When did your family immigrate to the US and where exactly did they move? What made them come?
My mom (who was pregnant with me at the time), dad, and 6 year old brother moved from Azerbaijan to the US as Jewish refugees in 1990. The country was previously part of the Soviet Union and going through many unknown changes at the time. Their first apartment was a one bedroom studio in Los Angeles, and they didn’t even have a fridge for the first few weeks they were there. Whenever I think about it, I can’t even imagine how frightening it must have been to leave their entire lives behind and jump right in to so much uncertainty. All with a small child and another on the way.
As they raised both my brother and I, my parent’s demonstrated the true meaning of the American dream. While working full-time at a translation agency that she founded, my mom went to law school and passed the California Bar Exam on her first try. She started her own Immigration Law practice by the time I was 10. After taking odd jobs as a contractor, my dad joined a large technology company as an intern and worked his way up to the role of Vice President. After spending about 20 years there, he now runs his own business.
Like many immigrants, my parents moved to the United States for freedom and opportunity. Growing up in Communism, they just wanted a fair chance to work hard and realize their dreams. I couldn’t be more proud of them.
What is the first language you learned? Do you speak any other languages?
My first language is Russian, I didn't learn to speak English until I was about 6 years old. Growing up, I also learned Spanish and Hebrew in school. There was a point in my life where I had English, Spanish, and Hebrew all as separate classes during the same day in school, and then I would go home and speak Russian for the rest of the day.
What language do you primarily speak when with your family?
Usually a mixture of both Russian and English. My grandmother lives with my parents and only speaks Russian, so whenever we're around her we all stick to Russian. During bigger family events (which is pretty often), the main language spoken is Russian. When my cousins and I get together, we speak English.
Have you ever visited or been back to your family's native country? If so, how often do you visit and for how long? What is that experience like? Do you have relatives there?
Yes actually, just a few months ago. It was my family's first time since they left over 26 years ago and the experience was incredible. My grandfather passed away in Azerbaijan not long after my parents left the country, so it was also my moms first time being able to visit her dad at his resting place. The entire trip was emotional and powerful for everyone.
I had been imagining the trip my entire life, and was nervous and excited to take it all in once we got there. It was so powerful to see everything with my own eyes and to learn about the country from people who actually lived most of their lives there. I got to see where some of the most important people in my life were born, where they got married, what their walk home from school was like, where my parent's had their first date, etc. Growing up I heard every story through pictures, and this year I was finally able to see it with my own eyes.
Though I did feel a meaningful connection to the land, I didn’t really connect with many of the people who lived there. Most Azeri Jews have all left the country over the last 30 years; moving to different parts of the world. At first, this realization came as a surprise and upset me. I was really looking forward to finally being in a place where the majority of people had the same culture as me. I had never had that experience before and the only times in my life I’ve ever felt that was within my own family events.
As I’m processing this new realization, I think about how even though there isn’t one place where the majority of my people live, it’s comforting to know that these people are all over the world. There’s something special about that.
Describe your experience growing up in America as someone who is so closely tied to another culture. How did you feel? What things were easy? What did you find difficult?
As much as I cherish and embrace my culture today, I grew up feeling torn about my identity. I would envy people who could seamlessly go between their home life and their outside surroundings without having to explain cultural differences to either side. Sometimes, I remember genuinely feeling like I was leading two different lives. Today, I view this as one of the most special aspects of who I am. I’m thankful to have many parts to who I am.
What type of food do you eat at home? What are some of your favorite dishes?
My grandmother is the main cook of the house, and most of the food we eat is traditional Azeri food, as well as some Jewish and Russian dishes.
We eat a lot of lamb, which I love. Whenever eating meat or fish (usually sturgeon or salmon), we typically pair it with narsharab, a tangy and sour pomegranate sauce which is incredible. Another staple is red caviar with blintzes (or even just on toasted bread and butter). One of my favorite dishes is shuba, a pickled herring, potato, carrots, and beet salad cake. When most of my American friends hear about it they freak out over how gross it sounds, but I'm super into it.
Describe your experience making friends as a kid growing up in the UNITED STATES.
I've always been a very social person, so growing up I found it easy to make friends. My differences became more apparent when I would get close with people and it came time to invite them over, or when I would go over to their house. I remember feeling shocked at how some of my friends would talk to their parents. Sometimes, I would feel embarrassed about the types of food we had at home, the Russian tv that would be on, the fact that my family had accents, and the rules my parents had for me. I had some friends (who were clearly not real friends) who would make jokes at these aspects of my home life when they came over. Looking back now it's funny, because these parts of my family and upbringing are the things I'm most proud of.
In addition to my American friends, I also grew up with a wide network of friends who are also first generation Americans from different countries. Even though each of our cultures were different, I always found it easier to connect with them. They never once made me feel like I was different and would embrace and relate to different parts of my culture.
Do you consider yourself as more of an American or that of your parents' native country?
This is something I used to think about on a regular basis. There are days when I’m feeling much stronger about one and other and days where it's completely flipped.
Growing up, I always felt an internal pressure to choose between the two or to constantly adjust my identity depending on what scenario I was in. Today, I’m so proud to have both as integral parts of who I am. It feels so obvious when I think about it now, I will never have one true culture and that I will always have both.
Are you proud to be American?
Though I'm not very proud of a lot of the decisions the government within my country is making right now, I am still proud to be American. The privilege I have as a citizen of the United States is something I never want to take for granted. My parent's fought for us to be part of this country and for that I will be forever grateful.
For a while I rejected the thought of being "American" because I felt that saying that took so much away from the Azeri culture that I have. Today I see being American as a good thing. This country is filled with immigrants from around the world and we’re all American.
Do you plan to pass along aspects of your parents native culture to your children (if you choose to have them)? What parts of the culture do you want to keep if any? If yes, how important is that to you, and how do you plan on doing so?
Absolutely, without a doubt. One of the things that gives me the most anxiety is just that. I want so badly to do a good job at passing my culture to future generations. I feel so much pressure (only given to me from myself) as the closest link to both of these cultures. One of my biggest fears is that my grandchildren, or their children will have little connection or understanding of the hundreds of years of history and culture before them.
Are there aspects of your culture that you don't enjoy, parts that you know you don't want to pass on?
I definitely want to create closer to an equal household relationship between men and women than is traditional in my culture.
What's one thing you wish people knew about your culture?
The way we care for and respect each other, it's truly out of this world. Family has such a strong foundation in my culture. We really hold each other up through anything life offers, be it new chapters in our lives, unexpected pains, tiny victories, joyous events, etc.
There's no family dinner without a separate toast for each person at the table, always calling out what we love about the person / group of people and what we wish for their futures. When it's someone's birthday, we make sure to call their parents / text their siblings and congratulate them as well.
I have cousins living in other countries who I have never met and even some I see very rarely, yet I feel so close to them. If I were to be sitting next to them right now, I would feel the same as I would if I were sitting next to someone I've spent time with my entire life.
Are there any specific thoughts / inspiration behind the way you took your photos and what you took photos of?
Most of my photos are from time with my family, as this is such a huge part of who I am. Regardless of where we are from or where we live today, they are the ones I think of when I think about who I am at my core.
The rest of my images are from time with my fiancé, my dog, and my friends, all who come from different cultures and backgrounds. We’re all American in our own way and they truly make me feel at home.