“People call me ‘the girl who is not talking.’”
New residents from Kazakhstan adjust to new cultures, new expenses
At first, they didn’t have a home.
The family stayed in a motel after moving to America on Jan. 13, 2014. Of the three kids, the oldest is 14, the youngest seven. They were the ones left behind in the motel while the parents searched for houses nearby, driving to different Bay Area locations listed on the Internet.
Despite the competitive housing market, they are able to find their house within a week. The family moves for the second time that week, this time across cities rather than countries. But the setting, the culture, is no less unfamiliar. The language, too, posed a challenge. They were used to the rhythms of Russian and Kazakh.
MVHS junior Elizaveta Serebryakova, the second child of the family, recalls that most of her questions were “What?” and “Why?” when her family first relocated to the United States from Astana, Kazakhstan for her father’s job. She found the pronunciation of English words particularly challenging, and she became known as the girl who was always silent.
“People call me ‘the girl who is not talking,’” Elizaveta said.
Though her father’s job is based in San Francisco, Elizaveta’s family still chose to move to the house they found in Cupertino — the best-quality house compared to the other wood homes the Serebryakova family had seen during their first week in America. Houses they chose because of the ratings of local schools: the home they chose lies within the MVHS residential area. They knew of MVHS’ good academic reputation from their internet searches.
But Elizaveta’s mother, Olga Serebryakova, concedes that the quality of the house comes with a very literal price. Like Elizaveta, Olga has struggled to learn English over the past one-and-a-half years, so Elizaveta translates her mother’s statements:
“It’s so expensive,” Elizaveta translates. “Most of [the houses] are made of wood. You don’t know what you’re paying for; it’s like you’re paying for a box of wood.”
Yet despite the high prices, from their cul-de-sac on the outskirts of the MVHS residential area, Elizaveta and her two younger siblings — one brother and one sister, currently attending Lincoln Elementary School and Kennedy Middle School respectively — still must make allowances for the extreme traffic ailing McClellan Road on school day mornings.
When the topic of traffic is first broached, Olga exclaims, “Oh my god.”
In order to circumvent traffic, the family wakes up at 5:30 AM in order to arrive at each child’s respective schools on time, a practice as foreign to the Serebryakovas as the language itself.
In Kazakhstan, having to send each child to different schools, depending on age and grade, was never a part of their daily routine; students usually attended the same school from first to eleventh grade.
Now, the family must send three children to three different schools in the morning. If it’s 7:30 a.m. or later, Elizaveta comments, it’s almost faster to walk than drive. Her mother laughs in agreement; in the mornings, one mile can end up being a 30-minute drive on McClellan Rd.
“We have four children and they go to three different schools,” Olga said, shaking her head with incredulity.
Elizaveta adds that it is also somewhat helpful that all three schools begin at different times in the day, as it allows the family to send each child to school, one at a time. The only exception is Elizaveta’s elder brother, who had been studying in China and moved later to Cupertino in 2015 — approximately one year after Elizaveta and the rest of the family moved.
In the past year-and-a-half, Elizaveta and her family have been constantly adjusting. Her mother reached out through Facebook groups to people in the area who can speak both Russian and English well.
At MVHS, they found PE teacher Dasha Plaza, who was able to assist Elizaveta’s family in Russian. When Elizaveta had to get a vaccination for chickenpox in her freshman year, Plaza helped her family deal with the administrative forms and processes.
Being with other Kazakhstanis can be extremely comforting to the Serebryakovas, who admit that they brought little of their own culture to America. Where tapestries and cultural paintings might have embellished the living room of another family, Elizaveta’s living room walls hang mostly empty and barren, though with a certain elegance in their simplicity.
Apart from a matching set of light cream couches coaxed along opposite sides of the room, and recently moved wooden-and-glass coffee tables, the living room sits vacant like a blank slate waiting for decoration. Like the quality of starting over anew. But in the adjacent dining room, where a long wooden table draped with floral tablecloth rests, there is no such sense of vacancy.
“The only part we bring from our culture is our food,” Elizaveta said. “At first we tried Starbucks and McDonald’s, and then we were like ‘Nah.’” She gestures with her hands, laughing lightly.
“We have pretty much everything to prepare for an apocalypse,” Elizaveta said. In terms of clothing, Elizaveta and her family are also well-stocked: they have everything they needed to survive the polar weather in the more level regions of Kazakhstan — extremely cold in the winter, extremely hot in the summer.
But the intimacy of Kazakhstani food and apparel could not override, for Elizaveta, the culture shock she had upon moving to Cupertino.
The predominantly Asian culture of Cupertino was startling to Elizaveta; even San Francisco contains more diversity. In a city and school where the racial demographic is primarily composed of Indians and Asians, Elizaveta found facial recognition somewhat difficult.
“At school, all the faces are kind of the same,” Elizaveta said. Olga adds, however, that she wasn’t nearly as surprised as her daughter by the high percentage of Asians.
When Elizaveta first moved to MVHS in the second semester of freshman year, she decided she liked school because of her teachers. Yet the stress of having to adopt the nuances of an entirely new language and keep up with her classwork was hard to bear at times.
Sometimes, overburdened with papers and essay assignments, she would ask herself, “Why am I doing this?” But she still liked the environment school offered.
“There’s a lot of homework with different teachers. [Freshman biology] was a struggle,” Elizaveta said. “Especially for finals; there was too much work to do. Too much.” She puts her hand to her forehead, shaking her head and cringing softly at the memory.
Besides being surprised by the Asian-dominant culture, Elizaveta also found it remarkable that so many people smiled at her when she first moved — a practice contrary to her own. The open mood of cordiality makes Elizaveta feel somewhat skeptical: she wonders, do people really care when they ask “How are you?”
Once, when the neighbors brought biscuits shortly after the Serebryakova family moved into the cul-de-sac, Elizaveta opened the door. She had only seen such a scene in American movies.
“When [the neighbors] came, I was like, ‘I’m not prepared,’” Elizaveta said. “But it was nice.”