As two Canadians who migrated to Chicago in 2015, Anton and Whitney’s experience would appear from the outside to be an easier transition than most. Canada and the U.S. share a similar culture, language, and border, after all. However, when probing a little deeper we learned that this couple’s journey was far more elaborate than anticipated.
Anton was born to a Russian family living in Uzbekistan in the 1980s, a time when the territory remained part of the Soviet Union. When he was 12 years old, Anton’s family decided to uproot from their home in search of a new life in Toronto, Canada.
Anton recalled the journey, “We had one suitcase each. We left everything in Uzbekistan. We sold the apartment. We left all the furniture. I had to leave all my toys behind, and that was almost the saddest part.”
Despite the immensity of the change, Anton says that he doesn’t remember feeling any fear, that he was just following the will of his parents at the time. The reality of the culture shock did not set in until he arrived in Toronto.
“The very first memory of Canada I have is of my family standing at a stoplight and not knowing what to do. We didn’t realize you had to press a button because there’s nothing like that in Uzbekistan. It was that moment, when there’s such a basic thing that you don’t know how to do, that you realize you’re in a totally different country.”
Anton and his parents were all native Russian speakers, and upon their initial arrival in Canada the three only possessed basic English skills. According to Anton, the language barrier made even simple things like finding something in a grocery store much more daunting.
“It was kinda scary going to school because I couldn’t communicate with my teachers,” Anton said, speaking about his first few months in the country. Fortunately, Anton was able to pick up English quickly and find a support network of fellow Russian immigrant students who had already gone through the same transition.
Towards the end of high school, Anton realized his passion was in art, and that this was something he wanted to make a career out of. His parents supported the decision and encouraged him to enroll in after school art programs, saying that if he was going to do something, he had to do it right.
Anton’s interest in the arts flourished, and after completing his undergraduate degree in graphic design in Toronto, Anton set his eyes on a Master’s of the Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Prior to his departure, Anton worked in Toronto for two years, a time during which he met and began to date Whitney, a native of the Toronto area.
Whitney explained that this relationship had been a complicated one from the start, since they always knew that it was Anton’s intent to leave to study in Michigan.
The relationship endured for the two years while Anton studied at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan and Whitney completed her degree in Toronto. But as the two years came to an end, uncertainty of where Anton’s next job would be loomed over the couple’s heads.
As a Canadian immigrant in the United States, Anton had OPT status upon graduation, which meant that he automatically would have a 12-month visa if he was able to secure a job within two months.
After applying for a number of jobs in the States, from LA to New York, Anton heard back from a small company in Chicago that had been on his radar for some time. Determined to go to the interview, Anton did not let a lack of resources or funds stop him.
“I didn’t have a car, so I had to get my friend to drive me to the bus station. I took an overnight bus to Chicago. I had to change into my nice clothes in the bathroom of a Greyhound terminal.” Anton also explained how all this art training had come in handy in a rather unexpected way as he made his way to the interview. “I didn’t have a smartphone at the time, so I had to draw all these really detailed maps of the places I had to go ahead of time. I still have all the maps saved, actually.”
In the end, the hasty voyage to Chicago proved to be worthwhile; the company offered Anton a job within the week. Whitney completed her studies and eventually found herself in Chicago with Anton. They got married in the fall of 2015.
The first few months in Chicago proved to be challenging for the couple. Anton had a demanding work schedule, and Whitney was dealing with the separation from family and friends.
“Living in another country teaches you how to be an independent person,” Anton explained, “You don’t have your support network, so it’s like you’re hyper-independent. You don’t have your family, your friends, or your whole circle. You’re forced to take on more responsibility really fast.”
In spite of the difficulties, the two found they were able to rely on each other through the more tumultuous parts of living in a new country, and have begun to feel integrated in their new community. The couple is especially keen on engaging in a number of projects around the city that promote art and its role in the community. Whitney volunteers at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Anton has been involved with General Assembly and AIGA. Anton explained how last year, as part of Public Works Gallery he produced a one day music festival in Wicker Park in collaboration with numerous local artists. Anton noted how the sense of community in Chicago enables passion projects like these to take place.
Despite their adjusting to the United States culture, the couple maintains that they will always be Canadian at heart. Anton claims that having spent his most formative years in Toronto has rendered him much more Canadian than Russian, but he still takes a piece of Russia with him wherever he goes—quite literally.
“When my grandparents got deported to Uzbekistan they had this leather suitcase. They gave it to my parents and we used it when we came to Canada. Then I inherited from my parents when I moved to Michigan for grad school. It’s still functional of course, but also it’s cool to think about how far it’s come from. It’s travelled all over the world.”
As a final thought, Anton explained what it was about living abroad that he and Whitney found so captivating.
“I think we like the adventure part of it. What we used to do in Toronto sometimes is we’d get on a train and get off at some stop we’d never been to. It’s the same idea. You’re just discovering something new.”