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What is the most important thing immigrants can teach Americans? Gratitude. The key to happiness is not the amount of material goods. It’s appreciating what you have.
There is a Russian saying that goes “We don’t value what we have but cry when it’s lost.” Everything has some sort of value, although we might forget exactly how valuable something is until it’s gone. There are so many things in life that Americans just take for granted because they have never experienced what it’s like to be without them…
My family did not have a vacuum cleaner. Once a week, I would roll the carpet up and carry it outside. I would put it on a metal bar and then hit the carpet with a stick to get the dust out. The dust would go everywhere. All over my clothes. All over my hair. Into my eyes. Into my mouth. I would stand there coughing, beating the carpet with the stick until all the dust came out. It was awful. After I was done, I would roll it up, place it on the ground, and climb on top of the metal bar. I would hang upside-down, swinging up and down like a monkey, having the time of my life. I had no fear of falling. It was just a metal bar designed for beating the dust out of carpets. But for me, it was freedom.
My family did not have a washer or a dryer. All of our clothes were washed in a bath tub. Water first had to be heated in a big pot on the stove. Then we had to use our hands to rub all the clothes and sheets with soap. A lot of strength was required to ring them out. They were carried outside to dry. In winter, the clothes would get frozen solid as a rock. They had to be thawed out with iron that weighed several pounds. We didn’t have a dishwasher either. Again, water had to be heated in a pot, then all the dishes soaped. Then more water had to be heated to rinse them. Plastic bags were not disposable. They had to be washed and dried on a string. House chores took forever.
Since we didn’t have heating or hot water, we went to public bath houses. There were a lot of people there in one big room. We had to undress and then stand in line for the hot water faucet holding our buckets. When it was my turn, I filled the bucket up with hot water. I then used a small piece of terribly smelly soap to wash myself in front of the line of naked women and pour the warm water from the bucket to rinse. There were no hair dryers, so hair had to be towel-dried and then wrapped in a shawl. I was always cold when I was a kid. When I came to the United States, I took a thirty-minute hot shower. It was one of the happiest moments in my life. The pleasure never went away.
- Do you think about all the things that make your life easier? Have you thought about how your life would be without them? Have you ever thanked your washer and dryer? How about your dishwasher? Do you appreciate your ability to take a hot shower?
Depending on the day, there are some things that are obviously appreciated. You can’t help but be grateful for your car when it is pouring rain outside and you have to get to work. You are clearly thankful for your bed at the end of a long, exhausting day when you just collapse onto the soft mattress and wrap yourself up in the warm blanket. But there are so many other things in your life that make such an enormous difference, you might not even be able to imagine what it would be like without them. It’s hard to think of having to walk for miles to get clean water or having to spend hours sewing an outfit that will be the only thing you wear for the next year. Fortunately, many of us don’t have to go through those experiences, but other people aren’t so lucky. You have no idea how life changing something like heating and air conditioning can be for someone who has never had that type of luxury before.
Take the time to appreciate what you have. Don’t wait until what you have is gone to be thankful for all the little things in life. You shouldn’t have to wait until a pipe bursts to be grateful for the hot running water in your house. Be grateful now! Next time you do laundry, tell your washer and dryer thank you for taking such good care of your clothes. When you take a shower, thank it for washing away the dirt and stress that your body accumulates every day. Pet the wheel in your car the next time you drive it. It might sound silly at first, but just try it. See how being thankful for the little things will open up your eyes to the world around you. You’ll start seeing how sweet your life really is and start appreciating all the good things in it. Being able to do this will make the bitter moments so much easier to handle. Learn to love everything around you. Don’t be afraid to express that love. Everybody loves a nice compliment, even your household appliances!
What else can immigrants teach Americans? Mindfulness. Food is so integrated into our daily routine that often times we don’t really think about it. We aren’t mindful about what we put in our bodies because why should we? We don’t have to worry about food all that much. But that frame of mind can lead down a very slippery slope…
Before I came to America, food and scarcity were synonyms. There was no overindulging. You did not waste food. In fact, there wasn’t even food available to waste. Everything was used as much as it could be. My mom cooked a typical Russian dinner. She took a bunch of bones, boiled them to make a bone broth, then added cabbage and potatoes. We ate this soup and cracked the bones open to eat the marrow inside the bones.
The special food that added some flavor to a meal had to be very carefully rationed out and sparsely used. For the bone soup, each family member added a teaspoon of sour cream. One time when I was nine, I took the jar of the sour cream from the refrigerator and ate half of the jar. I just could not stop. It was so delicious and never before did I get to eat more than a tiny little teaspoon. I kept eating and eating and I ate the portions of other family members. I was severely punished. You weren’t supposed to overindulge like that.
The temptation to indulge was very difficult to overcome. One time, around the same age as the sour cream incident, I visited a friend’s house. She had rich parents and they proudly displayed little figures of animals made from marzipan (sweet almond paste) in their glass cupboards. When my friend was in another room, I moved the glass and smelled the little figures. The smell was intoxicating. It promised deliciousness. I was fighting the urge to eat one of the animals. Finally, I pinched the tail off a squirrel and immediately put it in my mouth. It tasted even better than I had imagined. I hurriedly closed the glass and walked away. The taste of sweet almond still on my tongue. I savored it with the overwhelming bitter feeling of guilt. I only hoped that no one would find out and my friend would not get into trouble. Luckily no one noticed. But to this day I associate marzipan with guilty pleasure.
