Coming to America in search of the American Dream
Welcome to part two in my series of introductory posts. The first one was about my time in Poland and you can check it out here. If your goal is to know more about some random immigrant on the internet then start there. This second part is all about come over here and chasing that old American dream.
In the last episode, I had just left Poland and was ready to start the next chapter in my life which didn’t mean much since I was 10. In this episode, I’m talking about Coming to America. It’s a good movie but it’s also what this post is about.
Coming to America
I expected a lot from America. It’s easy to have that expectation after having seen all that cool stuff on television. America was the land of opulence and big things!
To me, upon first glance, America was a huge dump.
JFK was old and crappy especially when compared to the more modern Polish airport. It was loud, dirty and busy. People were talking a language I didn’t understand and everyone seemed to be in a rush. I can easily say that my expectations were not met as we shuffled out into the parking lot with our massive luggage in tow.
I thought my Dad was a total liar. After all, he said America was awesome and as I looked around, I saw nothing great.
One of my dad’s friends was there to pick us up and he drove us to our new apartment. It was a two hour drive to our new home. My dad had been back here before we all came over and had rented a home for us.
It was dark by the time we arrived at our new home in New Britain, CT.
New Britain was one of the many towns in the northeast that used to be booming but had lost a lot of its steam. However, it was filled to the brim with polish people. Nearly 20% of the residents were originally from Poland. It was no wonder we wound up there. Living in a place with a ton of Polish people would mean an easy transition since we could find many places and services where people spoke Polish. Even the place my dad worked was owned by Polish people meaning my dad never even learned English in his time here.
Our apartment was near the downtown area and looking back at it now, I would call that area just a bit shady.
Translation ; it was Dumpsville, USA.
That’s probably why when I looked out at the area around us as we pulled into our new parking lot, I was even more perplexed. I just figured that the airport was a fluke and everything else would be awesome!
I looked at my brother and asked him, “this is America”? It certainly didn’t look as cool as I imagined. Hell, it didn’t really look any better than Poland. If anything, it looked worse!
The area we came from in Poland was no safe haven but this was supposed to be better!
Our apartment was one of six in a big multi family building on a street lined with similar looking homes. I hoped it’d be better inside.
We got into our apartment and turned on the lights. The place was unfurnished and that same feeling washed over me.
The place was a dump too! There was a mattress on the floor and a whole lot of empty space. My dad had moved us to a dump in Dumpsville, USA in a country with a crappier airport than the one I came from.
I was pretty bummed. I left all my friends for this?
We all slept together that night huddled on the mattress. I was young and honestly pretty scared that this new life would be worse than my old life.
That initial fear was probably common in a lot of immigrants. We came from nothing and as a young kid, I probably expected too much from where we were going. When you’re 10, it’s very easy to get lost in the glamour of the United States and ignore the fact that it’s just another country. Hollywood movies may make it seem better than it is but the same problems exist here as they do in every other place in the world.
I may have come to what I thought was a dumpy place but I came from a dumpy place too. And this dumpy place certainly offered me a lot more opportunity than the one I came from. However, I was 10 at the time so I certainly didn’t have that level of introspection.
Luckily, the world looked a bit better once the sun was out. My dad’s friend came and he took us to a wonderful place called Sam’s Club. We had stores and even small malls in Poland but this place was something else. It was huge and filled with ALL of the things. The things were all packed in insane quantities too. I remember being awed by the size of the place. It took me a while to understand why these stores needed to be so big. That’s not really true, I still don’t quite get it.
I don’t remember what we bought exactly besides a TV and another mattress. I think I felt better about America after that. All little me needed was some retail therapy!
Afterwards, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up a bunch of food. My English was pretty terrible but I remember being excited about how you could get caffeine for free in my Soda here. What a deal!
This was around summer time. I didn’t have much to do and we spent a few weeks getting situated before my parents enrolled me in school for the next year. We were right downtown near a big polish area so we could easily walk to Polish stores, banks or restaurants. It was a self contained little community.
There was a private catholic school nearby too that had a big Polish population and ESL classes. There was also a similar high school not too far away for my brother. Since we didn’t speak English, my parents thought best we went to private school to learn. Plus they’d teach us to be proper Catholics too so they liked that. It was an additional expense with school costing 2-3k/year each for my brother and I but it made sense since the schools were nearby and people spoke Polish!
