Borsch and Baked Potatoes…
Borsch and baked potatoes were on everyone’s lunch menu in my native land of Belarus. Everyone who had such a lunch menu was fair-skinned and spoke Russian. A few years later as I stood in the lunch line with my kindergarten class in a Brooklyn elementary school, I wondered why things couldn’t be so uniform and simple. My classmates ranged from the pale skinned with large blue eyes to the rich-chocolate skinned with voluminous, thick hair. The food choices presented to these youngsters were almost as diverse as the bunch themselves. In front of me was a bewildering sight of trays containing foods I couldn’t even name in my native language. Fearing that I would pick out something repulsive, I desperately tried to ask the boy in front of me for an explanation or a recommendation of some sort. To my dismay, I could gather neither because between us stood the barrier of language.
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Although my kindergarten experience feels like an occurrence from a century ago, the lessons I learned from attending it will be etched into my heart forever. For the last three summers, I have worked in Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein’s district office. Every summer, constituents, much like the overwhelmed little girl in the lunch line, flooded into the office seeking help. In the course of my work experience, I had to often play the role of an interpreter to these Russian speaking constituents. As I served the role of a vital communication link, I was reminded of my desperate struggle to communicate when I didn’t speak English. Before I introduced myself as a Russian speaker, I watched with great empathy as the elderly Russians tried to hold up a conversation in Russian with people who did not speak it. It was suddenly very clear to me how lucky I was to be fluent in two languages.
In a multi-cultural city like New York City, students like myself are blessed with an opportunity to work with a diverse population. I have been fortunate to have landed a job at an Assemblywoman’s office. In the midst of my English to Russian conversions, I’ve learned about programs that I didn’t even know existed. I found out that SCRIE (Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption) is the program that allows seniors to keep up with the rising costs of living and HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program) is a tremendous aid to low income families. The work I dealt with was incredibly down to earth and expanded my mind in ways that are impossible to achieve inside the four walls of a classroom.
Nonetheless, waking up on those hot summer mornings, I sometimes wished to put on a bathing suit and head to the beach rather than put on a tailored skirt and head to work. Once I actually arrived at work, I realized that “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who no feet.” My problems seemed trivial in comparison to the issues some constituents faced. On one occasion, a Russian woman in her seventies presented before me a letter. This letter was clearly an eviction notice; the woman had no idea that her life was about to change. I ended up being more than an interpreter, but someone she would spill her worries and pains to. After the staff made some phone calls, it was discovered that this notice was a mistake. I felt immense satisfaction in seeing the joy in her eyes after I delivered the good news.
Walking through the streets of Brooklyn today, I am no longer bewildered by its unique sounds and smells. Instead, I embrace its diversity. I can’t imagine life in any city other than this one and am certain that the knowledge I’ve acquired working for Assemblywoman Weinstein will positively contribute to the continuous journey of life.