Friday, September 26, 2008

Simply unbelievable!

Today I had a much briefer conversation with a cab driver. The initial pattern of the conversation was familiar.
1. Q. Where are you from?

Oh - America! (People tend to be surprised about this because at least 90 percent of my conversations are in Russian.)

2. Q. What are you doing here?

3. Q. What do you think about Azerbaijan?

4. Q. What do you think about the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict? (Worded in in one way or another. This question is asked at least 75 percent of the time.)

5. What is the average income in the United States?

To be honest, I didn't know the answer to this question, so I guessed at $2,000 a month.

This is a lot for Azerbaijan, and it seemed reasonable to me. I've since checked and learned that the real figure is roughly double that. But incomes vary widely from state to state. What really impressed the taxi driver was the existence of poor people in the USA. Yes, poor people exist in the United States of America. Many, I told him. He simply couldn't believe this - but I told him "I'm an American. I know about this. Yes, there are many poor people there."

His sister lives in Brooklyn, so I'm not sure what she tells him. Last time I checked, there were poor people in Brooklyn too.

But it reminded me of one of the basic misconceptions about the United States. It's a wide-spread misconception that all Americans are rich. When I lived in Russia in the 1990s, many Russians were in the thrall to a silly soap opera - Santa Barbara - which I had never seen before moving to St. Petersburg. For many Russians, then living in the grim period of transition from communist rule, Santa Barbara was a wonderful vision about how capitalism could help make everyone rich.

Oddly enough, this summer I got to know an Azerbaijani woman who moved from her country to Santa Barbara. She hated it.

(Above is a picture of Capwell clan of Santa Barbara fame.)


Ani said...

For a Christmas present several years ago, I gave Parade Magazine's annual "what people earn" issue to my Bulgarian guide, who was just as interested as your cab driver. It's impossible to convey the idea to the post-Soviet world that the concept of "average income" doesn't mean much in the United States. Here's a link to the most recent issue, if it helps:

JTapp said...

I love the "I'm an American. I know about this." That's a part of most conversations there, and would be a great post of its own.

Have you had any arguments with anyone about how many states America has? That was a common one for me. Apparently some old Soviet textbook said 52 or something, so I had several people insist I had no idea what I was talking about when I said "50." Showing someone 50 stars on the flag led to "The stars must be something else," or "the flag must be from before Alaska was bought from Russia."

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