can call the police, and you will be deprived of parental rights.
As for the criminal rate, it has dramatically decreased. In 2016, it was the lowest in history, however, there are dangerous districts we should avoid. In general, it is not safe to live here, nobody is impervious to big problems such as 9/11. Since I have lived here, many accidents have happened: explosions, the truck run over the bicyclists on Halloween, a man drove into the crowd on Time-Square. When such things happen, the next day, the city is full of police officers. And you seem to feel safe, however, you have to be ready that life here can be disagreeable.
Mindsets: Ukrainian and American. Is there a gap between us?
We have no gap between us, we get on well with Americans, it is weird for me. Americans are harsher toward other nationalities, but they treat Ukrainians very warmly. New York has a big Ukrainian community with mountains outside it, which resemble the Carpathians. This place is called a Ukrainian Village. It has many Ukrainian hotels with Ukrainian owners and cuisine. You feel like you’re in the Carpathians. People speak Ukrainian, make Ukrainian weddings there. New York even has the Taras Shevchenko Square (national Ukrainian poet), a Ukrainian Church where the whole diaspora gathers. Neither Russians nor Belarussians have such a community. I guess the whole Northern America is quite Ukrainianized.
But Americans have a different mindset. They are very hard-working. Their main values are family and work, that’s all, nothing more. As for Trump’s policy, they can complain but it takes the 25th place. The same thing is with young people. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, work is in the first place. If your job takes much time and you have no time for some relationship, it means you have no relationship.
What I like here is a clear realization of what you need. It is not like in Ukraine: oh, I am 25, it’s time to get married. Nobody would say you here that you are 35 already but not married and have no children etc. If you build a career – people respect it. There is no room for chance or suddenness in anything, even in communicating. You can’t do anything without making an appointment. For example, I have it written on the door to my office, “walk-ins – welcome”. It means you can come and wait in the line, but it doesn’t guarantee you seeing the doctor, because we work on the appointment system. It is the same in all the state establishments – you have to make an appointment.
American healthcare system. It is said to be imperfect and extremely expensive…
The USA’s healthcare system is in top-3 discussed issues at the Presidential elections because it is a very important topic. A month insurance costs about 400-500 dollars, it is very expensive, there are different insurance details and conditions: insurance can cover everything, partially, with additional payment. About 80% of people have insurances which let them come to any medical establishment. There, they tell you what it covers and determine your possibilities. After that, you see a doctor. In extreme circumstances, if an ambulance is needed, you will certainly get help. Even if it costs you hundreds of thousands of dollars, they will send you a cheque and you will have to pay. If you had, like my friend, a surgery on heart costing 500 thousand dollars, it’s OK, there is a program The Care Credit. It allows you to pay for the surgery with small pieces as long as you want.
Big American sport – what is it like?
At first, I visited almost all NBA matches, watched baseball but I haven’t understood it. I also watched the NHL. I made a conclusion – it is not done just nicely and brightly. The point is that any match gathers stadiums of fans. It is not like in Ukraine when men come to a stadium to drink beer and curse players. No, they come with families, with many children, with grandparents. Once I saw a single old lady sitting in the stadium and knitting something. For Americans, sport is an important part of life, a tradition. For example, children are bought everything connected with the club’s symbolic: caps, T-shirts, etc. For parent, taking their children to a basketball match costs hundreds of dollars. Any bar has TVs showing only sport – even golf, cricket, but only sport.
I find one tradition the most impressive. I guess Ukraine should use it too. During breaks at any match, Americans remember their soldiers. For example, they choose somebody present at the match and show him or her on screens during breaks. People stand up and applaud. Screens indicate the whole information about the person: who they are, where they served, what their medals are for etc. I will try to persuade the Federation of Football in Ukraine to take such practice.
Also, the Super Bowl is broadcast for astronauts. Screens in the stadium show how they fly, watch the match and say hi to everybody. They show how the US militaries watch the game in flashpoints. At sports matches, the national anthem is sung only by a star, military planes are flying above the stadium – it encourages the spirit of patriotism.
Difference between sports approaches: the USA and Ukraine
People here are born and brought up with the idea that sports are the most important thing. Father watches basketball, baseball takes his son to matches. Americans understand that their children starting to do sports in 2-3 years provides a good future for them. If the child gets to a college (due to sport), they will be taken, pushed to study and finally, they will get to the NBA. And then, they get a million dollars. What you will get as a Ukrainian athlete, who chose sports in childhood, I don’t know…
That’s why don’t be surprised when you read in media that a Ukrainian athlete received citizenship of another country. What should they do? They worked hard, developed, they want to strive for something, and in Ukraine, they can’t even train normally.
Ukraine has been solving the issue of stadiums rents, but it doesn’t build them. Mostly legionnaires are taken to teams as they make a show. When sponsors take them, nobody thinks that this money should be invested in the development and creation of Ukrainian sports schools, children coaches, gyms so we have the future.
Few more words about the USA
It is very pleasant to be among people in the US. Here, people’s opinions are taken into account, there is freedom of choice, development opportunities, career perspectives. I love nature and geographical peculiarities. It is easy to travel here even with a little budget. I travel a lot – I have discovered 13 states already.
If you want to move to the USA, you have to realize that the moral part is the most important, even a material one is not so important. When I came here, I had 1650 dollars – it is very little. I spent most of it on the rent of the room on the first day. But it’s OK, I have been living here for 5 years already, I have a good job, launched my own firm, I work with Fujifilm – I rent lenses, take part in photo contests, develop. The main thing is to realize – to come here, you have to change absolutely everything, but it’s not terrible, because here everybody has an opportunity to get everything they want if they take pains.
By Natalia Mizyukina
Photos by Denys Novikov