I had fur coats and fur hats and [they] smelled of various woodland animal-type smells. The teachers would take me aside and say, “Look, you can’t be this furry. You can’t dress in these furs. Children won’t play with you if you have that much fur on.” … Basically what I was told in school every day was where we came from was wrong and where we were now was right. … It’s a lot for a sensitive 7-year-old to be told that everything he loved and believed in has to be replaced with something else.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, speaks to Fresh Air about adjusting to life in America after leaving the Soviet Union when he was 7.
Novelist Gary Shteyngart emigrated to Queens from the Soviet Union in 1979 at the age of 7. In his memoir, Little Failure, he writes about adjusting to life in a country he had been taught to think was the enemy. In his interview he talks to Terry Gross about his struggle to learn English:
My problem was that I didn’t know any English. So on top of not knowing any English, there was another language, Hebrew, which was even harder, that they were trying to teach me. It was too much.
… And at home we had no television so I couldn’t learn English from TV, so for the first years in Hebrew school I would sit apart from everyone at the cafeteria … and I would just have long conversations in Russian with myself … in this gigantic fur hat and fur coat speaking in a language that nobody understood. And all the kids would run up to me and do the crazy sign and laugh and laugh and laugh, but I wouldn’t stop because that was the only language that would make me comfortable. … In speaking it, I could pretend that the people I loved were around me.