As this summer rapidly draws to a close, I’m reminded of the lessons I learned during my first summer in the U.S. Still a shrimpy kid of 13, I learned that I would spend a couple of weeks at a sleep-away camp called Tawonga. It was in a place called Yosemite. I had no idea what that meant or what to expect.
Only a few months earlier, I had arrived in San Francisco with my parents from Ukraine, which was still under the influence and control of the former Soviet Union. My family was part of a large wave of Jews who were allowed to leave Russia following pressure from an international movement in the1970s to free Soviet Jewry. Ultimately, some 1.6 million Jews left for the U.S., Israel, Canada, Germany and Australia, including many who became successful tech entrepreneurs, founding companies like Google, PayPal, WhatsApp, and RingCentral, where I currently work with CEO/Founder Vlad Shmunis.
A few weeks before camp started, I got this incredibly detailed packing list. It said things like: 6 shorts, 6 t-shirts, 2 bathing suits, 2 pair jeans, flashlight. It was insane. As new immigrants, my parents were just trying to find work, and I didn’t have much. In Ukraine, we would wear the same t-shirt for days. That’s what everyone did. You never needed six of anything.
Before camp, I managed to pick some second-hand clothes out of a bag of donations that came from members of the local Jewish community, facilitated by the San Francisco Jewish Family and Children Services, who had also paid for me to attend the camp. I packed all my things in a small suitcase that I carried in one hand.
When I got to camp, the other girls were bringing giant crates they called trunks. The trunks were filled with stuff and clothing of every sort. I had brought some shampoo, a toothbrush and hairbrush. These girls had entire bags just to carry their personal items – shampoos, conditioners, makeup.
I was still learning English, but I quickly noticed the other girls were giggling at my expense. They asked me why I wore my hair in a long braid, and why I wore the same t-shirt several days in a row. I was almost 14, but the other girls were far ahead of me in physical development. That was the summer I first heard the phrase “birth control.”
Back then, Ukraine was about as different from San Francisco as could be. I might as well have come from the moon.
Gary, Russian, left; Kevin, American, right
Pretty soon, it was time for us to go to the pool. There were two boys working as lifeguards who were 17 and quite good looking. One of them was a Russian immigrant like me. He introduced himself in Russian and said he’d heard I could play chess.
“Can you play?” he asked.
“Yes, I can play,” I said.
“Are you good?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” I said.
I quickly beat him at the first game. His friend, the American, took an interest in me. The three of us became fast friends, and, before long, I became more popular with the other girls, too.
By the end of the two weeks, I had gained self-esteem and assurance that I would be able to make my way in this new, strange and wonderful world called America. I may have still been a shrimpy kid of 13, but I returned to San Francisco much happier and more confident ever.
Thinking back on that time even now, I’m reminded of the strength that emerges from being faced with challenging situations. My background as an immigrant has given me the mindset that perseverance leads to success, and what doesn’t break you can make you stronger.