One of the key things in all of this was the Polish concentration in the area. My dad still didn’t speak any English nor did my mom. He still had his job as a toolmaker in a factory where everyone spoke Polish. My mom’s prospects were limited due to her language skills but she found a job with a house cleaning service. On top of that, my parents cleaned offices after work certain days to make extra money.
I’m not sure how much my parents were making at this time but I would estimate it was around 35k to 45k. That’s not terrible for that time. However, it’s not a ton when you consider there were four of us and that CT isn’t a cheap state.
My dad had to buy a car, a sweet old Pontiac 6000 LE. I thought it was impressive that we had a limited edition car! Not many of those around baby!
That bad boy continued our tradition of owning sweet ass cars. It was much later replaced by a used Ford Taurus.
We also had to get furniture and items for the apartment. Plus there was the tuition for school and food and rent. On top of that, since we were now rich Americans, we were sending packages of stuff back home to our poor Polish family. We didn’t have a lot but the people back home had even less so sending stuff over was important to my parents.
Life kind of got into a groove after that. I started going to school and it was within walking distance so that was nice. We weren’t staying in the nicest area of town but it was fine during the day. The material in school was behind what we were learning in Poland so I didn’t struggle much despite my language skills. Poland was about four grades ahead when it came to Math and Science studies. There was stuff we covered in Poland when I was ten that we didn’t get to until 8th grade in America. I was also very confused why we spent so much time on something as useless as learning cursive.
A good portion of my day was spent learning the language. The ESL classes helped a lot and I picked it up relatively quickly. Since it was a catholic school, we had some mean nuns but that wasn’t much different from what I experienced in Poland. At least they didn’t hit us with rulers around here! The part where we had to go to church and sing was a bummer though. I made some friends and settled into my school life.
After school, I would walk home. Then I’d make some unhealthy frozen food with my brother and do stuff until my parents got home. Often times, they’d take us with them to their night time office cleaning job. My brother helped out but I generally just sat around in someone’s random office until they were done.
I didn’t really think of us as poor as a kid. Maybe it was because I didn’t want much and had everything I wanted.
For my birthday one year, my parents got me a Sega Genesis and I spent a lot of time with that. Later on, I got a Super Nintendo too!
We even got an air conditioner during one particularly hot summer. That was the height of luxury!
On the style front, I was a bit lacking. It didn’t help that my mom cut our hair and she was no stylist. I didn’t have a lot of clothing and some of the kids who wore brand name stuff made fun of my Payless shoes.
I think that spawned one Christmas year when I wanted nothing but Tommy Hilfiger clothing just so I could fit in. That didn’t last long as I found that video games were a much better use of the limited amount of money we had. I could spend hundreds of hours on them and I didn’t get nearly as much value out of a $26 hat.
In hindsight, we weren’t that well off. I remember driving back from one of the nightly office cleaning seasons during a downpour with my dad sticking his head out the window to see because our wipers were broken. It had happened before but this storm was particularly nasty. Money was tight but he forked over the money to get them fixed after that.
Since we didn’t live in the best neighborhood, our car was stolen a few times. The cops eventually found it but one time the steering column was busted. Dad found a guy who put a Mercury steering wheel in there on the cheap. Apparently old Mercury steering wheels worked in a Pontiac too. Instead of one of those regular plastic handles to turn on your wipers and vary the speed, he installed a small metal switch that had two options, on and off. We thought it was funny and it was a hell of a lot cheaper.
My parents worked a lot. I didn’t realize how much they did for us but both of them worked two jobs in those early years. My mom would clean houses during the day then come home and cook dinner for us. Dad would come home eat dinner and they’d head off to their second job. I sat around and played video games and got older.
We moved to one of those red public housing communities as my parents saved for a house. It was further away from school so I took the bus now.
Again, it was a mostly polish community around us. I met more friends in the area and I kept growing.
I was an awkward kid but it was a decent life we had. We never struggled for food or feared for our lives. I had friends, went to a decent school and was healthy. There wasn’t much to complain about really. I had the things I needed and didn’t want for a lot more.
I don’t know if this was the American dream but it was all right.
