The Path of Science

The Russian Academy of Sciences, where Alexander studied following high school.

I was soaring through the air as quickly as an eagle chasing its prey. Around me, the landscape progressively shifted from large clusters of oak trees, to gentle, sloping valleys, to vast ponds that stood so still, they barely had so much as a ripple on the surface as I flew past them. I had never experienced such a combination of tranquility and freedom envelop me at the same time, combined to create one absolutely surreal sensation. I felt as though I was capable of anything; any doubts, nagging worries, or insecurities were quite simply demolished, as though they were never even there in the first place. It was as though, for the first time in my life, flying over these changing landscapes, I knew there was absolutely nothing I would change; there was absolutely nothing left to reconsider. That is, until the moment was shattered within a matter of seconds.

An ear-piercing, harrowing noise radiated out from behind the trees. Or was it the sky? Clouds? I couldn’t tell. RRRRIIIINNNNGGGG! My breathing quickened, and eyes darted side to side attempting to locate the origin of this tormenting sound. Suddenly, I lost feeling and began to fall. The valley was quickly approaching. I drew closer, and closer, and closer….

My eyes darted open, and the first thing I saw was wood. Lots of it. Ah, the ceiling. I realized what had just occurred: it was yet another vivid dream. As I adjusted to the early-morning rays of sunshine that creeped through our thin curtains, I recognized the source of that noise: it was the phone. After cursing a few times under my breath, careful to not wake anyone else up, I hobbled over to the opposite side of the room in my half-asleep state, and picked up the receiver.
“You got it, Alex!” was what I was greeted with.
“Got what? What are you talking about? Who is this? I swear to god if this…”
“You got the job, Alex. You’re moving to America!”

It all started when I was a young man, just out of high school. I needed to choose a career path and find a university in which I could continue my studies. You know, that whole “So what are you going to do with your life now?” thing. I kind of knew already. It was science. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had ever peaked my interest the way working with scientific concepts did. Sure, I had many other talents, and would have probably been just as successful in other fields. But that made it all the more important for me to choose the one thing I actually enjoyed. I just couldn’t see my life going in any other direction.

Out of university, I got a few jobs here and there, but something about Russia during the Soviet Union era just refused to expand further into the scientific field. Of course, there was some interest in science, as most developed nations would exhibit, but nothing really jumped out at me and yelled, “Look at me! I have the ability to change everything!” That’s why, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, I knew things had to change. And fast.

The implications were visible almost immediately. There was no money, no food. Everywhere you looked, people were just focused on doing everything they possibly could to survive and get through this. No one cared about science. No one cared about anything, really, except the need to keep their homes and get food on the table. Realistically, I had two choices: quit science and find some other job with which I could sustain myself, or go on attempting to pursue science, but risk essentially losing everything. Unless…perhaps I could do something more?

One of my close buddies from University reached out to me, obviously exploding with enthusiasm. He found a job in the United States; Silicon Valley, in fact. I couldn’t believe my ears when he announced this. I could feel my face light up, and hands twitching with excitement. I started to pace around my bedroom. Maybe there really was a way out.

As it turned out, I was set up for a job interview in the same company later that week over the phone. But if I got this job, what did it mean? As bad a place as Russia was in at the moment, it was still my home. Everything was familiar to me, my parents and siblings were close by, I knew the society. It was a part of me. And there was a possibility I had to hand all of that away, just like that.

But I was young. My whole life was still ahead of me. And deep down, I knew that being able to chase after and accomplish the one thing I set out to do, become a scientist, would be the only way I could ever feel complete. There was no question about it.

And that’s exactly how I arrived at this moment: the phone call. The phone call that could mean everything and nothing at the same time. The phone call that, realistically, changes everything.

“You got the job, Alex.” I felt tingles in my spine; the blood coursing through my veins. My brows arched and I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out. After a long pause, I let out a shaky “ok” and put down the phone. Was this actually happening? Or was it just another dream? No, it was actually happening. I was going to become a scientist, and no matter what that meant I was leaving behind, nothing was about to stop me. Nothing.

When I arrived in Silicon Valley about two months later, it was as if I stepped into an entirely different world. At every corner, there was a different leading technology company. It was absolutely legendary. Every step I took, it felt as though I was in some kind of scientific technological amusement park. How could I have ever missed out on something of this magnitude? For a few moments, I was even able to forget about everything I left behind back in Moscow.

But realizations quickly hit. The following day, I decided I would need to get a phone compatible with the European system so that I would be able to communicate with my parents. European phones at the time used pulse dialing, whereas American phones used tone dialing. I pulled up in the massive parking lot in front of Fry’s Electronics, and strolled through the sliding doors. As soon as I stepped in, I was blinded by multiple sensations, all at once. There were hundreds of screens, each displaying some different landscape or recipe video. There was a rather eerie feel to the store; the LED lights that flooded the space vaguely reminded me of a hospital. But most of all, I had never before in my life seen so many different technological things. Phones, dishwashers, TVs, laptops, washing machines; I mean, you name it. It was ALL there.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I learned to speak English back in Russia so I knew how to communicate. Essentially, I saw myself to fit in quite well. No one really saw me differently, despite my unusually tall stature, blonde hair, and bright blue eyes; at least, if they did, I was too excited about my surroundings to notice. However, I was rather taken aback by how isolated American people seemed to be from the world. Back in Russia, even though we may have had an “Iron Curtain” and were blocked off from certain cultural aspects of other nations (although we did find ways, for example, to sneak in Queen albums), at least we still understood other things like politics or at least geography in relation to other nations. When I first came to America, it seemed like no one else really understood what went on elsewhere. To them, it was just “America” and that was it.

I located the manager; clearly I wasn’t going to be able to find the phone on my own in this labyrinth of a store.
“Excuse me, do you know if you carry phones compatible with pulse dialing? Like the kind they use in Europe?”

“Europe? What is Europe? Oh, it’s not far from Africa!” was the reply.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up finding the phone there. To this day, I remember that conversation. Of course, with time, I had come to realize that most Americans weren’t really that clueless; though it was a pretty fantastic first impression. Despite all this, I grew accustomed to America very quickly. Compared to Russia, everything was so simple, nearby, convenient. But even so, nothing mattered more to me than the fact that, in the end, I was able to do what I set out to do. Even if I’m often nostalgic about my childhood, or miss my parents indescribably, nothing can make me regret my choices. I just could not be happier with how everything turned out, because I truly don’t think there could have been a better result. I am still a scientist today, and continue to enjoy every days’ work as if it were to be my last.

This story was written by Alina Taratorin, the daughter of Alexander Taratorin. Alexander immigrated from Russia to the US in 1993.

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