Most of the delicious food I remember from my childhood was only available once a year: for the New Year’s celebration. Tangerines are still connected in my mind to the holiday season. This was the only time they were available. Strawberries during winter? Never happened. Pineapple? Never tried it. There was a poem about pineapple: “Eat pineapples, chew on quail. Your last day is coming, millionaire.” I couldn’t even imagine what it tasted like, it was so inconceivable that I would ever be able to eat pineapple in Russia. When I first tried pineapple in the United States, it tasted as good as, if not better than, the marzipan.
When I was in college in Russia, I had three meals a day. Boiled noodles for each meal. When I came to the United States, I went to a grocery store and cried from the overwhelming variety of food that I never knew existed. My American college professor took me to my first dinner in America to an Italian restaurant. He wanted to order some pasta and I said I did not want anything. There was no way I would eat another meal of noodles. We went to a different restaurant. The menu looked promising and I ordered three entrees. You see, Russian restaurants are for entertainment, not for eating. A typical plate is the size of your palm. I hadn’t eaten for over twenty-four hours and was starving by the time we got to the restaurant. “Are you sure you will be able to eat three entrees?” my professor asked. “YES!” I immediately replied, “I am very hungry.” In Russia, three entrees would’ve been no problem with how hungry I was. When the waiter brought three plates, each the size of a small tray, I panicked. There were no “to go boxes” in Russia, so I thought all this food would be wasted. Luckily my professor explained that I could take all this food with me and finish it the next day.
Over the next few months I bought every can and every box of cookies I saw in the store. There was so much delicious food available to me! Never before could I buy an entire box of Oreos and eat all of them by myself. I no longer had to eat only one teaspoon of sour cream. I could buy a giant piece of marzipan and shove all of it in my mouth. I could buy a pineapple. I could have strawberries in the winter. All of this food was suddenly right in front of me, and I couldn’t help but overindulge. I gained twenty pounds. Eventually, after having satisfied the deprived Russian girl inside of me, I realized that more did not mean better and went back to small healthy meals. Although I still overindulge in pineapple, the simple food of the millionaires.
- Are you mindful of the food you eat? How often do you give in to indulgences? Do you find yourself overeating just because you can? How much pleasure do you actually gain from your food? Do you savor every bite you eat?
The amount of food choices available in today’s society is incredible. For breakfast, you can have eggs or bacon or toast or bagels or cereal or waffles or fruit or a bunch of other different things. And depending on what you choose, there are even more choices to make. You can have your eggs scrambled or sunny side up, apples or oranges for your fruit, Frosted Flakes or Cheerios for your cereal. And this is just the first meal of the day! So how do you choose between all of these options? Well, you don’t. You go to a restaurant and your meal will come with two different sides so you can try everything and feel absolutely stuffed when you’re done. You go to the grocery store and buy three different types of cookies because they might all be delicious and you have to try them all. You try to eat as much as you can because well…you can. Nothing is stopping you from doing that. And then suddenly you’ve gained twenty pounds, food becomes associated with guilt and regret, and you’ve lost the pleasure of savoring every bite.
The solution to this is mindfulness. That’s it! Start by really thinking about the food you’re eating. Do you actually enjoy your lunch? No? Then try something different! Think about what your favorite foods are. Focus on fresh, healthy food that you genuinely enjoy. The taste of delicious strawberries or a juicy peach. The satisfying crunch of fresh carrots or a handful of nuts. Slowly start replacing the unhealthy processed foods that make you feel gross afterwards with fresh fruits and vegetables. Don’t like the bitter taste of dandelion greens or arugula? Blend them into a fruit smoothie. You’ll barely taste them and still enjoy the nutritional benefits while drinking a sweet delicious smoothie. Start eating more healthy food, and soon you’ll find that your cravings for sugary, processed, fatty foods have disappeared.
But it isn’t just about what you eat. It’s about how you eat and how much you eat. Don’t try to finish every meal as fast as you can. Take the time to savor every bite. Chew it carefully. Think about what you’re eating. Avoid eating in front of the TV or other things that will distract you from your food. Enjoy every little bit of your meal and appreciate the fresh food that is available to you. Each time I eat a pineapple, I savor the sweet, juicy taste and think about how lucky I am to enjoy such a delicious fruit.
Then, as you’re thinking about what you’re eating, listen to your body. Stop eating once you start feeling full. Don’t overdo it. Eat however much is necessary to satisfy your hunger and then stop. Just because you can eat a lot doesn’t mean you should. Trust me, you’ll feel a lot more satisfied after your meal if you take the time to savor every bite, put good things in your body, and not eat so much that you feel like you can’t move afterwards.
It’s okay to indulge from time to time. I have a weakness for tiramisu, mango cheesecake, and (unsurprisingly) marzipan. But you can indulge in moderation. Eat a small piece of your favorite dessert from time to time, or allow yourself an indulgence for a special occasion. If I’ve learned anything from my time in Russia and in America, it’s that depriving yourself of everything is just as bad as allowing yourself to indulge in everything. It’s all about balance. Don’t eat every sweet dessert that comes your way, but don’t torture yourself by never allowing yourself anything. These temptations will also become a lot more manageable when you savor every bite. Once you start gaining pleasure from eating your everyday meals, you’ll no longer have this void that you’ll want to fill with unhealthy foods. Soon your kale salad will be the most delicious thing in the world and you’ll find yourself craving it. This might sound crazy now, but it’s incredible how much of a difference mindfulness makes.