Eventually, my parents found a small white house for around $65,000 towards the late 90s. At this point, my dad was making around 50k so a house at that price wasn’t way out of our price range. It’s funny to think about that price now since his wage barely moved since then and the house price has more than doubled.
It makes one thing about the people coming over these days in as similar situation. Working your way to home ownership with two kids in tow is probably a lot harder these days than it was back then.
The awkward teenage years
Time passed and it was high school time.
It was around this time that I fully realized that some people had more than us. I went to a massive high school with around 3000 students. Naturally, cliques formed pretty quickly. I was in the Honors and AP classes thanks to my proper good communist Polish schooling. In the case of my school, that meant being in classes with most of the well off kids from the area.
These were kids that had their own cars and had the latest kicks and tech(TI-83+ all around baby!). I had no car, my latest kicks had been out of style for five years and my tech was nonexistent. I didn’t really pay attention to that stuff in middle school but it became a bit more obvious in high school. Luckily for me, I never caught that bug that made me want to get all that stuff because others had it.
Part of it was that I met some good friends who were in the same situation as me. My good friend Rich lived a few streets down from me and his family was similar economically. It was a lot easier to have no crap when you had no crap in solidarity! Another part of it was that the kids in those classes were all cool people. That meant it wasn’t a have and have nots situation. We were all the same and they acted that way. Another part of it was that I knew from my childhood that clothing or shoes or whatever just wasn’t all that great.
I understood that we had a limited amount of money. My parents worked super hard for it too. I appreciated what I had and didn’t feel like it was fair to ask for more. At least I like to think I was that way. I probably did do my share of whining about how I wanted more things and how life sucked, etc.
My dad basically said that if I wanted that stuff, I’d have to work for it. It made sense. These guys provided so much already and they basically uprooted their life and mine so I could have a better one here. I began to understand that more around here too. Poland was doing better now but we were already better off than most of our family in Poland and we weren’t wealthy by any means here.
My parents owned their own home now. We even had insurance through my dad’s job so we could hit the doctor from time to time. We had CENTRAL AIR in our home, glorious central air. Hell, we even bought a $2,000 computer with like 24mb of ram. That beast purred!
My mom quit her house cleaning company and I helped her print out some flyers to distribute around the area to see if she could find some houses to clean on her own. That way the company she worked for wouldn’t take a 50% cut and she could keep it all. It helped a lot that I was fluent in English now and could use the computer.
That was because my parents still didn’t know how to speak English. We had been here for around 7 years at this point, longer for my dad and neither of them had learned English in that time. That was common in these Polish households. It was so easy to get by in this area without knowing English that many older people never bothered.
That meant I spent a lot of my time translating too. It wasn’t always fun. I remember such events such as my mom having some feminine problems and we couldn’t get a Polish doctor, yikes! Luckily, my brother found a nice Polish girlfriend later that took on those duties.
Like any other kid, I had my share of awkwardness in high school but this blog isn’t about that, it’s about my financial journey!
It was around this time that I first heard about stocks. It was near the 2000 tech bubble and my father had given my brother $3,000 to invest.
That was a time where you could toss your money at any random stock and watch it grow at a rapid pace. That’s assuming it dealt with the internet in some way.
My brother was tossed his money at some stocks and we watched it grow. It seemed so damn easy and initially it was. He took that $3k and doubled it pretty quickly. The money continued to grow when he happened upon the next great idea.
The company was Efax. It allowed you to send faxes electronically. Holy crap, what a game changer.
Best of all, it was an internet stock which meant guaranteed returns baby!
My brother tossed all the money into it and watched it grow and grow.
How were the financials? Did the investment make sense? Who the hell cares, the price was going up so it clearly made sense!
Valuations were thrown out the window in a big way.
As an example of that, Cisco reached a market cap of $550B in 2000. It seemed like the ride would never end as evidenced by this article with an analyst calling for a $1 trillion market cap within a few years.
Eighteen years later, Cisco’s market cap despite growing their earnings quite a bit since then is a cool $220B. It didn’t quite make that trillion mark. In fact, it fell precipitously towards the end of 2000 losing over 70% of its value.
How about Efax and my brother’s investment fund? It tanked hard as well and my brother didn’t get out quick enough leading to heavy losses. Apparently, electronic faxes aren’t a huge money maker. Who could have predicted that?
