Crossing oceans and and culture to find work


Doing the laundry seems like a major task to people in this country, noticed Elvira Ismagilova, a 20-year-old from Russia who is working in Alexandria for the summer. We dont think its a big deal to throw a load of clothes in a washing machine and push a button, Ismagilova said. Many times, shes hand-washed her laundry and it was no big deal, either.

Thats just one of the things that Ismagilova, who is here for her second summer waiting tables at Vasos Kitchen, notices about the American culture. Some people make a big production over laundry, vacuuming or other household chores that are so easy, she thinks. Its a nuance Ismagilova and her Russian roommates joke about while living here on temporary J-1 visas for the summer.

Another habit they dont get is always asking how your day is going, and the incessant smiling is hard to get used to. To Maria Grigoryeva, one of the roommates, faking isnt easy.

If were in a bad mood, we will show it, she said. People in America always smile, its like a habit, she added.

Ismagilova agreed, remembering irate customers at a table in Vasos recently. She had to pass the customers to another waiter before she lost her cool. We cant play fake, Ismagilova added. Smiles are less frequent in Russia and Ismagilova attributes it to a dismal economic situation.

Ismagilova is among four women from Kazan, Russia, who live in a tiny apartment, waiting tables and saving money for school. According to their J-1 visas, they have to return home by Oct. 1. Ismagilova and Grigoryeva are going to start their fourth year at Tatar State Humanitarian Pedagogical University earning teaching degrees, while another roommate, Elnora Pulatva, is pursuing a law degree at Kazan State University. Ismagilova and Grigoryeva are both employed at Vasos Kitchen, while Pulatva works at Pat Troys Irish Pub. Many of their friends from Kazan are here on visas also, working in Ocean City, Md., Virginia Beach and some in Montana.

Some disappointments
Last year Ismagilova made arrangements with Star Travel in Russia, and ended up working in a truck stop near Richmond with 16 other Russians. The scenery was just a highway, she said. Too many truckers whistling and a dishonest boss got to be difficult so she left. Shes heard similar stories from friends.

A lot of students, theyre very disappointed, she said. Other friends got jobs in Baltimore but werent paid at all and ended up heading down to Miami.

The initial interview at the U.S. Embassy in Russia was stressful, according to the women. Many questions centered around home life, but the women had to remain positive. If they complained about the home life, the officials would become suspicious. They have to be sure youre going to come back, Ismagilova said. One of her friends did stay here and got married, but now her parents are having problems visiting because of the visa situation.

Since being here, they have gone out on a few dates and parties where they noticed the American men were reluctant to talk to them. The guys are shy, they were so scared of Russian girls, said Pulatva. When you have a party, you need to relax. We wont bite you. They think we are so different, added Ismagilova.

Pulatva and Grigoryeva have their flight reservations for September, while Ismagilova is having second thoughts and wants to extend her visa and make other living arrangements. Im doing it, [it is] very hard, she said.

The whole summer has been a good learning experience for all three women though, even smiling when its not completely sincere, or squeezing into a tiny basement apartment. For the summer, its ok, said Ismagilova.