Long journey from Russia to U.S. for Vancouver woman

Sochi native wrote blogs during Winter Olympics

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Galina Burley, a local leader in Clark County's Russian-speaking community, grew up in Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Her Columbian blog, Exploring Sochi, looks at the local culture and issues, as well as her personal memories of growing up in the city, which sometimes reminds her of Vancouver.

Check it out at http://blogs.columbian.com/exploring-sochi. Here are some edited highlights from the final week:

• Feb 19: I had no idea that so many of you would read my blog or that The Columbian would publish it.

I am truly honored and that is why this next blog is so hard for me to write.

Some of you asked me to address the challenges of moving to America, specifically dealing with issues of being from Russia. I admit even today this subject is very emotional and hard, so please take this with a grain of salt.

I moved to the U.S. in 1991.

I was a teenager. I didn't speak English when we moved, and it took two or three years for me to become somewhat fluent.

For the most part, people were very nice to us. In fact, many people really enjoyed meeting me and my family, learning about our culture, language and country.

Yes, I felt different and had a hard time fitting in, but I was also a teenager, and like most teenagers, I felt that I didn't really belong.

It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I realized I wasn't only different, I was in some cases marginalized because I was a "Soviet."

I must add that these experiences were isolated, but they had a huge impact on my life and the choices I've made in my career and volunteer work.

I remember when a sign reading "No Russians Allowed" was publicly displayed at a garage sale here in our community; when people asked me if I was connected to the KGB; and when a sign at a place where I worked openly made fun of my accent.

I never assumed negative intent. I think people naturally stereotype each other and these extreme examples were limited.

I tried to address these issues in a proactive way. I became involved in multiple diversity efforts; worked on human rights issues; worked on immigration issues; and dedicated my life to cultural brokerage through training and presentations.

I've met a lot of people curious and hungry for information about Russia, Russian culture and the old Soviet Union. In fact, this entire blog is dedicated to these good people.

I believe there is a big difference between curiosity and ignorance, however. Some people are just that -- ignorant.

According to a CNN poll, 55 percent of Americans have a negative opinion of Russia. I was shocked to learn the number was so big.

I'm curious about what people think of us before they meet us, and I would love to hear from you in the blog's comments section.

Did you have a stereotype in mind about Russia or the Russian people? What was it?

I don't mean to open a can of worms here, but I hope we can keep an open mind and talk more about this topic as a way to address stereotypes.

• Feb. 22: All great things must come to an end.

For the last few weeks I've been following the Olympic games in Sochi, mostly because I was born and raised there, but also because I love to watch winter sports.

Now I'm getting ready to join millions worldwide watching the Closing Ceremony.

Watching the games this year was extremely special for me. I was reminded of just how much I love my hometown of Sochi and how proud I am to be from Russia.

I also recognized that I am extremely proud of being American and am clearly more Americanized than I thought.

It also reminded me that most of us are good, curious and kind people, and that we have way more in common than we know. Our governments don't define our values and our collective love for humanity is what keeps things like the Olympic Games going for generations.

So what's next? If you are still curious about Sochi, your Slavic neighbors, our language, food or just our company, why don't you join us here in our own community and become a friend.

You can start by helping the Russian Speaking Youth Leadership Conference planning committee through our website at http://eecnorthamerica.org/rsylc or by tuning in to Russian Radio 7 on 1010 AM. Or you can do something simple like going to local businesses owned by Russian and Slavic immigrants right here in Vancouver.

There are approximately 30,000 Russian speaking immigrants and refuges, many now American citizens, living in our community today. We have real lives, real worries, real hopes and real dreams.

Just like you, we are curious, kind and good people. We may not always speak English well, we might dress in a unique way or go to a unique church, but at the end of the day, we are also Vancouver.

• Feb. 23: I woke up to a strong smell of coffee boiling and foaming in the copper Turkish coffee pot.

The tiny galley-style kitchen was in the center of our government-issued apartment. Grandma and grandpa were getting ready for a short trip to see my great grandma a few miles south of Sochi.

I never liked that trip. It took us through the mountains and hills, up and down the rocky grade, away from the beach and into an area close to Georgia.

"Do I have to go?" I cried out.

No one paid attention to a crybaby in our family. Busy making an extremely thick cup of coffee, grandma pointed to a plate of fried potatoes covered by scrambled eggs.

"Eat," she said, "We are going to see baba Motya."

I don't know why she referred to her mom as "baba." I was not allowed to call my grandma Galina baba. We had to call her "babulya."

I guess it made her feel young. In any case, I never liked breakfast. I took a bite of my food, took two or three sips of hot tea with lemon and raspberries, and ran down the hall to my room to get ready.

I don't know why my grandparents took me on that trip. I was seriously car sick.

Just looking ahead to the trip made me gag and get a headache. I got into the car downstairs. Back seat, no seat belts. Grandad gave me a bag of food for the road and we were great-grandma bound in minutes.

As compared to other families in our 12-story high-rise, we were considered well off. We had a car. A nice new Zhiguli. Grandpa bought it with his retirement savings.

Our trip normally took an hour or so, but it felt much longer. The trip took us through the entire city of Sochi and into Adler.

Great grandma's house was south of Adler in a little village called "Chereshnya" (or Cherry Valley). On the way there, we passed my school, my grandma's work, my music school, the winter palace, Zhemchuzhina Hotel and Macesta.

Leaving the city of Sochi behind us, we would enter into the mountainous terrain. On side roads, old ladies had small open markets where we would stop to buy fresh berries, pickled goods, lavash bread, homemade butter and sour cream, and my favorite — pan-roasted, salted sunflower seeds.

Buckets of cherries and mandarins could be purchased for nothing at these open road markets. Some trips we would stop and wait for lavash, a flat but fluffy bread made in clay, barrel-shaped holes in the ground. Grandpa would get his knife out, grab a huge slice of lavash, throw some homemade butter on it, salt it and stuff it with cilantro and green onions. Yummy.

These trips are just bittersweet memories now. My grandpa, my first mentor of sorts, died in 1991, a few months before we moved to America. That's all he ever wanted. He wanted us to come to America.

Little did he know about the "mountainous terrain" of our journey to America. The ups and downs, rocky grades, slips and falls. Just like that trip to great-grandma's house, the journey was worth it.

Along the way, we met great people in this country and enjoyed America's prosperity and freedom.

I am still not a morning person, and I still get car sick and love sunflower seeds. I guess the point of this story is that no matter where you are, no matter what you do, you should look at your life as a journey to great-grandma's house.

From Sochi to Vancouver, now 37 years old, I am grateful for this long and not-yet-finished journey.