Sorry dad but that $3k investment didn’t quite work out!
That was a big lesson for me. I had no money in the market at that point mainly because I had no money at all.
However, that experience made it clear to me that investing in the market wasn’t all that easy. The stock market crashed in a huge way after 2000 and if professionals didn’t see it coming then what chance did I have?
A few years after that, I took a business class in high school. It was an elective and I figured, why not. I had my brothers prior experience in mind and knew a bit about the market at this point. However, I wanted to learn more and learn about money in general as well.
The teacher was an older guy whose name I forget. He wore the same sweater in a different color every day, had a bad haircut(maybe his mom cut his hair too) and drove an old beater to school.
This guy was the classic millionaire next door type. He would often talk about how he only did this job for fun and how he actually owned a new BMW but never drove it to school. We all looked at him, his weird old clothing and just laughed. There was no way he was telling the truth!
None of us went into that class knowing that you didn’t have to be rich or look rich to build wealth.
However, as the class progressed and we learned about compound interest and budgeting and the stock market and all sorts of other useful crap, I think some of us started to buy into it.
I learned a lot in that class. I believe others did as well. People still wondered if he was really rich. Someone asked me why he wore that same sweater and didn’t spend a lot of money on a cool haircut if he was rich.
I shrugged, having the same questions back then.
These days, I think I have a better idea why. At that point in my life, I didn’t have a lot but I didn’t feel terrible about it. This was life, it wasn’t Hollywood America but it was comfortable and it was enough.
Was it the American dream? I don’t know, it wasn’t 100% great. There were some issues like our diet was terrible because we bought cheap food and my clothing was low quality for the same reason. We probably could have lived in a safer area and done a few other things differently. However, more money wouldn’t have changed our life in a huge way.
Maybe this guy, if he was wealthy and just teaching for fun, came to the same conclusion. Life isn’t about new sweaters, new cars, cool haircuts and awesome clothing. It’s about doing something you enjoy, making a difference and being content.
It was a cool class and he was a cool guy. I still remember some of his jokes like the one about government waste and how the U.S. government is spending $1M to blow up a camel in Iraq.
It was that class, among the many I took in high school that stood out the most. It showed me that I enjoyed finances and dealing with money. I probably should have started investing back then but college was ahead and I had to pay my own way.
My first job at Pacific Sunwear didn’t quite provide me with a 401k or a hefty salary.
I applied for college, decided on a local school since I couldn’t afford anything fancy and didn’t get any scholarships.
My first choice for major was chemical engineering cause..well I don’t know why, I liked chemistry in high school and I didn’t think about it too much. It probably would have made more sense to start with a business major but I was a young kid and we don’t always make well thought out decisions.
I stuck with that for a year before deciding it sucks, transferring to a cheaper school closer to home and changing my major.
My new major? Finance! It was time to learn more about the stock market and all that stuff.
Up to this point, I had lived under the wing of my parents but now it was time to grow up and become a full fledged adult.
That’s it for this part. Hopefully you enjoyed this insight into my life and I’ll be back soon with more about my experiences in college and my entry into the working world.
2 favorites sentences; All little me needed was some retail therapy! and It was a lot easier to have no crap when you had no crap in solidarity!
My first house was on Belmont and Central in Chicago, old Polish neighborhood, only for Zakapone Polish. I used to walk past the Copernicus Center all the time and every year we got Casimir Pulaski day off of work.
I love back stories, thanks!
Cool, yea, Chicago is probably the biggest concentration of Polish peeps outside of Poland. I have to visit there one day.
That’s quite a journey. Thanks a lot for sharing. Working on two jobs must be very tough for your parents. I’m glad to hear, your family made it all right after all those hard-working years.
I remembered the tech stock bubble in 2000. Many people were trapped there, and lost a lot. It was a very hard time.
Yup, my parents are working less now that we’re out on our own. Mom’s retired and dad is close to retired as well. House paid off and they have some savings as well as I got them to invest a bit after 2008.
Tom @ Dividends Diversify
Time, Looking forward to seeing how the finance degree turned out and where it has taken you since. Tom
All the way to the top! I’ll get to writing that part soon. Thanks for stopping by Tom.