I first met Mikhail Antonenko, or as we later called him Misha, in the fall semester of high school in 1996. He was living with a friend of mine as a foreign exchange student during his senior year of high school and my junior year at Greenway High School. Although he lived with a close friend of mine, we did not spend much time with him in the beginning. He didn’t socialize much that first year he was in the United States. The exchange agency that sent him over placed strict rules and a curfew and if any of the rules were broken while finishing high school he would be sent home.
As Misha was sitting on the couch playing a video game that simulated the Viet Nam war he said his main reason for coming to the United States was because he “didn’t want to be in the military.” In Rostav, located about 120 miles east of the Black Sea in Russia, at the age of 18 all men are drafted to serve in the military for two years. “I didn’t want to waste two years of my life,” he said. So Misha entered a contest in which only six people out of 1,000 entrants would be selected to enter into a foreign exchange program. The contest consisted of three rounds. He first had to take a multiple choice test, second he had to write an essay, and finally was an interview process. He completed all three rounds successfully and had several options to where he would study. The United States was his first choice because he knew the language and history. Misha also felt that the traditions and culture in the United States were closer to that of Rostav.
In Rostav there is a high unemployment rate. “Many people in Rostav go through high school and college, but there are not enough jobs for the highly educated,” said Misha. When he came to the United States he was actually farther ahead than other students his age. He only needed to complete a few classes and graduated at 16 years old. He has been attending classes at Glendale Community College and has complete all of his requirements. The money he is receiving from his dad is barely enough to pay his bills and so moving on to Arizona State University isn’t an option at this point. He has a visa to be living in the United States, but he doesn’t have a work permit currently. He has recently applied for a work permit and hopes to receive it within the next few weeks. Once he gets that he has a job lined up at Best Buy through a friend of ours. Once he is able to have an income plus his dad’s contribution he will be able to continue his education.
“I would probably be working with my dad if I were still in Russia,” Misha said when I asked him what he would be doing if his exchange parents didn’t let him stay with them after he graduated from high school. Misha was a single child and his parents got divorced when he was 10 years old. His dad has several businesses ranging from repairing agricultural equipment to a realty agent. Many of his businesses are cyclical, however he keeps busy and leads a prosperous life in Rostov. Misha was “an outdoors kid” back home. He played a lot of sports and went swimming and hiking a great deal. He was involved in basketball and track while in high school in the United States as well. These activities gave him some connection with home.
Although Misha hasn’t been home in two or three years he still talks to his parents at least once a week. “It’s hard for both my parents and me,” said Misha. He would like to return to see his parents more often, but between money and the difficulty involved in traveling overseas he’s happy to be able to talk to his family on a regular basis. On his last visit he did not even know if he would be able to return to the United States. There was a mix up of his visa and with all the governmental red tape a month long trip turned into being stuck there for nearly nine months.
Misha’s eight years in the United States has been very rewarding and a great leaning experience. Although he could speak the language there were certain slang words that gave him a lot of trouble. Misha said “the word ‘stuff’ was the hardest because it is used for everything.” Another lesson he learned was through his exchange parents. He said the plumbing system in Rostav is different than that of the United States. Therefore, he did not know to flush the toilet paper down the drain. Instead he threw it in the garbage. He also brought up how there is nowhere near as much spontaneity and public parties in the United States. “In Rostav we have parties for the normal holidays, but the streets will be closed down randomly for no special reason and bands will come and play,” Misha said. Misha doesn’t know where his future will take him just yet, but his first goal is to finish what he came to the United States for in the first place, school.
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