First Generation American Project: Drinks & Dialogue with Alex Filin
By: Ania Jablonowski
Remember when you were a child and your parents would tell you that you are going on vacation? Think of all the excitement and thoughts of adventure that filled your head, how your imagination would run wild with expectations of fun and new discoveries. Now, imagine that you arrive to your destination with your family, and they let you know it is actually a permanent vacation, across the ocean and thousands of miles away from your home. Surprise, you’ve moved!
This is exactly what first generation American Alex Filin experienced at the age of six. Though he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to his friends, Alex adapted to his new home and started a new life as a first generation American.
He shares, “I'm originally born in Riga Latvia in late 1983. At that time it was a Soviet Union country, that's Russia.” His family immigrated to the US on March 8, 1990. “I remember it like yesterday, my dad had one family friend, we had no family here, and he owned a condo on Division & Dearborn in downtown Chicago. It was a very nice place. My parents were celebrating and I was in the corner crying my eyes out, and just not knowing what's going on. Just shocked, thinking ‘What's going on?’ It was a culture shock, big time.”
Alex’s family came to the States in search of a better life for their family. “At that time in the late 80's, early 90's, it was the fall of Communist Russia Soviet Union, so it wasn't too pretty. Where I was born in Latvia, it used to be its own country, and Soviet Union came and overtook it. My parents went through some rough times; apartment got robbed, there were minor wars going on. Just not a safe place. My father and mother just wanted a better future. They were still young, my dad was 29 at that time, my mom was 26. I was six years old. They were still young, wanting a better future, but more importantly, they wanted a better future for me, which was amazing.”
The Filins lived with their family friend in the Chicago Gold Coast for three months to get their start, and then moved again to the northwest side of the city. “There was a Jewish-Israel kind of network where they house you in their apartment. I think it was in the area of California & Devon which, once in a while, I still like to drive by and my memories go back. We lived there for about a year, and then we moved to Skokie, where my parents live now.”
He recalls learning English in his early years. “What helped with my English was definitely the ESL program where I went to school.” Alex notes that he didn’t like having to be separated from his classmates during the school day when he had to attend his ESL courses because he didn’t want to feel different, but he knew it was important. He continues, “A lot of people make fun of this, and I make fun of it now too, but I literally used Hooked on Phonics. But I think the main reason behind what helped my English is just being around American kids.” Alex also attended a Russian-Jewish Sunday school to preserve his culture.
Alex remembers some of the difficulties in picking up the English language and fitting in. “I still had an accent at that time. A lot of kids made fun of me. I forget how ruthless they were. There is no filter with kids. They don't really know any better besides to say what they're feeling. My parents did a very good when would I go back and cried or complained, or told them about my experience. They would say, ‘Don't listen to them. Don't worry about them, they're mean. Don't be like that. Don't make fun of people.’”
We laughed at how growing up with accents enabled us to perfect accents as adults, and how we lovingly use them now when recapping something that our own parents say. He says, “I like to make little jokes with my parents, and then my mom comes back and tells me a hard Russian word to say and I can't say it, so she makes fun of me.”
Growing up playing sports with his father, athletics gave Alex a chance to shine. “When I was in Russia, from I what remember, at age four, five, six years old, I played a lot of tennis and soccer, which were two popular sports in Russia. Then, when I came to the US and moved to Skokie, and there was recess, we played sports, mainly soccer. I definitely think I earned the respect of other kids. They were just like, ‘Oh wow, you're good!’ I was recently talking to a friend that lives in San Francisco now. He's an avid soccer player, but he's deaf as well. We were having a conversation how soccer is a universal language of just hand signals, just understanding the game.”
With language being a barrier in the beginning, and the necessity to put food on the table, both my mom and Alex’s mom cleaned houses. He says, “I remember a couple of downtown Chicago high-rises, but it was more of the suburbs and huge mansions. I went there from a two-bedroom apartment to this huge mansion just looking around, thinking ‘Oh my God,’ running, playing in the yard, going in the swimming pool. At that time my mom is cleaning the house while I'm having fun. As I got older, that's when I started realizing, I've seen these houses, what did they do to get there? And why are my parents here? Why are they in this situation? Looking back at it now, it all comes together. It makes all more sense.” He recognizes his parents’ struggle and the sacrifice they made to come to America and pursue a better life.
During college, Alex’s parents let him know about another surprise. “I was the only child for the majority of my life. When I played football in college, my parents came and I was a senior, starting football season. They'd come to every game, and one time they said, ‘We have an early graduation gift for you. We're pregnant.’ It was definitely a shock, but it was excitement too. So ironically, my brother was born on the exact day I took my last final in college, so it’s pretty cool.”
Being over two decades apart, the first generation American experience is a little different between Alex and his little brother, but the family continues to preserve the culture. Alex says, “My parents taught Russian first, which I think is very key, so my brother does speak fluent Russian, and I speak with him as much as I can. He looks like an American little boy. I want to show him our culture, our roots. Where we come from. Never forget. For myself, I'm very proud. I consider myself an American-Russian, not a Russian-American, but I never forget where I'm from. For me to pass on my stories with him, for my parents to pass on stories, I think, is very key.” Alex’s brother is now seven years old.
These days, Alex works as a partner at New York Life Insurance. He says his experience as a first generation American helps him relate to his clients and team. “My job is to recruit individuals into our business, so I always share my story with whomever I am interviewing. Personally, a lot of people have told me that I truly have a cool story to share. It took me a while to realize this. Most people that look at me, I'd say only one out of ten people could really figure out that I was born somewhere else, that English was not my first language. Part of my story, part of why I work so hard now goes back to the way I was raised. So, it's not more specifically the Russian part of it, it's more my background, what I went through, that has helped me with my business today.”