This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.
On January 31st, 1990, the first-ever McDonald’s opened in Moscow.
At the time, life in the U.S.S.R. was difficult. I was almost four years old and my family had recently moved back from Cuba – a country which somehow was doing even worse.
My parents, both holding a master’s in engineering, couldn’t find jobs in their fields. But we survived and tried to make the best of it. At least for me, as a child, I never knew how badly we were really doing.
I was never wanting for anything or going hungry. And, in fact, I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders as we stood in the hours-long line when that first McDonald’s opened in Moscow. It was cold, but the crowd was excited.
I remember feeling exhilarated as we waited for our burgers and fries, even though I didn’t then understand the meaning of it all.
The line was so long, but we finally made it in. The McDonald’s signs were so bright. I remember not understanding what anything meant, but my dad ordered me a cheeseburger anyway. I can only imagine, now, that it’s because what he had always heard about in his native Cuba – the American “burger” as it were.
There were no Big Macs in our future. We were a cheeseburger family from that very first visit.
Like my family, everyone in line was enthusiastic. I don’t know if the Russian people yet knew that this symbol of capitalism would, less than two years later, mean the end of the Soviet Union. But we all knew that changes was on its way. You could feel it in the air the same way you felt the cold frost on your face.
Hope was coming.
As a child, I didn’t have much of a context as to what that meant. I knew things for my family weren’t easy. I knew that my parents struggled. But I also knew that I was happy.
That first cheeseburger in my hands was exciting. I didn’t know what it meant or what it would taste like, but I wasn’t disappointed. Who would be?
As the Russian people tasted capitalism for the very first time, I tasted the American Dream.
Four years later, I got my dream.
Just a few days after landing in the U.S., I was playing in a McDonald’s in Miami. Although our circumstances at the time were difficult (we lived in a hotel while our political asylum paperwork went through), I remember feeling utter joy as my younger brother and I crawled, jumped and slid all around that playhouse.
It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
The bright colors that I remembered from that first visit to the McDonald’s in Moscow were all there: Yellows, oranges, reds, greens, blues and purples. The burgers, once more, tasted like freedom.
This time, I was eight years old and I understood a little more: We had come to America.
My parents had brought me to America in search of a better life. As I lay on top of that pit full of color balls while my little brother dove in and out of the mess, I knew they were right to move us here.
The best part? That first bite of cheeseburger on American soil tasted just as good as that first bite on top of my father’s shoulders back in Moscow.
(Image via Daniel Kruczynski/flickr)