I was a teenager in the early aughts when I decided to leave Uzbekistan. It was not for lack of love and support. My parents were teachers, and they worked hard to ensure the needs of the family were met; by all accounts, I grew up in an upper-middle-class home.
But the Soviet experience still haunted the nation, and despite a loving family, a good education, and economic security, I felt that I was choking on the rules and norms—wear a suit and tie, no drinking, watch what you say, carry ID in case the police have questions—and I wanted to breathe freely. And the winds blowing from the once mysterious and closed-off West were fresh, a little unruly, and scented with wonder, adventure, and opportunity. Rock and roll, the Sony Walkman, and blue jeans.
In 2005 with $200 in my pocket and a single bag of clothes, I flew in an airplane for the first time in my life. It remains the longest flight I have ever taken. The approach to JFK amazed me. New York City splashed across the land, a galaxy of lights, the perfect herald for the land of magic and wealth.
My only contact was a cousin who I had only spoken to twice before. Although a close friend to my late brother, I had no idea how he would react when I called him. As it turned out, he was a huge source of initial support for me. My plan was simple. I would work in the US for five years, then return to Uzbekistan with enough money to purchase a house and a car and take a managerial job with the Uzbek government, which even now remains more stable than the private sector. It never occurred to me to remain in the US, to build a life there.
My first obstacle was the US immigration system, a cumbersome and complex labyrinth to navigate.
To be fair, it’s not the worst system in the world, and some countries don’t offer any pathway to naturalization, but as I had never any need to expose myself to Uzbekistan’s system, it was certainly daunting. However, I prevailed, obtaining an H2B, unqualified work visa, through my first employer, in the hotel industry, which eventually allowed me to get a US visa. That was perhaps the only good thing about my first employer.
Given my prior experience, I was promised work as a receptionist, front desk clerk, or room service wait staff. Instead, I found myself in housekeeping (which would prove prophetic). The employer provided a sparsely furnished trailer where I lived with eleven other souls on the remote outskirts of Denver, Colorado. A single landline phone, outdated TV, and one poorly ventilated bathroom to serve us all. The employer would pick us up in the morning and take us to work. At the end of shift, we’d stop at a grocery store where they would buy us food and sundries. The employer never paid me for my labor. Imagine my humiliation and disillusionment to discover that slavery still existed in the great United States of America.
My cousin helped me to escape that toxic environment. He also assisted me with housing, a car, and a new job as a nighttime porter at a supermarket in Baltimore, Maryland. On top of that, I took a morning janitorial shift at Marshall’s, an off-price department store (I would eventually become a stocker there). For the next two years, I worked seven nights a week, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and most mornings. I was exhausted and resorted to various ways to stay awake while driving to Safeway: speak to my parents on the phone, keep the windows down even in freezing winter, smoke, sing real loud, and scream.
My arrival in Baltimore also marked another change. Until that time, I had no social life. But in Baltimore, away from the awful conditions in Colorado and no longer surrounded solely by my immigrant community, I began to experience American things. I made friends and built relationships that are strong to this day.
I turned down a promotion to supervisor at the hotel and instead accepted a position as an office administrator for a construction and development company. It was there that I learned the essential skills I needed to start my own business, which I did in 2009 when I walked away from a secure job and stepped into the unknown, founding Interworld Cleaning, Inc.
My late brother used to say that a smart person learns from his mistakes, but he also said that a wise person learns from other people’s mistakes. I want you to become a wise person. I welcome you to learn from my mistakes, take from my experience, and know that you have a companion on this long, strange American trip.
After three years working nonstop to build my company, I began to see the fruits of my labor: I took a trip to Puerto Rico, bought a new car, purchased a house, and got married. Everything was coming together, and it hit a crescendo in 2018 when I purchased my first mixed-use property, which is still where my office is located.
I learned quickly that Hollywood’s American Dream was really just a pipe dream, and that the real American Dream required getting into the trenches, getting dirty, and most importantly, taking risks. A life of guaranteed safety without risks strikes me more as a prison sentence than an actual life where I took personal responsibility, dictated the terms, and lived to my fullest. So I took chances and I faced uncertainty.