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Four immigrants share their roads to St. Louis - Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 - St. Louisans tend to talk about immigrants in the area in light of the infux of people from Vietnam in the late 1970s and Bosnians in the '90s. But the variety of immigrants, why they came here and where they settled are much different from those previous waves.

Here are the stories of four immigrants.

Alex Skroba

Twelve years ago, an 8-year-old girl from Belarus rode through the night in a noisy forest to a new home in a country far, far away.

The girl was Alex Skroba. The noise was crickets. The forest was Ladue.

"I thought we were in the middle of the forest - there were so many trees," says Skroba, now 20. "The crickets were so loud. ... It was just so loud and green."

Skroba came from the northeast city of Vitebsk with her parents. Some of her relatives were already here, prompted by the potential of better job opportunities.

When Skroba left Belarus, she says, the country was still "shaking off" the remnants of communism, the effects of which had been felt first hand by Skroba's family.

"The Stalin rule was insane," she says. "My great-great uncle was sent to a work camp in Siberia for 10 years for telling a really bad joke. ... My great grandpa was executed because of the paranoia."

Ultimately, a painful history led to a smoother passage for Skroba and her family to the U.S.

"We were allowed to come with less problems because my grandpa is Jewish," she says. "Some people wait for 10 years. We were over in a couple years."

Once the family of three settled in, Skroba's parents went back to school.

"Their degrees didn't transfer, and they switched careers," she says. "My mom is now an accountant; my dad is a computer programmer."

Skroba began classes at Spoede Elementary.

"At the very beginning, all the kids were really curious," she says. "Like 'Ooh, new foreign kid'."

The "new foreign kid" quickly attained fluency and made the transition from a strict educational system.

"In first grade in Belarus we're writing in cursive and doing multiplication," she says. "There's a lot more memorization, and you sit quietly in uniforms."

The kid-centric approach that Skroba adjusted to in the States baffled her parents. To illustrate, Skroba throws up her hands in imitation and says exasperatingly, "Everything is centered around fun here!" She laughs and says, "They're still getting used to that."

Growing up in the States raised other cultural issues for Skroba as a teen. Take the quintessential first job experience of many Americans.

"Here, kids pay for schooling and cars," she says. "There, parents pay for everything until you're settled. When I first started working, they offered to pay me the same money to not work."

Still, Skroba took the job. "I wanted more independence," she said.

Today, Skroba attends Truman State University and majors in political science. She hopes to go to law school and stay in St. Louis.

Although she's adjusted to American life and culture, the stories and history of her family stay with her. She appreciates the freedoms the United States offers, but also understands the importance of protecting those freedoms in a way many natives can't.

"Here when everything was going on under the Bush administration, people were like, 'It will never go that far'," she says. "Coming from a place where it became that, I value my rights."

Salvador and Adela Esparza

Zacatecas, Mexico, natives Salvador and Adela Esparza moved their family of three - the couple and their 2-year-old son, Salvador - to St. Louis from San Diego more than 14 years ago. They heard it was safer. They heard it was a good place to raise a family. They heard people take a day off each week to rest.

"I feel like I live in Mexico," says Adela. "People go to church on Sunday and then eat or have a picnic."

The idea of a restaurant came later from Salvador's aunt on a fateful April Fool's Day. A surgery had kept Salvador away from his job at Nestle and the family called the aunt to borrow a little money.

"On April 1, she asked if I was going to open a restaurant with the money she's lending," said Salvador. "One week later she calls and said, 'Did you find the place?'"

And so the Esparzas opened Lily's, named after the aunt's daughter. When business got better - largely because of a favorable Riverfront Times review, says Salvador - the aunt got greedy. Ultimately they got evicted from the original location. Still, with the money they had saved following the review, the family was able to open their current location on Kingshighway and Devonshire.

"In May, we got evicted" from the original site, says Salvador. "In August, we had enough money to pay bills."

Over the years, members of the St. Louis community helped the Esparzas navigate the ins and outs of running a restaurant. First they sought out help from other Mexican restaurants. But they didn't have much luck.

"They saw us as competition," says Salvador.

Then, Salvador went to the owner of Biggie's restaurant on the Hill, where Adela cleaned at the time.

The owner advised Salvador to not change the taste of the food for convenience sake and to never overspend, among other things.

Today, the restaurant continues at its Kingshighway and Devonshire location and serves up "home-style Mexican cooking." It's an all-out family effort, with daughters Cristina and Adriana taking orders and helping serve. Salvador mans the bar while Adela helps season and cook in the kitchen. Everything on the menu is made to order.

"Sometimes there are a lot of tickets," says Adela. "At first, people would ask me what's taking so long with the food."

Since acquiring a more steady client base that's crazy about the sopes, tortillas and house-specialty margaritas, however, Adela has noticed a change in attitude.

"Now people are willing to wait," she says.

Felix Cheung

He was expecting Top Gun and sand volleyball. He got Chicago winter. Felix Cheung remembers those first steps off the plane from Hong Kong well.

"I didn't know how to walk on ice," he says. "My first step, I fell."

Cheung arrived in the U.S. with his parents in 1990 through family reunification. Cheung's uncle had arrived in the early 1980s as a refugee fleeing the Communist regime. Cheung's grandparents arrived in the mid-'80s, and then applied for Cheung's nuclear family to come over.

"I knew I was coming here since I was 5," he says, but it took 10 years for the family to finally be accepted.

Once in the States, however, Cheung realized he faced more than a readjustment of climate in the Chicago burbs. A popular kid in Hong Kong with a close group of 30 some friends, Cheung soon learned that his new peers followed different rules of engagement.

"In Hong Kong kids are wearing tight [Levi] 501 jeans," he remembers. "Here kids are in baggy pants and football jerseys."

Cheung, who played volleyball, basketball and roller hockey in Hong Kong, also found that kids here were gratuitously rougher in those sports.

"Everything here is so physical, not finesse," he says.

And, ultimately, most kids just didn't get Cheung's family's decision.

"The kids at my school would say, 'If he doesn't understand English, why is he coming over here?'"

Cheung gained fluency in English and found the curriculum at his high school easy compared to what he'd had in Hong Kong. Within six months, he was at the top of his class in most subjects.

He got a part-time job at McDonald's to buy a car - his ticket to freedom, says Cheung. He also skipped prom and graduation and became a self-described loner.

After attending college between several state universities in Illinois, Cheung moved to San Francisco for four years. After a breakup with his long-term girlfriend, the St. Louis-based mail-order pharmacy company Express Scripts offered him a job as a software programmer.

He'd heard the company was growing.

"It turns out to be true," he says after five years of employment. "This company is growing like crazy."

And St. Louis, as it turns out, has been his favorite place to live in the States. Cheung says it's affordable, that there's no traffic - compared to Chicago and L.A. - and that he's made a lot of friends in what might seem an unlikely place: salsa dancing.

"It's so diverse, everybody brings something different," say Cheung about the multiethnic subculture that frequents Club Viva in the Central West End, Atomic Cowboy in The Grove and house parties across the area.

In salsa, Cheung says so many people from so many different countries means that no one is an outsider.

Cheung still keeps in touch with many of his friends from Hong Kong. He says most of them are married with kids, mortgages, and steady careers. Cheung got married - and divorced - and had a daughter, Sophie, in St. Louis. He's the first in his family to get a divorce, and he sometimes wonders what his life would have been like if he hadn't left Hong Kong.

"Some people want to live very simple; some people want to live out of the box," he says. "I put myself out there and challenged myself. I'm more diverse now. That's what I got - diversity."

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.